Subcultures were once integral to British identity. But as punk reaches middle age and social channels like TikTok spark new trends, some people have questioned the relevance of subcultures today.
However according to a new study by leading research and planning agency, The Nursery, subcultures are very much alive and thriving with more than half of the UK population (56%) describing themselves as currently being involved in a subculture. And marketers are waking up to the value of tapping into these niche cultural groups.
It pays to be punk
Brands are finding new ways to engage subcultural consumer pockets – and discovering that a personal approach pays off. Sales of Dr. Martens footwear rose by nearly 50% during the lockdown – a brand that has stuck by its outsider image since launching in 1960. Adidas and New Balance are both looking to subcultures to help drive future sales and Nike’s focus on grassroots urban sports has scored the brand credibility among a key youth group. Subcultures are big business and the trend shows no signs of slowing down with nearly half of those involved in subcultures spending over £500 per year on their involvement with 11% spending over £1,000.
Conducted online during lockdown, the research asked 1800 UK adults a series of questions designed to reveal the depth, variety and motivations of subcultures in the UK. Going beyond the mainstream, the study reaches beyond demographics to reveal the nuances of identity in the UK. And whilst many of the most popular subcultures are relatively well-known the study has also shone a light on the less familiar – thriving subcultures that many of us will never have heard of.
UK’s most popular subcultures
The research reveals a rich array of scenes and movements. Goths, punks, bikers and hippies are still highly popular in the UK. Many people perceive these to be the godfathers/mothers of subcultures and the success of brands that pull from these trends, such as All Saints, The Kooples and Dr. Martens, show their evergreen ability to appear cool and current to consumers.
A new wave has emerged too. Gaming is the UK’s number one subculture. Already a £5.7bn market in the UK – one-in-eight identify as being part of a gaming subculture. Interestingly – in a sector that is typically male dominated – 50% of the new adopters are women.
Restrictive diets such as veganism and paleo have similarly grown in popularity. Today veganism is more than just a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Beyoncé, Ariane Grande and Moby are among a growing number of celebrity vegans. In 2019 we witnessed Greggs vegan sausage roll mania. The launch caused unprecedented sales for the bakery chain.
From street to screen
There has been a shift from offline to online with 73% connecting with subcultures virtually. And of those online-only connectors two-thirds are younger (67% are under 44) and are more likely to connect to gaming, body modification, fandom and influencer subcultures. YouTube is the main platform for contact (38%) and Facebook communities remain at the heart of subculture involvement.
Social media also creates subcultures of its own; Instagram influencers famously so, but TikTok especially feels like a perfect platform for subculture motivation, with its focus on creative playfulness.
Window of opportunity
Brands are beginning to realise the potential of marketing to subcultures. The excitement around the launch of Greggs vegan sausage rolls is evidence of the fact that targeting a niche, when done well, can be highly impactful. And if Interbrand’s recent Breakthrough Brands US report is anything to go by, ‘serving subcultures’ is a key theme among some of the world’s most innovative brands.
David Alterman, Partner, Nursery Research and Planning, believes exploring subcultures could be key to understanding consumer behaviours and interests:
“The vast array of subcultures provides a wonderful insight, a barometer of how people view the world and their place and purpose within that world. Often misunderstood or dismissed as hobbies, subcultures tend to be more intrinsically linked to an individual’s sense of ‘self’ – with 75% of those surveyed stating that they considered their subculture to be a key part of their identity. And studying identity is vital to getting to know the modern- day consumer. Brands need to work harder to win people over but doing so could lead to a much more positive, long-term brand experience for customers.”
Top 10 subcultures in the UK:
2 Religious groups (not mainstream religions)
5 Political movements
6 Restrictive diets (e.g. paleo, vegan etc)
10 Role-play gaming
Top 5 ‘fringe’ UK subcultures:
2 Off-grid living
3 Straight Edge
- 56% of the UK public describe themselves as involved in a subculture
- 43% only connect with their subcultures online
- 75% consider their subculture to be a key part of their identity
- 44% identify ‘belonging’ as the primary motivator for joining a subculture
- 20% spend at least £500 on their involvement with their subculture
- 18% have taken up gaming since lockdown began
- 11% are part of an alternative lifestyles subculture that includes: home-schooling; living off-grid and naturism
- 12% belong to fantasy world subcultures
- 3% of the UK public are part of body modification subcultures
Source: The Nursery