In 1968, a US Senator was out running near his home in South Carolina and he was stopped by the police. A man running down a street could only be up to no good. Perhaps he had committed a crime. Nowadays we would not bat an eyelid if we saw someone out ‘jogging’. But in the sixties, jogging was a new thing pursued by (people thought) cranks and weirdos.
These were the very early signs of a huge disruption that would spawn a multi-billion-dollar industry and some of the most famous brands in the world: in fitness footwear and apparel (like Nike, Adidas and Lululemon), gym and gym equipment (LA fitness and Virgin Active) and countless smaller brands. It’s what all marketers dream of. Getting on board with a big new trend and riding it to profit and growth.
Yet, the entrepreneurs and inventors who spot nascent trends are not just seeking profit. They want to make the world a better place. Conservationist Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia in opposition to the dreadful environmental record of the apparel industry. A man of high principles, he recently gave away all future profits in Patagonia to fight the climate crisis. Established brands are thus also exposed for having feet of clay and must develop their own solutions to issues such as ethical sourcing/manufacturing, recycling, reuse and repair. If they don’t, they will look like dinosaurs to younger, well-informed consumers. Rapidly emerging trends also represent jeopardy for complacent incumbent brands.
An excellent new book, From Marginal to Mainstream by Helen Edwards, anatomises emerging trends. There are plenty of people doing “trend watching” – like the improbably named Faith Popcorn. Edwards goes further and offers a “how to” for spotting behaviours that are likely to go mainstream and presents a framework of the process by which things that at first seem odd and strange, catch fire and become something that many of us do.
Marginal behaviours often get “diluted” in order to go mainstream. I do a bit of jogging in the park but you could not say that I am committed runner. I often have days when I eat no meat but I am not as ideologically committed as a hardcore vegan. Many factors can play into to the mainstreaming of a trend – such as ideas about how to lead a healthy life which have the effects of accelerating trends like veganism and jogging.
Marketers can accelerate mainstreaming by reframing the ideas of pioneers. Early vegans were vehemently (and sometimes violently) in favour of animal welfare, which was off putting for most citizens. Later, veganism was relabelled as “a plant-based diet” and became associated with good health rather than a dangerous absence of dietary protein – a charge that was levelled against veganism in the early days. Barriers to mainstreaming were thus dissipated and veganism went mainstream fast after a very long period of incubation. As with all big trends, a combination of factors determined the speed and scale of take-off.
Technology plays a part too in making behaviours accessible and easy, rather than requiring money and time. Early enthusiasts for meditation used to go to India, sit at the feet of a guru and spend weeks learning the discipline, which led others to dismiss it as a self-indulgent elite activity. Now you can buy the Headspace app (for a few dollars) on your smartphone and do self-guided meditation.
Big trends are easy to describe in retrospect, but what are the behaviours today that will make markets very different tomorrow?
Much disruption over the past 20 years has been tech-led, enabled by innovations like broadband, smartphones, 5G, gaming, the Metaverse and AI. Steve Jobs called this growth strategy “waiting for the next big thing.” He was talking about supply side tech applications that change behaviour. Edwards doesn’t get lost in the weeds of “the next big thing in tech” (plenty of books on that). She is interested in human led growth.
She offers an exciting smorgasbord of marginal human behaviours to help us understand which new trends have potential. Here’s a selection.
Getting your protein from insects which is sustainable, cheap and environmentally friendly.
Giving birth without medical intervention to deliver new human life in the most natural way possible.
Daily measuring of personal metrics to spot problems and enhance performance.
Raising children gender neutral:
In order not to define or limit their prospects by pigeon-holing them from an early age.
Embedding tech in your body to enhance the performance of the able bodied and disabled.
Going without clothes (weather and public decency allowing) to go back to nature and boost mental health.
Cast your eye down the list – what is your response? Yuk. Dangerous. Disgusting. Weird. Idealistic. Impractical. These are typical signs of ‘resistance.’ Think more. Can you imagine younger more open-minded people trying it? Can you, on reflection, see wider benefits?
My pick would it be insect protein (yours may be different). It’s no more ‘yuk’ than my first taste of oysters. Insects are widely eaten in other parts of the world. My son has eaten them in Cambodia. Besides, they are a cheap, sustainable source of protein. There is already an energy bar called Bite (made with crickets) which sounds okay. So, insect protein can be reframed and represented and even made aspirational. After all, when I was growing up, buying “second-hand clothes” sounded depressing; nowadays “vintage clothes” are cool.
Each trend has committed believers who are prepared to go to lengths (money, time, public opprobrium) to live out their lifestyle choices, which of course binds them together with a sense of ‘us against the world’ with other believers. The author calls these “beacons” and they give energy and authenticity to a trend. Try Googling ‘insect protein blog’ to see what I mean. A celebrity chef might be inspired to develop insect-based recipes triggering rapid growth from the margins to the mainstream, especially if retailers make the ingredients easy and cheap to buy.
Above are just a few of the ideas bubbling away at the margins of culture. Media platforms constantly seek out weird and novel phenomena and bring them to our attention. It is a programming strand in its own right on Netflix. This constant battle for audiences is an accelerant of new trends exposing ever more marginal behaviours for you to consider.
Helen Edwards’ book is great brain food and, usefully, it explains what marketers should do. Here are my tips.
1. Set up a dedicated (young) team: Are some of your consumers doing very different things in either your category or associated categories?
2. Investigate these behaviours: What are the values and ideas that inspire these ‘beacons’? After a while, do you find that their ideas are not so weird after all?
3. Develop some ideas to test: For example, partnerships with beacons or your own innovations or both.
4. Test them in group discussions: There will be resistance and rejection among more mainstream consumers but gauge how strong this really is. Do some of your younger and more open-minded consumers end up thinking it might be for them? That is a good sign of potential.
5. Prototype and test: Because it’s best to have something ready to go or one of your competitors surely will.
Sounds like a really interesting team to lead. I for one would like to apply.
Marginal to Mainstream: Why Tomorrow’s Brand Growth Will Come From the Fringes – And How To Get There First
By Helen Edwards
Published by Kogan Page
256 pp. £19.99
Julian Saunders is a former ad agency CEO and Googler who has worked for the UK government.