Renaissance Faire

By Sean Kennedy

Originally published on Advocate.com November 05 2008 12:00 AM ET

In her book RenGen: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer -- and What It Means to Your Business (Platinum Press/Adams Media), Chicago marketing maven Patricia Martin, president of LitLamp Communications Group, argues that America is entering a renaissance phase equal to the European original, in which “a new social order is emerging based on a more enlightened sensibility.” But while Da Vinci and Michelangelo were more concerned with culture than with the marketplace, today’s renaissance generation -- or “RenGen,” as Martin calls it -- is focused on both: They want their aesthetic tastes and personal values reflected in the things they buy and the companies they work at. All that high design at cheap prices that Target hawks? That’s the RenGen in action, Martin says. Starbucks’s Make Your Mark program, which gives employees time off to do volunteer work? RenGen principles too. It’s a recent trend, to be sure, but Martin credits Absolut, a company that pioneered marketing to gay consumers beginning in the 1980s, with helping to plant the seeds. Indeed, as she discusses here, gay people have been on the leading edge of the RenGen all along.

You call Absolut an early adopter of RenGen ideas because of a breakthrough 1985 ad that Andy Warhol designed. But the company was already targeting the gay market, right?Absolut embraced the “other” as an exotic. They embraced Warhol as an exotic, and they embraced the gay community as sort of the exotic, and if you sell vodka -- it’s just clear liquid -- you need to wrap the brand in something. They became the number 1–selling vodka in this country not just through their embrace of art and design; the gay community had a lot to do with it. Absolut became such heavy sponsors of everything from gay beach volleyball to Christmas choruses. After they’d made their mark, they moved to expand their market.

We’ve seen that strategy time and time again, most recently with the flurry of style shows on Bravo -- Queer Eye, Project Runway, Top Design -- that first hit with gay viewers before reaching a broader audience.It’s a whole new set of values around the way we’ve segmented ourselves in our society. The embrace of the gay community is, for the RenGen, not only practical, it’s about survival. The RenGen believes that the more diverse their teams are, their communities are, the more likely they are to survive. We’re not talking about tolerance here. I think tolerance is a very old-school concept.

You write about “fusion,” the “coming together of two unlikely pairings” that yields fresh ideas. The metrosexual trend seemed to be an example of that, even if people now disavow it.If we’re going to be rigorous, for all these trends, there’s a countertrend -- that’s the paradox of a shift as profound as the one we’re in. So as you see the feminization of the American male, you also see this countertrend in the rise of interest in martial arts, the “fight club” cult. The younger generation of RenGen males is not sure what their roles are as straight males, and so you’re going to see a lot of experimentation, a lot of contradictions, playing out in the marketplace. They will absolutely refuse to be marketed to in a way that’s monolithic. So if I’m a student of kung fu, I lift weights, and I consider myself a standard heterosexual male, don’t tell me that I can’t also buy hair gel and be fashionable and wear scarves.

Patricia Martin smaller| Advocate.com

According to you, RenGen consumers don’t want to be defined or pigeonholed by marketing. Since they have many interests, they don’t want to be reduced to one identity.Essentially, what [companies] are having to do is create much more complex characters -- much more complex brands -- so that a brand can be flowing off impressions and sensorial feel [and] speak to a variety of people. Targeting somebody based on their gender, age, and their education is becoming less and less relevant.

Barack Obama seems like the personification of the RenGen: With his authenticity, multiculti background, and grassroots-oriented decentralized campaign, he could be the poster boy for your book. Did you realize he’d be such an emblem of your message?I gave a talk in California at the Hoffman Institute, and somebody in the audience passed the book to [a staffer] for Obama. I often wonder, Did anybody look at it? Because it seems to me the playbook of the campaign is right out of my book! It’s the most sacrosanct principle of marketing to the RenGen: You have to respect them as human beings. The Obama campaign got that from the beginning.

In RenGen terms, what do you make of CoverGirl’s recent choice of Ellen DeGeneres as the brand’s new face?There are two things operating there. One is how companies are experimenting with a more authentic brand premise. RenGen takes its cues from the natural world, not the manufactured world. As a result, it is willing to accept products that are flawed in some way but are authentic. Dove figured this out with the “real women” campaign. That was so profoundly successful that it opened the door to lots of types of women, and Ellen is benefiting from that. The other reality is just a practical matter for all brands right now: You have to maximize every single dollar. She’s a media magnet -- a powerhouse, like Oprah.

How do you think the RenGen will impact the issue of marriage equality?Gay marriage is now starting to eclipse abortion [as a hot-button issue], and the underlying issue behind these moral issues is that they strip away people’s cultural notions. It’s frightening. People think, Who am I? What gives me a great deal of optimism is that in this particular election moral issues didn’t seem to poison the conversation in the same way they had in the past. With all cultural change, it’s a matter of time. We now have this empowered group of very young voters who just don’t care [about same-sex marriage]. Time is not on the opposition’s side.