BY Sean Kennedy
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.