Here’s the thing about mainstream trends. They all started as obscure subcultural phenomena.
At a SXSW Interactive session Sunday—Niche to Movement to Mainstream: How Cultures Grow—Chris Barth of Contagious and Diego Figueroa of Chicago agency Lapiz took us through the findings of a new report that studies how niche cultural trends turn into movements and then mainstream.
Take Uber. It started out as a premium limousine hire car service and was only used by the Silicon Valley tech scene. Everyone tried to shut it down—the government, the taxi industry, the transport administration, even the general public. It’s changed urban transportation forever and it’s certainly gone mainstream.
Drones. It’s an obvious one. Random hobbyists flying unmanned aerial vehicles over general populous—lots of people wanted to shut that one down.
How about something less obvious? Slow-cooked food delivery service. A friend of mine in New York City is trying to start a food delivery service that offers slow-cooked food that is cooked on a Sunday by New York’s best restaurants, in their downtime, and delivered Mondays for easy-to-prepare home meals for the busy Manhattan set. Seems a simple enough idea, and she has a small, devout group of fans. But everyone wants to stop her: government regulators, certain restaurants, even some of the public.
Why should you care?
Think of these niche cultures like fledgling company stocks, if you pick the right one and get in early you can make huge returns on your early investment.
In the very formative days of hip hop, the smart people at Swatch watches decided they would collaborate with The Fat Boys—winners of an inaugural hip hop contest—for an ad campaign. Although the ad may look funny today, Swatch watches built enormous brand equity overnight. It also made The Fat Boys famous and brought hip hop into the living rooms of mainstream America. Small investment, huge payoff.
Agile startups looking to attract Silicon Valley’s brightest minds used Uber as a way to offer benefits that appealed to psyche of a 20-something engineer. Hey, work here and you’ll ride in black limousines using this cool new service called Uber. You're a rock star!
I know of a small retail fashion label in Australia and New Zealand where the social-media marketing junior thought there was something interesting in Snapchat when it only had a fraction of the user base it has now. Now it’s the label's core social-media channel, with over 75,000 followers, where it posts Snapchat-only sales and lets its models take over the channel. It's one of the company's most important conversion channels now. Tiny investment (an iPhone and 5 minutes), big payoff.
Can see the trend here?
So what should you be looking for and how do you identify a subculture that’s going to go big, here’s what Chris and Diego said.
Look for multiple catalysts
With hip hop it wasn’t just the music style that was changing. Hip hop artists were developing their language, changing the way they talked to each other and how they wrote lyrics. The fashion was changing, and it was uniquely hip hop's own style. Social norms were changing, the way people interacted and what mattered to them was unique to them. Music recording equipment was becoming democratised; inexpensive four-track recorders meant anyone could lay down a beat and throw some words over it.
All these changes became the catalysts necessary to push the subculture into a movement and eventually into the mainstream. When you identify a subculture, look at all the things around that trend to identify what’s creating the catalysts for change.
I’ve always liked to call these weak signals—the indicators that, if you look and listen close enough, you can spot. This is what creatives should be good at. We seek exposure to broad stimulus in all areas of culture, we don’t filter and we crave the different. This leads us down lots of subculture rabbit holes, where we start to see what is helping catalyse the change. If you don’t have time to spend exposing yourself to these subcultures, then lean on your agencies to inform you and take you on the journey.
Collaborate and don’t be precious
To truly embrace a subculture means to invest without being too precious. The reason that subculture is starting to simmer is that it's tapped into a new vein that others haven’t identified. It’s rich and supplies fresh new ideas. Don’t smother it or dumb it down, or else you’ll dilute your investment and it won’t pay off. In fact it could work against you.
Forget about media gatekeeper
Subcultures have their own media outlets, in the case of Snapchat and other direct-message platforms they were creating a brand new channel. You won’t be able to control the channels as neatly as you can with traditional media and matching creative, but this is a positive thing. Subcultures understand their new thing, they know what works, what its strengths are. So leverage their understanding and go with the flow.
Lots of small bets instead of waiting for the perfect one
The goal with embracing subculture is to make lots of small investments. You’re diversifying intentionally so that one of the many pays off tenfold.
So then it’s important to create a framework that supports small investments, faster turnaround times and levels of autonomy for your brand team. In a sense you’re quarantining these investments within a test-and-learn environment so they aren’t subject to the same criteria as your core marketing efforts. Everyone understands the expectations.
Niche culture will meet resistance
Make no mistake, people resist change and they fear what they don’t understand. Subcultures generally make people uncomfortable. And here, I believe, is the single biggest take-away from this talk and report: Pay attention to what people are trying to shut down.
Just this one indicator will point you in the direction of a raft of subcultures that are doing something you should take a look at. Some of them might be completely self-destructive. But more often than not they are the sign of things to come.
As you read the paper today or flick through your favourite social feed, pay attention to what people are trying to shut down. You might make one of the best investments of your brand's life.
Jay Morgan is group digital creative director at J. Walter Thompson in Sydney. The full report discussed in the SXSW talk will be released next week by Contagious in conjunction with Lapiz.