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How Nicki Minaj and “Stan Culture” Co-Created the Multiplayer Brand Moment of the Year

PLUS: The NRF’s Big Lie Exposed
December 15, 2023
Photo: Republic Records / Midjourney Art of ‘Gag City’

Welcome to Friday, futurists. 

What a year it’s been. We’ll do a full recap on 2023 in the coming weeks, but as a full-time founder and content creator, I can say without a doubt that it’s been the most rewarding and fulfilling year of my life.

It’s fitting that this will be my last full essay of the year because it puts a big bow on our content arc throughout 2023: Multiplayer Brand dynamics and the future of co-creation and entertainment in the metaverse.

‘Dimitar’ on X/Twitter, building on the lore of Gag City.

The Stans may be the key to unlocking our Multiplayer Brand future.

Last week, in anticipation of the release of her sixth studio album, Pink Friday 2, Nicki Minaj announced a virtual metaverse world launch in Roblox entitled GAG CITY. 

Originally intended to be a week-long promotional vehicle for Minaj to virtually meet-and-greet fans and distribute virtual merch like digital fashion collectibles, the pink-clad Roblox activation has quickly transformed into something else entirely.

Minaj’s fans, dubbed ‘Barbz’ (a colloquialism of the otherwise IP-infringing term ‘Barbies’), have turned Gag City into a virtual co-creation space both within the metaverse and spilling out onto social media, as well as a ground zero for a turf war for beef with fans of rival female artists Rhianna, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift.

Gag City as imagined by DuhhMinaj (via X/Twitter)

As we predicted in our book, The Multiplayer Brand, published in June of 2023, metaverses like Roblox provide an open world for experimentation and role play that directly translates into participatory commerce. Part of that participation is creating new imagery with GenAI tools like Midjourney and DALL-E. Tools like Midjourney catalyze co-creative explosion, allowing fans like Barbz to transform their adoration into visualizations.

In one week, the Barbz had built a robust lore around the city (apparently ‘discovered’ by Minaj on December 3rd, when she appointed herself mayor). 

They’ve built on top of this lore, outlining districts and slums, entertainment events, celebrity sightings, rumors of battles and wars with Swifties, and establishing public services like shopping, banks, and currencies. “Gag City is now only allowing Face Card as currency,” wrote X user Onikadrip.

Gag City symbolizes the evolving relationship between entertainment and commerce. Here, brand interactions are integral to the experience, creating a new form of marketing where engagement is intrinsic to the narrative, and ‘stan accounts’ — fan accounts dedicated to boosterism — create the organic lift and virality that a release like Pink Friday 2 needs. 

@chilis on X/Twitter

Various brands, seizing the opportunity, have joined the Gag City bandwagon. Chili’s announced a temporary name change to “Chili’s Barbz and Grill” in celebration of the release, replete with a midjourney image of pink smoke coming out of what we can only assume is as Chili’s within the Gag City limits. One user envisioned an anthropomorphized Starbucks lemon loaf as a citizen of Gag City. 

Brand involvement in the multiplayer trend creates a cycle that may manifest as a trend too watch in 2024. By jumping into cultural commentary, brands signal a significant shift in marketing strategies — they have to be more nimble, and tapped into the speed of culture; while balancing these new fan-generated worlds for their own commercial gain.

Read more about The Multiplayer Brand in our seminal 80-page zine. Available for $20 with free shipping in the lower 48 states; shipping to 180+ countries before Christmas. Buy it today.

— Phillip

P.S. This week on the podcast we’re joined by Bobby Huang, the former retail strategy lead at REI, and newly-minted CCO at James Baroud, a Portuguese outdoor brand with big aspirations. Listen wherever podcasts are found, or right over here.

The NRF’s Big Fib. For more than a year, retail analysts have been calling ‘retail organized crime’ statistics and claims by the National Retail Federation (NRF) into question. The NRF had claimed that such crime accounted for nearly half of the $94.5 billion in retail "shrink" in 2021, amounting to over $45 billion a year. In an investigation by Michael Hiltzig for the LA Times, Hiltzig found that the NRF has walked back as much as 50% of that figure.

Our Take: The article criticizes the media and politicians for readily accepting and promoting the NRF's false claims without sufficient skepticism. It also points out that the retail industry often conflates "shrink" (which includes employee theft, paperwork errors, and shoplifting) with organized retail crime to push a narrative of rampant crime in stores.

We could all use a healthy dose of skepticism when reviewing figures from trade organizations like the NRF, which acts as a lobby for retailers to the US Congress. This lobbying effort has had tremendous effect. Senator Chuck Grassley staged a “Fight Retail Crime Day” event in D.C. in October, according to the article, where “he stood next to NRF executives to push bipartisan legislation to create a Center to Combat Organized Retail Crime in the Department of Homeland Security.”

Big retail chains use the fear of crime to justify store closures and deflect from poor executive decisions. Shrink statistics presented by retailers from 2021-2023 have been distorted to suggest a crisis; those numbers are being manipulated to advance a particular narrative.

Nike’s In Need of Its Own Refurbishment. A mere thirteen months after its announcement, the online Nike Refurbished store is being closed for good. The store previously sold like-new merchandise that primarily came from online returns. This is the latest in a series of reversals for The Swoosh, which recently announced it would rekindle relationships with multibrand retailers and scale back its DTC investments.

Nude Barre 

Google SafeSearch May Prevent Brands From Scaling. Modern Retail’s Gabriela Barkho filed a story this week on the challenges that brands like Nude Barre have when reaching new customers through advertising. The black-founded, size- and skin-tone-inclusive brand has been repeatedly delisted from Google Search due to an ‘overzealous’ Google Images algorithm — SafeSearch — which detects whether an image contains nudity. SafeSearch repeatedly flags the brand’s skin tone-matching nature of the shapewear and underwear product imagery as containing nudity.

Photo: Doritos flavored liquor from USA Today

The One ‘Sip’ Challenge? A cursed matchup if we’ve ever seen it, Doritos has partnered with Empirical for an ‘afternoon snack in a glass.’ The abomination of nachoization declares on its marketing site that ‘flavor knows no boundaries’ — we vehemently disagree.

Chobani Buys La Colombe. The coffee company with culture now gets it, literally. La Colombe announced today that it would be acquired by the company that made yogurt unhealthy, the CPG giant Chobani, for some $900M; $44M in cash and $550M in debt. This follows a $300M investment into the coffee brand by Keurig/Dr. Pepper (KDP) this past July, making KDP a minority investor in Chobani.

The ‘Blue Carpet Treatment’. Walmart pulled out all the stops for its premier of the “romcommerce” video series, Add to Heart. The ‘blue carpet’ premier took place earlier this month in Chelsea, NYC, where couples who found IRL love at Walmart gathered for a world premier of the shoppable video series. 

🎉Listen to our recap and analysis of the first six episodes of Add To Heart on a very special edition of the Future Commerce podcast with special guests Rhian Beutler and Jaci Jackson!

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