In 2013, Christopher Krietchman was walking down the street in Manhattan, worrying about his flailing meal-delivery company. Krietchman was the founder of Fresh Grill Café, which cooked and delivered healthy meals to New Yorkers. When he launched in 2008, online food delivery barely existed. These were the days of first-generation iPhones, back when Groupon could make you a success. “We had customers in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and New Jersey,” he says now. But slowly -- and then seemingly all at once -- everything changed. Groupon imploded as the market flooded with meal-delivery services like Seamless and Blue Apron, all of them with better technology, fresher branding, and more efficient order fulfillment than Fresh Grill Café.
Krietchman had been an industry pioneer, but he’d failed without a solid business plan and vision. Now the industry had no place for him. He wasn’t ready to give up on his company, but he didn’t know how to fix it.
Then, that day on the street, he bumped into Winston Peters, an old college acquaintance. Peters, it turned out, co-owned a brand-building company called MyÜberLife Consulting Group, which specialized in “cultural insights.” What did this mean? Peters explained that his team spent their days and nights on cool-hunting excursions across the city. They immersed themselves in music, fashion and art and then used that knowledge to craft marketing and development strategies for their clients. Krietchman had never heard of such a thing, but he was excited. “A quick switch went off in my head,” he says. “If you want to know what the market is about, you’ve got to be in it, and they were really in it.”
MyÜberLife has a handful of part-time associates, but at its helm are Peters and his colleagues Jey Van-Sharp and Kwasi Gyasi. They’re three good-looking men in their mid-30s who always, unfailingly, wear black. It’s a uniform of sorts, and one that allows them to either stand out (like at the Soho House rooftop pool) or blend in (like at a warehouse party). Peters and Van-Sharp became friends at Manhattan College, where they both studied engineering and bonded over New York City nightlife. They met Gyasi at a party in 2005. He’d recently left a job as a product development analyst and had been helping artist friends monetize their creative pursuits. Herein, the trio realized, was a business opportunity. As Van-Sharp explains it, they “wanted to help creative people be more business-minded, and vice versa.”
Over the past decade, MyÜberLife has worked for large brands like Pepsi and Uniqlo as well as entrepreneurs including gallery owners and fashion designers. It offers a range of services like drafting business plans, conducting market research, developing branding strategies and advertising campaigns and, of course, providing the elusive “cultural insights.” The partners charge $250 to $450 per hour, or work on retainer.
In their stark, stylized getup, the trio makes an intimidating sight. They read part high-fashion, part Goth. Van-Sharp paints his nails black, wears thick silver jewelry and has duct tape wrapped around his pricey Guidi boots. Peters has a thick, Amish-like beard. And Gyasi sports a fitted suit jacket and pants cuffed inches above his ankles. When you see them out together you think, Who are those guys? Are they for real? But when Krietchman sat down with the team, he was impressed. “They’re so pleasant. They’re perfect gentlemen. People respond to them.” Krietchman certainly did. During an early meeting, the group led him through a kind of therapy session, encouraging him to drill into his objectives: Why had he started Fresh Grill Café? What was he trying to achieve? Whom did he want to serve? Krietchman explained that he was a former body builder who wanted to help people maintain a healthy lifestyle. He’d gravitated toward a business in food because nutrition was something he knew about from his lifting days. Was he passionate about meal delivery? Well, not especially.
This was good news, because MyÜberLife didn’t think Fresh Grill Café was sustainable. They’d come to this conclusion after doing an autopsy of Krietchman’s finances and a thorough investigation of the market. But at the same time, the team had been conducting a very different type of research. They were out every day and night attending events, concerts, openings, parties, dinners and brand activations, immersing themselves in as many cultural spaces as they could pack into each 24-hour day. What they learned told them not only why Fresh Grill Café was failing but how Krietchman could succeed, if he were willing to let the culture guide him.
In some ways, MyÜberLife is a typical business consultancy. The team analyzes your financials, researches the market, advises on branding. They spend hours each week in client meetings and brainstorming sessions. But this work is conducted in between their citywide culture-hunting missions, which they refer to as “going out.” The value that going out provides their clients is not easily explained and often sounds like nonsense. They’re happy to try, though. From Peters: “We’re seeing what people are wearing, drinking, the music they listen to, who they’re hooking up with. For us, that is qualitative data that we turn into quantitative data.” And from Van-Sharp: “My job is to be at the subculture, take that information and translate that into real strategy.” And from Gyasi: “We have to see the nuances: what people are talking about, what they care about, what’s relevant to them.”
Even their titles are infuriatingly vague. What’s the difference between a business strategist (Peters), a business adviser (Van-Sharp) and a business developer (Gyasi)? How are they getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to hang out at clubs and attend art openings? The reason is a shift in the kind of information brands find valuable. The past decade-plus in marketing was defined by data -- search results, social media shares, highly trackable online behavior -- that promised to both assess and predict consumer behavior. But hard numbers, it turned out, couldn’t provide all the answers.
