Helen Edwards on why today’s marginal behaviours are ‘tomorrow’s pot of gold’

By examining the tension between intense early adopters and mass market resistance, marketers can identify which disruptive behaviours will go mainstream.

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From the rise of veganism to the mass adoption of wellbeing, brands looking to grow should learn to tap into marginal ideas on the cusp of going mainstream, according to Helen Edwards.

“Consumer driven disruption has the power to foster new industries and categories. To create new winners, but also losers,” explained Edwards during Marketing Week’s Leadership Summit at The Fifth last week.

The Passionbrand founder and Marketing Week columnist has spent the last two years researching a book investigating which factors power consumer driven disruption into the mainstream. For her new book From Marginal to Mainstream, Edwards examined 50 behaviours to understand why some take off and others don’t.

She partnered with research specialist The Nursery on large scale quantitative surveys in the US and UK and qualitative research spanning 15 focus groups, alongside ethnography to closely examine these behaviours and case analysis.

We can be a bit more Phil Knight and be right there as, or before, this demand-led disruption really takes off.

Helen Edwards

The team then created a statistical scale of the top 20 behaviours, listing those with the most potential to go mainstream. Current marginal behaviours with a chance of going big include polyamory, insect protein, the quantified self (measuring daily metrics to understand your body) and micro-dosing.

It is possible, Edwards explained, to read these behaviours and their potential better through beacons, signs and symbols that help propel them into the mainstream. In fact, for a marginal behaviour to even have a chance of being adopted by the masses, she believes it requires the opposing forces of intensity and resistance.

“You need those intense zealots to get it going [because] if you want to adopt one of these behaviours in the early stages it’s hard. It’s often less socially acceptable and it’s often much more expensive,” Edwards noted.

She pointed to research with people who have been vegan for over a decade. They described how difficult it was to make the choice and stick with it even 10 years ago, meaning a level of intensity is needed for a behaviour to gain traction.

“The opposing force to that intensity is resistance. That opposition from the mainstream who push back. These two forces are crucial to understand, because they’re volatile. They change over time and when that resistance begins to shift and crumble, that’s when you find opportunity,” said Edwards.

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Resistance to a particular behaviour, she explained, is far more nuanced than it may first appear. On a resistance scale, people go from resisting because they fear a behaviour will endanger their life, to thinking something is weird, to merely seeing it as idealistic or impractical. The more people shift towards the idealistic or impractical end of the spectrum, the greater the possibility a behaviour has to be adopted by the mainstream.

Getting in ahead of mass adoption often marks a brand out for success. Edwards pointed to the example of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, who in 1963 brought jogging to the US after encountering this new type of training during a trip to New Zealand.

After jogging took off as a leisure activity across the world, Bowerman’s Nike co-founder Phil Knight would go on to say: “If Nike didn’t start the fitness revolution, we were at least right there and we sure rode it for one hell of a ride.”

Edwards urged brands to think about how they can become part of a new behaviour and react quickly, rather than being left behind.

“We can be a bit more Phil Knight and be right there as, or before, this demand-led disruption really takes off,” she stated.

The case for reframing

During her research, Edwards identified several beacons that can carry a behaviour into the mainstream, from accelerators – something happening in wider culture – to vectors – where the behaviour is central to a particular sub-culture.

However, reframing is where marketers can shift perceptions. Changing the positioning from vegan to plant-based was given as an example.

“One of our respondents who was a vegan some of the time said of that particular change in language: ‘That’s when I realised it could be something for me. Less tree hugger,’” Edwards recalled.

During the research, resistance often started to soften when focus groups were presented with more information. The team identified three thematic motifs, the first being that a behaviour belonged to our ancestral past and wasn’t new. The second was around culture and diversity, showing a particular behaviour was the norm in other parts of the world. The last motif that changed perceptions was demonstrating a behaviour is of personal benefit.

While the idea of eating insect protein was widely despised throughout the focus groups, the notion insects were an early food source predating birds and mammals by 53 million years helped soften some resistance. For this reason, Edwards suggested insect protein could be reframed as “original protein”, drawing on our shared past.

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She believes reframing is powerful because it forces marketers to understand the nature of resistance and shift to a more positive frame to unlock possibilities.

That said, it is worth showing respect for the originators who adopted the behaviour long before it was fashionable to do so. Edwards pointed to the notion of ‘dirty vegans’, a term long-time vegans sometimes use to help them co-exist with people who are only vegan some of the time.

“I was talking to a company that wants to launch more vegan mass products. They’ve got a range a bit like Quorn and what they decided to do was have a ‘pure vegan’ [product] and keep it for them as a respect to that group, but then also make sure there was something more mainstream,” she noted.

“Part of what I saw is you have to respect those originators, because they don’t always like it when others [get involved]. Even though they often want the behaviour to go mainstream, they kind of don’t.”

Describing today’s margins as “tomorrow’s pot of gold”, Edwards stressed growth can be interpreted in a broader sense beyond strictly financial, to encompass a wider “growth of consciousness”. As she pointed out, many of the current marginal behaviours are rooted in concern for the environment or sustainability, either as a primary or secondary motivator.

“The margins may point the way not just to the kind of growth that gets our corporations excited, but to a fuller, richer, more human kind of growth,” Edwards added.