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  • Why is MSCHF’s playful platform catching Gen Zers’ attention?
  • Why is MSCHF’s playful platform catching Gen Zers’ attention?
    MSCHF (2020) ©
CASE STUDY

MSCHF: turning drop culture on its head

Toeing the line between hype-fatigue and drop culture, art collective and creative agency MSCHF is tapping Gen Zers with whimsical offerings  – and appealing to their fauxstalgia via SMS-based notifications. With limited stock and quirky comms, the brand is winning fans who value authenticity.

Location United States

Scope
Cynical and hard to impress, gearing e-commerce toward Gen Zers is a complex art – yet one that MSCHF has perfected. Founded by 30-year-old Gabriel Whaley and run by an office of ten people in their 20s and 30s, MSCHF is a difficult-to-define art collective, creative agency, and brand. They release one drop via text message every two weeks, but the nature of that drop changes depending on the company’s whim. That irreverent approach to collab and drop culture mocks the very structures and impulses that it depends on to drive interest. While they draw on the exclusivity of drop culture to intrigue fans, they drive obsession with the unpredictability of the product. MSCHF eschews convenience and modernity in favor of a cryptic, hacker-esque website and antiquated SMS-based alert system.

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With highlights that include recreating every episode of The Office in Slack from 9-5 on weekdays, Whaley says that MSCHF is just “trying to do stuff that the world can't even define.” Rejecting the start-up label despite pulling in millions in revenue, MSCHF has made a name for itself with ‘drops’ that play on the ridiculousness of the pseudo-exclusivity of drop culture, with Nike ‘Jesus shoes’, chicken bongs, and toaster bath bombs. [1] Even Drake bought a pair of the Jesus Nikes, which resell for thousands online. [2]

MSCHF’s website deliberately eschews modernity for an indecipherable, unusable, Matrix-style interface. Obtuse and difficult to navigate, it only adds to the allure and drops sell out in seconds. To participate, fans sign up on the website to receive information about new drops via text message. MSCHF doesn’t only stick to nonsense products, though: other projects include cutting up a Damien Hirst painting and selling it in 89 parts and a shell restaurant. [3][1] Its drops are less about the product and more about social commentary. “We're not here to make the world a better place. We're making light of how much everything sucks," says Whaley. [1] But what is it about MSCHF that appeals to Gen Zers and how can brands follow its lead?

A retro look and limited-edition drops court hype-loving fans
A retro look and limited-edition drops court hype-loving fans
MSCHF (2020) ©

Context
For a while, drop culture held Gen Zers’ attention with highly anticipated, limited releases of products that have a high resale value. Drop culture makes shopping inconvenient and inaccessible by definition, leading to higher satisfaction for shoppers and increased individualism, things that are important to Gen Zers. [4] For a generation with notoriously short attention spans, however, drop culture was bound to get old, fast, which is where MSCHF comes in. The brand wins fans by combining the unpredictability and manipulation of the scarcity of drops with “irreverence, affordability, and creativity,” says Dr. Michael Solomon, professor and consumer behavior expert. “Especially in these times when people are looking for low-cost entertainment wherever they can find it.” [5] Gen Zer expert and one himself, Jonah Stillman believes MSCHF’s appeal lies in driving Gen Zers’ tendency toward FOMO. “We know that Gen Zers frequently makes impulse purchases, and what drives that is the fear of missing out. It’s a limited offer, it’s a good price – we’ll purchase it on the spot simply to combat the idea that if we don’t, we might miss out altogether.” [6]

And much like Gen Yers, Gen Zers love memes. Indeed, 55% of 13- to 35-year-olds send memes every week – and 30% send them every day. [7] A combination of graphics and humor is the language that younger consumers use to communicate, and more brands are trying this to capture Gen Zers’ interest. Even fashion house Gucci is joining in and has hired popular meme-makers to target a younger audience. [8] The absurdity of MSCHF’s products makes them instantly shareable, and therefore memeable.