“I’ve watched the pendulum swing from cool hunting to big data, and now it’s moving back,” says Jake Katz, a longtime trend researcher for outfits like NBCUniversal and MTV, and the current VP of insights and strategy at Revolt Media & TV. He says brands are displaying more “cultural curiosity” these days. They’re coming around to the understanding that “people who are overly reliant on data need to make just as much effort to understand their culture.”
What this really comes down to is that old branding buzzword: authenticity. Any entrepreneur knows the definition intuitively. A company should have a deep familiarity with the desires and values of its audience, and should treat consumers like individuals, not data points. But brands still have a lot of ground to make up. George Newman, associate professor of management and marketing at the Yale School of Management, says authenticity remains “top of mind” to consumers. He points to a 2016 survey by brand strategy firm Cohn and Wolfe, which asked 12,000 people about 1,600 brands in 14 markets. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said there was an “authenticity gap” between brands and buyers.
“You have these communal domains where people derive identity, even if there is money being exchanged,” Newman says. The challenge for a brand, then, is to sell something to a community without making it feel like you’ve “violated the norms” by “putting a price tag on everything.”
Sometimes bridging that gap is straightforward. When Nike launched its skateboarding line, Nike SB, Newman says the brand quelled an initial backlash among skaters by hiring respected skateboarders to its leadership team, sponsoring competitions and producing skate videos. “They showed that ‘Hey, we genuinely care about the sport. We’re not just trying to make a quick buck,’” he says. Today, Newman says, Nike has some of the highest sales of any skate shoe brand. Before Nike, Red Bull ran the same playbook with extreme sports and, in the process, became the gold standard of how to truly serve a scene.
But not every marketing plan can be so straightforward. That’s why cultural Sherpas are on the rise -- people who can speak both the language of branding and the language of cool.
These people can take all forms. There are large companies like Vice, which has made a fortune out of embodying a certain attitude and scene, and now is hired by brands that want to be part of it. Then there are smaller connectors like Katie Longmyer, who came up in the New York City club scene, where she built relationships with DJs, rappers, promoters, photographers and artists. She eventually joined the branding department at Warner Bros. Records, but when she left in 2008, she realized she was able to move fluidly between two disconnected communities: the artist on the street and the brand manager in the boardroom. She says the difference between herself and a “typical agency person” is that while she does work a typical 9-to-5 schedule, she has an “entire other cultural universe” that she moves in at night and on weekends. Now she helps large and small brands -- including Pepsi, Delta and W Hotels New York -- find the right artists to partner with.
“Influencers” offer another avenue of authenticity. A lot of influencer marketing is done pay-to-spray style -- just hire someone to blast your brand’s message to their large (but possibly uninterested) social following. But some influencers are selling themselves as full-service cultural guides. One is 30-year-old video producer Levi Maestro, who films his friends as they explore Los Angeles. His videos sometimes include product placements -- but brands come to him, he says, because of the way he brings them into his world. Hennessy, for example, worked with Maestro for a year as he hung out and talked creative process with a coterie of recording artists, stylists, animators and fashion designers. Maestro not only brought new, influential voices to the cognac brand’s attention but also presented them in a natural way. “The goal is to make the experience as close to home as possible,” he says, “like taking a friend to the airport.”
And as brands seek authentic connections to audiences, some businesses are starting to realize: Hey, we already speak to an audience -- and can charge others for access.
Smirnoff and Mixmag offer a good case study. “We wanted to partner with people who could identify trends in the culture, identify the breaking artists of tomorrow and help us build their careers,” says Justin Medcraft, Smirnoff’s senior global brand manager. So Smirnoff approached Mixmag, a 33-year-old, U.K.-based publication that’s considered a leading voice on the electronic dance music (EDM) scene. With Mixmag’s help, the vodka brand created the Smirnoff Sound Collective, a series of events, concerts, short documentaries, original song productions and panels aimed at launching and promoting the careers of underrepresented EDM artists, like women, minority and LGBTQ musicians. “Readers aren’t getting a brand message shoved down their throats,” says Rebecca Jolly, the CEO of Mixmag U.S. “It’s a natural extension of what we already do, just with a Smirnoff lens.”
But what happens if a brand isn’t just looking for an artist to partner with, or exposure to a new audience? What if the brand isn’t even sure what it’s looking for? That’s why there are companies like MyÜberLife that now make it their business to be cultural omnivores, studying the nuances of different subcultures -- and the business opportunities they create.
