The conventional wisdom in marketing, design, and branding is that everything communicates in some way. Brands that give little thought to their communication, the thinking goes, must be communicating badly. How is it, then, that some brands succeed even without any advertising? Why do some brands have loyal fans despite breaking all the rules of good presentation and seemingly doing everything to demolish their own “brand equity”?“Underground” brands appeal to people precisely because they are not supported by masses of advertising. Buying them seems like a rebellious, individual kind of action. Brands that don’t market appear somehow more authentic. Showing them off is a statement that you haven’t succumbed to the manipulative advertising that pervades the modern commercial landscape. But of course, this appeal can be exploited by marketers. There are several strategies used by companies to achieve a paradoxical success-by-not-appearing-successful, and they all rely on one thing: the passionate desire of certain customers to “discover” a brand for themselves.Everyone wants to feel special. Buying the same mass-market brands may provide many kinds of satisfaction, but feeling unique isn’t one of them. Everyone wants to feel like part of a community; meaningful communities tend to be small, so buying mass-market products doesn’t make us feel part of one.The late, great Marcello Minale’s book How to Keep Running a Successful Design Company is a collection of meditations on many aspects of design, architecture, and branding. He cites the example of Dr. Martens boots—universally referred to as “Doc Martens.” Doc Martens began life as workingmen’s boots, but became adopted as a symbol of authenticity by English mods, skins, punks, and Goths. They crossed the seas, together with English music, to find passionate followers worldwide. The company now makes a wide array of shoes and boots for men and women (and even occasionally advertises!), but its brand remains true.Blackspot shoes are even more radical in their opposition to mass-market branding; they have a model called the Unswoosher, an obvious retort to Nike. The shoes are made from organic hemp and recycled tires, by unionized labor in developed countries. They aren’t cheap, but they are successful.The Jones Soda company was started by a Canadian distributor who saw an opportunity to sell drinks with an alternative appeal. Offered mostly in locations that don’t sell drinks, such as skate shops, the labels feature personal photos submitted by customers, and the flavors range from common to, well, alternative. Sugar Plum was a limited-edition flavor, offered one Christmas. Visitors to the website vote on proposed new flavors, like Star Fruit. The brand look is deliberately amateur, though the company carefully picks images that match the brand “ethos” and possess a slightly zany, carefree quality that will appeal to the intended customer. Some brands take the effort to appear underground to an extreme. In the early 2000s, a European maker of underwear for active lifestyles tried to cultivate an alternative image for the company by commissioning graffiti artists to paint its logo on walls, bridges, and highway overpasses. Needless to say, marketing activities ought to remain legal.