MSCHF proves that, while marketers are predicted to pour $112 billion globally into social media advertising in 2020, Gen Zers care more about experiences and authenticity. [9][4] They want to be involved, not simply consume. Gen Zers crave less curated, more individualized experiences, and traditional social media just isn’t cutting it. MSCHF’s internet presence is sparse: it follows no one, posting only once when there’s a drop. Gen Zers are wising up to the drawbacks of social media and MSCHF offers a genuinely unpredictable experience and a talking point that borders on performance art for internet-fatigued teens. [10] In fact, 33% of Gen Zer social media users have quit social media entirely, with 15% of them saying it’s because the platforms have become too commercialized. [11]

Gen Zers prioritize brand authenticity and a sense of humor
Gen Zers prioritize brand authenticity and a sense of humor
MSCHF (2020) ©

Insights and opportunities

Gamify the shopping experience
For a generation with everything at its fingertips, the experience of shopping needs to be just that: an experience. Being a part of MSCHF isn’t about owning a product, it’s about participating in drop culture while being in on a complex joke and social commentary at the expense of people who evangelize it. MSCHF elevates both shopping and drop culture, thriving on the unknowable, making the end result feel like winning a game. This is best exemplified by the MSCHF mystery box, a box that accrues value the longer you don’t open it. Testing your patience and curiosity, you can sell the item back after 100 days for $1,000 but the contents could be worth $7,000 – or they could be worth nothing. Turning shopping into not only a game but an elite, difficult-to-understand club keeps Gen Zer consumers both interested and on their toes. Other brands, like Kenzo and Nike, have experimented with similar methods. [12]

Indulge Gen Zers’ ‘fauxstalgia’
More than ever, our entire lives take place on the internet. MSCHF’s success, however, signals that Gen Zers might not necessarily only want convenience, but an experience. As exemplified by their sparse social media presence and retro-looking website, MSCHF leverages a 90s approach to the internet to intrigue a generation that was barely alive for dial-up. By using the internet creatively and forcing its audience offline with SMS-based drops, MSCHF’s approach harkens back to a time when the internet was simpler. In fact, 28% of Gen Zers have tried a self-imposed digital detox, and playing on their internet fatigue is a surefire way to intrigue them. [13] Also in this space, cult streetwear brand Dumbgood plays into Gen Zers’ fauxstalgia with products that reference pop culture moments they never experienced.

Focus on authenticity, not product
MSCHF proves that, especially with Gen Zers, being a success isn’t as simple as just having a great product or social media presence. In fact, many of the actual products MSCHF releases are things that, if mass-produced, would have no appeal. What MSCHF does offer, however, is social commentary for a generation that is rejecting materialism and capitalism. [14] Stillman believes, too, that the seemingly random products tap into Gen Zers’ desire for originality: “the more unique, the more out-of-left-field, the more it catches me off-guard, the more I’m likely to buy it. If it’s a unique product I haven’t seen, if it’s funny and I can’t find it somewhere, I’m going to buy it.” [6] And with 67% of female Gen Zers believing that being true to their values and beliefs makes a person cool, they’re looking for brands that will stand out amid the noise. [15]

Sources
1. ‘A Company That Runs on Structured Chaos is Going Viral’, Business Insider (January 2020)
2. Drake splashes out on Nike ‘Jesus shoes’ filled with holy water’, Page Six (November 2019)
3. ‘When an Art Collective Cut Up a $30,000 Damien Hirst Spot Print, the Spots Sold Out’, Artnet (May 2020)
4. ‘True Gen: Generation Z and its Implications For Companies’, McKinsey & Company (November 2018)
5. Interview with Dr. Michael Solomon conducted by the author
6. Interview with Jonah Stillman conducted by the author
7. ‘3 Stats That Show What Memes Mean to Gen Z & Millennials’, Y Pulse (March 2019)
8. ‘Memes in marketing - when brands go millennial’, ThirtySeven (January 2019)
9. ‘Social media adspend to hit $112bn even though it 'stumps' marketers’, Campaign (January 2020)
10. ‘The Key Difference Between Gen Z and Millennial Social Media Habits’, Gen Z Insights (December 2018)
11. ‘Meet gen z: the social generation’, ORIGIN (October 2019)
12. ‘5 brands using gamification to drive shopping’, The Current Daily (July 2019)
13. ‘Gen Z is for Zen’, EventBrite (May 2019)
14. ‘America’s Most Socialist Generation is Also its Most Misanthropic’, Intelligencer (August 2019)
15. ‘There’s a generation below millennials and here’s what they want from brands’, CNBC (April 2018)

Featured Experts

Jonah Stillman

Jonah Stillman is co-founder of Gen Guru, a management consulting firm. He looks at how people click and clash in the workplace and marketplace, providing insights on how best to connect with different generations.

Dr. Michael Solomon

Dr. Michael Solomon is an expert on consumer behavior, a keynote speaker, and a professor of marketing in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Author

Marianne Eloise is a writer and journalist covering technology, wellness, fandom, and culture for a number of websites including Dazed, VICE, Paper, Mic, and Nylon.

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