MyÜberLife’s Van-Sharp helps creative people be more business-minded, and vice versa.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on a Thursday, Peters, Gyasi and Van-Sharp arrive at a warehouse in Williamsburg, that overexposed hipster neighborhood of Brooklyn. They’re here for a Kia-sponsored party called Drive to the Moon, which is full of … well, it’s hard to categorize the crowd. The revelers are mostly black and Latino twenty-somethings, many dressed in overalls and skinny jeans. They sip from slim cans of Stella Artois, and their multicolored hair and Supreme sweatshirts are moving to the beats of Chase B, a DJ known for his successful Illroots Radio mixtapes.
“They’re not hip-hop kids,” Van-Sharp yells over the music, to explain. “They’re hopsters -- hip-hop hipsters.” It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. These kids have their own style, their own preferences in music, design and, no doubt, brands. And sure, they probably don’t give a crap about Kia right now. (They live in New York; none of them are buying cars.) But they’ll likely give the company some credit for acknowledging that not all urban kids belong in the same bucket.
This is the MyÜberLife trio’s third event of the evening, and they’ll be scene-hopping until 3 or 4 in the morning. Before this, they were at a Chelsea art opening (the highlight: taxidermied bats) and then to a new, multisensory meditation studio in Manhattan called Woom. There, a very different party was under way. It was just as crowded as the Williamsburg warehouse, only instead of Stella, the largely white guests threw back spicy, alcohol-free energy shots. Instead of Chase B, they danced to underground electronica by a Dutch-American guy known as the Scumfrog. And instead of pregaming in their cramped Brooklyn apartments, this crowd warmed up with a 40-minute meditation session.
To the uninitiated, the Woom scene could be just as confusing as the hopsters, but MyÜberLife had also visited their kind before. In fact, a few years ago, as they were advising Krietchman about Fresh Grill Café, wellness events like these led them to believe that custom food delivery was a losing business strategy.
Wellness, the team had explained to Krietchman, was no longer just a series of disparate habits -- like joining the gym or cutting out carbs. In the years since Fresh Grill Café launched, wellness had become a lifestyle, shaped by the places people worked out, the clothes they wore, the food they ate and who their friends were. As Gyasi said, “wellness had become a status symbol.” And status was cultivated by going out, by seeing and being seen. “The opportunity is in the community!” Van-Sharp told Krietchman. Krietchman grasped the disconnect with his meal service: sitting at home ordering kale salad was not exactly social. Van-Sharp continued, “Let’s build a brand where we get the fitness community together and help facilitate connections: platonic, romantic, professional.”
Krietchman took the advice. Three years ago he closed Fresh Grill Café, and this year he founded Wellvyl, a social club for the health, fitness and wellness community. Every week, the company hosts a handful of events, like educational panels, workout sessions in unlikely places (art galleries, hotel rooftops), meditation sessions and group dinners. The Wellvyl team curates event guest lists to connect people with similar interests. “We’re your wingman and your wingwoman,” he says. When you come to a Wellvyl event, you could meet your spouse or your next business partner or simply make a new friend. “That’s what the market wants. That’s what they care about.”
So Krietchman had a new brand. But he still needed to position it as desirable. As with all subcultures, that meant speaking to potential customers not with a bullhorn but with a wink. It required nuance. And so here, too, MyÜberLife set to work.
The trio developed a series of advertisements to be promoted on Wellvyl’s social media feeds and via Google. One of them featured six women in stylish yoga wear posed in a pyramid of downward dogs. Overlaid on this was the quote “Oh, we talking teams?” It’s from Drake’s hit “Big Rings,” which Van-Sharp says would send a signal about Wellvyl’s sensibility as culturally savvy, a little cheeky and encouraging of risk-taking.
A different ad featured a black-and-white photograph of acclaimed “brutal-chic” fashion designer Rick Owens, along with a quote that read, in part, “No outfit is going to make you look or feel as good as having a fit body.” Owens’ androgynous style wouldn’t appear to have much in common with the workout crowd, but MyÜberLife knew otherwise: Owens had done a successful collaboration with Adidas and so may be familiar to Wellvyl types. The MyÜberLife guys also suspected that people attracted to the Manhattan wellness scene would be both fashion-forward and responsive to the quote’s anti-consumerist message. In other words, these messages conveyed all kinds of subtleties, intended to catch the attention of the right people and attract the cool crowd (or the crowd that wants to be cool). It’s the kind of marketing artistry that’s impossible to achieve with data.
These are early days for Wellvyl, but the message seems to be working. A year after launch, it has 200 paying members, a long waiting list and around 30 employees. The company’s social media following roughly doubles every month. Krietchman is now planning a wider advertising campaign throughout the New York City area, along with a line of merchandise and athletic wear. His dream is to open a physical location that combines a fitness hub, a coworking space and a social club. And when he does, he says, he’ll be looking to MyÜberLife to help him expand his crowd.