Rise and Fall of GMO Brands*

Ana Andjelic
7 min readFeb 27, 2020

Outdoor Voices and why tone of voice is not a brand

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Like GMO food, GMO brands are the overgrown, monstrous, and tasteless versions of the real thing. They show up out of nowhere, grow rapidly thanks to the steroid VC money, and reach outsized proportions before imploding or rotting. There are a lot of GMO brands: Nasty Gal, Groupon, Away, Everlane, Brandless, Outdoor Voices, Greats, Honest Company, Modcloth, Harrys, Peloton, Blue Apron, Bonobos, WeWork.

All these brands follow the same software-inspired Silicon Valley playbook of the Rapid Brand Building. An obvious oxymoron, Rapid Brand Building happens when a company funnels their VC funds into brand aesthetics and the tone of voice, relentlessly repeated through witty PR blasts and equally relentlessly supported by the mainstream business press.

This is not enough.

Tone of voice is not a brand. Being chatty, witty, and approachable only masks the missing cultural link that ensures brand durability. It also masks the missing unique value proposition. GMO brands do not compete on the actual business value, like technical innovation, design, or product quality. Away’s sells Muji knockoffs and Casper’s subway riddles didn’t do anything to fend off its lackluster IPO. Competing on a tone of voice is not a real, durable, advantage.

Having a lot of followers is not a cultural voice. A cultural voice is someone who’s earned their stripes and not just tells a tale. “In the early 90’s, we were all rooted in some sort of subculture. For example, skateboarding or graffiti or punk rock. Versus brands today, they are not rooted in any sort of subculture. They just sort of appeared out of nowhere,” notes Erik Brunetti, the designer behind the label FUCT. Designers like flea markets not only because they are aware of circularity of fashion trends, but also because they can riff of known cultural references. A cultural voice is achieved through dialogue and an exchange with other cultural forms: Balenciaga and Hello Kitty, Valentino and Henry Rousseau, Sacai and Funkadelic, Stella McCartney and Dick Straker, Dries Van Noten and Christian Lacroix.

Ana Andjelic

Brand Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Writer of “Sociology of Business.” Forbes most influential CMO.