Gucci has spent decades working to make its brand synonymous with sexy, high-end and, often, out-of-reach glamour. So it’s no wonder that the beginnings of its now-fruitful relationship with The North Face, a purveyor of decidedly practical outdoor wear, turned a few heads back in 2020.
Fast-forward to 2022, and the plot twists are still coming thick and fast. The face of the latest drop is TikTok’s superstar trainspotter, Francis Bourgeois. Part of a strategic push to tell stories of "eccentric exploration", the move has generated a huge amount of attention, both on social and beyond.
For the uninitiated, Bourgeois is a 21-year-old Londoner who has built a following of millions by posting TikToks of his trainspotting adventures. In his most popular videos, he captures real-time reactions using a fisheye lens, revealing his love of seeing new or obscure train models, and expressing delight when a driver acknowledges his trackside presence with a horn toot.
It might be tempting to dismiss his popularity as just another moment of obscurity from the generation that regularly breaks the internet with blink-and-you'll-miss-it obsessions with sea shanties, baked feta pasta dishes and sorority girls from Alabama. But there’s nothing random about it, given how saturated the content landscape is right now.
In the most recent issue of our annual trend report Think Forward, social cynicism was a driving trend that will continue to define how we engage with social in 2022, with 43% of Gen Z-ers believing social media algorithms have a negative impact on their media diet, with many feeling that our algorithmically ordered feeds are homogenising the content we see, pushing dozens of samey airbrushed faces in samey polished, pastel-coloured interiors to the top of our feeds.
As a result, people are increasingly drawn to content that pokes fun at overworn tropes or features creators showing their weirder, more imperfect, or otherwise more "authentic" selves.
In this context, the popularity of Bourgeois’ TikTok content – which is highly idiosyncratic and unabashedly enthusiastic – is anything but random, fitting in perfectly with Gen Z’s push to redefine what is cool and longing for content that looks different to everything else.
The power of subversion
Despite his global following (and model-worthy cheekbones), Bourgeois isn’t an obvious choice of influencer for a high-end fashion label. In fact, in many ways, he’s everything that Gucci is not: unpolished, "uncool" by historical measures and in no way bothered about changing himself to adapt to those standards.
Some will say it’s off-brand. But that’s the whole point. Bourgeois actively subverts the stereotypes that wider culture associates with Gucci, the wider luxury industry, and the luxury consumer. In fact, it is just the latest in a line of equally off-piste tie-ups for Gucci (last year’s included septuagenarian giant vegetable grower Gerald Stratford, and birdwatching collective Flock Together).
It’s this thinking that contradicts accepted marketing wisdom, and yet it is being embraced across industries. Call of Duty enlisted rappers Saweetie, Young Thug, AJ Tracey and others to diversify the perceptions of who the game’s for.
Heinz partnered British drag queen Tayce to speak to a younger audience who are more engaged with queer discourse. Even Martha Stewart, the epitome of good taste middle-America style, has got involved, incorporating music written about her by rapper Yung Gravy into a campaign for her frozen-food range.
Stunt or strategy?
You might think these examples are just one-off sideshow distractions, which live for a minute before being scrolled into oblivion. But I’d argue that they actually represent smart, long-term thinking on a number of counts.
The first is that it allows brands to close the gap between the worlds they inhabit and the world of influencers in a way that is very natural in these spaces. Brands are increasingly expected to understand and participate in digital discourse but remain firmly rooted in the offline world when it comes to talent partnerships. These examples demonstrate the power of a brand that’s got flexibility baked in when it comes to navigating the rapid currents of digital culture.
Second, getting down and dirty in the social media space might very well prove to be the antidote to the growing mistrust that surrounds elitist institutions. At a time when people are feeling frustrated with the societal systems that form the fabric of our culture, digital culture is a symbol of change – from the Gamestop saga as a response to an elitist financial market to the rise of NFTs as a pushback to elitism and nepotism in art world institutions. When it comes to Gucci, no industry is more historically gatekept than luxury fashion. By creating a campaign with Francis as the face, the brand demonstrates its willingness to move with the times and open its doors to the cultural icons elected by TikTok.
Cutting through the clutter
Third, and most importantly, the choice to build a strategy on "eccentric exploration" ensures one thing: cut-through. And nothing is more important at a time when mindless scrolling is so second nature. In this landscape, the weird and the obscure is winning. Thumb-stopping content, which can bring us back to the moment, is crucial to success on ever-competitive social channels.
For Gucci, creating cut-through while providing a platform for someone like Bourgeois has so much more integrity than simply signing yet another picture-perfect celebrity, with absolutely nothing to say for themselves, to appear in a campaign.
Meanwhile, for The North Face, aligning its brand with outdoorsy activities that are not overtly sporty is also a smart move, given Gen Z-ers much-talked-about indifference to football and other mainstream sports, and lack of interest in the once reliable marketing figure of the sports hero. While the entire The North Face x Gucci collab seems to go against what each brand stands for, it adds valuable dimensions which have the potential to pay big dividends over time.
With that in mind, the main learning for brands across industries is clear. If you want cut-through on social, consider the entrenched stereotypes attached to your brand, your product, your industry and your audience – and then go out of your way to subvert them. A brand that’s flexible will be able to bend. Those that can’t show themselves to be too brittle to survive.
Lore Oxford is global head of cultural insights at We Are Social