What does a brand do when its entire identity is the reason it’s irrelevant?
Restoring a pop culture powerhouse to its former glory by giving it purpose.
Restoring a pop culture powerhouse to its former glory by giving it purpose.

The Problem

Hot Topic became the brand it is today by satisfying an appetite for edgy aesthetics inspired by alternative music. They embraced not just style and image, but underlying ideology. Since then, they’ve lost their own edge by forgetting those driving principles and turning to licensed fandoms to recoup lost sales from a music scene that hasn’t aged well aesthetically. Ultimately, they’re trying to talk to everyone and reaching no one at all.

Hot Topic, once a pop culture powerhouse, has become irrelevant.

“Never heard of it.” - most high school students
“We should go back to what we used to be. More music, less superheroes. I think we’d be better for it.” - Berd, HT employee
“Goth is just like any other subculture. It's not dead, it's just changed.”
“Never heard of it.” - most high school students
“We should go back to what we used to be. More music, less superheroes. I think we’d be better for it.” - Berd, HT employee
“Goth is just like any other subculture. It's not dead, it's just changed.”

The Solution

The sentiments behind music are the same as they ever were, but how they translate into different forms has evolved. Hot Topic will strip away the superficial nonsense diluting its identity and take stock of what’s relevant. They will find new purpose as a curator of alternative music culture.

Hot Topic will stand for something again.

My Role

As someone who spent a lot of time going to Hot Topic as a teenager, I was stoked to dive headfirst into this project. I took a strategic role, identifying opportunities for brand positioning and the connections between experiences and services. I also created a unique conversational commerce experience for the brand to reach audiences while generating revenue.

Hot Topic has a special place in my heart, and I made sure it showed on this assignment.

Overview

Project Goals

Rebrand and reposition Hot Topic as a curator of alternative music culture.
Create a new in-store experience that turns Hot Topic into a destination for artists, fans, and music lovers.
Use conversational UX as a way for the brand to connect with audiences.

Skills and Methods

Brand Strategy
Consumer Research
Retail Experience Design
Service Design
Conversational UX
Visual Design
Brand Strategy
Consumer Research
Retail Experience Design
Service Design
Conversational UX
Visual Design

Reclaiming Our Identity: Outline

New Store Experience

New Visual Identity

Curated Product Selection

Artist Partnerships

Musician Services

Streamlined Retail Presence

OOH / Conversational Commerce

Exhuming the Brand

Resuscitating Hot Topic means creating an entirely new store experience and exhuming the brand’s identity from that of “mall crypt.” Right now, you can walk into any of the 662 locations in malls across the country and step inside a veritable dungeon, filled to the brim with merchandise from once-popular bands and knock-off products licensed from every movie or tv show with a following.

We’re going to pull Hot Topic to the surface by closing 2/3rds of mall locations and opening 15 destination stores in major cities. Streamlining the brand’s presence in the real world will allow for a fresh start for the new store experience.
A political discussion platform that rewards you for listening to what others have to say.

Exhuming the Brand

Resuscitating Hot Topic means creating an entirely new store experience and exhuming the brand’s identity from that of “mall crypt.” Right now, you can walk into any of the 662 locations in malls across the country and step inside a veritable dungeon, filled to the brim with merchandise from once-popular bands and knock-off products licensed from every movie or tv show with a following.

We’re going to pull Hot Topic to the surface by closing 2/3rds of mall locations and opening 15 destination stores in major cities. Streamlining the brand’s presence in the real world will allow for a fresh start for the new store experience.

New Visual Identity

I worked with art director Jason Goldberg to nail down the look and feel of our store and brand to reflect Hot Topic’s newfound sense of purpose. The visual identity embraces modern pop art’s bright colors and irregular letterforms, and the store design itself is minimalist and subdued.

Store Experience

We grounded Hot Topic’s reboot in iconic elements of the store. The color palette is still black, red, and white, but with an emphasis on red and white, and the store entrance is the same circular gateway, albeit a less foreboding one.
The store itself would undergo a dramatic shift from its current, cluttered layout to an open floor plan populated by intentionally curated products and music services. Think: quality, not quantity. No more licensed nonsense; Hot Topic will sell high quality music apparel and merchandise. We did, however, decide to keep the T-Shirt Wall, as it is a key part of the brand’s original identity that’s worth owning.

Musician Services

Each Hot Topic destination store will be a hub for local music. Stores will carry local mixtapes and music samples curated by the staff, and live, in-store shows will happen regularly.
Stage One is Hot Topic’s musician consultant service. Just as Apple trains its employees to be technology experts and work at a “genius bar,” Hot Topic will train its employees to be experts on everything it takes to establish a successful music career outside of writing the music itself. In-store band management consultation will be accompanied by online tutorials on how to be a DIY musician.

Artist Partnerships

Hot Topic will also partner with artists to produce, market, and distribute limited releases of exclusive tour merchandise. Artists will gain increased visibility, and Hot Topic will regain even more credibility as a champion of musicians and music culture.

T-Shirt Wall: Out of Home

The t-shirt wall is such an important part of Hot Topic’s identity that we thought of no better way to announce the brand’s rebirth than through a t-shirt wall activation. We’ll place billboards of physical shirts in high-traffic locations of our destination store cities. People passing by will be able to buy these shirts right off the wall, revealing our campaign tag and store address.

T-Shirt Wall: Conversational Commerce

After the activation, the Hot Topic T-Shirt Wall will exist as public installations near destination stores that you can buy shirts from by talking to it through Facebook Messenger.
The T-Shirt Wall Bot
The wall itself houses 60 physical t-shirts behind a glass case, which are regularly changed out by staff. Anyone interacting with this wall won’t be buying the shirts themselves, they’ll be placing an order for a shirt. This way, we can keep the footprint small and satisfy everyone without worrying about inventory. Physical shirts are more authentic to the brand than digital screens, and the lone digital screen on the wall can provide calls to action, instructions for the dead simple buying experience, and promotional content like new music launches or countdown timers for when the shirts are changed out.

Why This Would Work

The Hot Topic of before, with the leather and spiky clothing, black nail polish, and eye liner, was born out of a purpose: being a voice for the fans of music scenes who felt like they didn’t have one.

But over time, the brand lost its way. They went from celebrating this attitude to just the surface aesthetic. And when that shallow message fell on deaf ears, they tried to slide their way into every geeky fandom possible. The model before was set up to fail because they were catering to a specific aesthetic without any real reason why.

Hot Topic will go from being product-driven to purpose-driven, and will reclaim its identity as the gatekeeper of alternative music culture.

Meet the Rest of the Team

Mishaal Abassi
Tom Daley
Caitlin Murphy
Jessica New
Jason Goldberg

Thanks for Reading!

I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments, or if you’re interested in working together. Drop me a line some time.

Thanks for reading!

I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments, or if you’re interested in working together. Drop me a line some time.
Contact Me