From Marginal to Mainstream

Marketing Week columnist and brand strategist Helen Edwards is the author of “From Marginal To Mainstream.” Helen discusses why marginal behaviors, practiced by small population segments, differ from trends and how they can drive product innovation and category growth. Helen also offers strategies for identifying behaviors that have mainstream potential. Listeners receive a 25 percent discount on “From Marginal To Mainstream” at use promo code BIGEYE25 at checkout.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: ​Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS: 

Helen Edwards: A marginal behavior starts with people and how they’re choosing to live their lives. And if you go to the margins and look to behaviors around that category, it can force you to just think differently rather than just landing in the same thing.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Businesses and brands are constantly seeking new ways to achieve sustainable long-term growth. In today’s episode, we’re going to explore one intriguing approach to growth, Which is to tap into consumers’ marginal behaviors, those that currently exist on the fringes, but have the potential to reshape categories. But how can you discern which consumer behaviors will remain niche and which will catapult into mainstream acceptance? Well, as you’ll hear, it’s not just about identifying those behaviors. It’s about understanding their trajectory and the underlying forces that propel them forward. The Bigeye Book Club selection for September was “From Marginal To Mainstream: Why Tomorrow’s Brand Growth Will Come From The Fringes – And How To Get There First. The book’s author is Helen Edwards, a leading authority on marketing And the cofounder of the branding agency Passionbrand, working with clients including Johnson and Johnson, MetLife, BBC Worldwide, and Avon, among many others. Helen’s first book was Creating Passion Brands,” also published by Kogan Page, and today, she’s an award-winning columnist for Marketing Week and a keynote speaker, most recently on the stage of the Festival of Marketing in London. Helen is also an adjunct professor of marketing at the London Business School and sits on the board of the UK Effies, an award program that recognizes and celebrates the most effective marketing campaigns, ideas, and strategies. To discuss how marketers can seize opportunities before they become obvious to all, Helen is joining us today from London, England. Helen, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Helen Edwards: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Adrian Tennant: Your book, “From Marginal To Mainstream,” focuses on the concept of marginal behaviors. I gave an overview in the intro, but could you explain how you define marginal behaviors and why they’re crucial for marketers to understand?

Helen Edwards: In the end, we developed our own definition of it, but what we decided was a marginal behavior should be practiced by less than 3% of the population. A minority behavior would be between 3 and 12%, and then you’re getting into the mainstream. But you can’t always know those percentages exactly, of course. But perhaps more importantly, a marginal behavior is a life choice first, not a consumption choice first, and also not linked to religion or politics. Now, why I think it’s really important for businesses, in particular, and marketers within the business to think about marginal behaviors is because of their potential for innovation and getting ahead, I think, of the consumer. I think businesses succeed when they get ahead of the consumer. And this is a way of thinking about consumers – of looking at potential new consumers – in a way that gets ahead of the consumer and, therefore, ahead of your competition. And it’s got relevance directly for innovation, but I also think for storytelling, how we communicate about our existing brands, for example.

Adrian Tennant: How do you differentiate between a fleeting trend and a marginal behavior that has the potential to go mainstream?

Helen Edwards: I think there’s probably overlap, and I’m not in the business of introducing new terminology just for the sake of it. But for me, it was important not to call this trends because I think very often a trend is often thought of as consumption-first or very much within the realm of consumption. How can we get into this trend so that we can benefit in our business? Whereas a marginal behavior starts with people and how they choose to live their lives. And in the early days, for marginal behavior, it’s a pretty inconvenient thing to do. Whereas a trend is often consumption first, like, I don’t know, metallic eye makeup or something, or it’s more sort of easy come, easy go, like rollerblading, for example. But this is about, “I wanna live my life this way, and I’m gonna do it even if it’s a bit difficult for me.”

Adrian Tennant: You kick off your book by discussing the rise of plant-based foods. Can you explain how it transitioned from the fringes to the mainstream?

Helen Edwards: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting actually because the rise of plant-based foods, the rise of veganism was probably the thing that inspired me to write the book. It’s something that I’ve been observing and thought, “This is kind of interesting. How did that happen? Could there be other marginal behaviors that could go mainstream, and how could we understand them?” So, you know, veganism itself, certainly in Western countries, has been around since just after the war. So in 1944, Donald Watson, a nondairy vegetarian – it didn’t even have a name then – started what he wanted to be a movement, basically, based on his and a few others. There were less than 10 of them. Their lifestyle choice, their decision to be a nondairy vegetarian, and it was based on their commitment to animal welfare. And they wanted to start a movement and get together and try and persuade everybody else they should also be nondairy vegetarians. They didn’t even have a name, so they called it vegan because the rationale, apparently, is that it’s the beginning and the end of vegetarian. So that was the reason for the name. Then, what was interesting about veganism was that nothing happened at all for about 60 years. So, despite Donald Watson and his team wanting to start a movement – it’s not always easy to start a movement, and it wasn’t easy for them. Nothing happened for about 60 years. It really only took off in about 2017, and there are lots of reasons why it took off. There were a combination of things that meant that veganism moved from that highly marginal choice to something a bit more mainstream.And probably the most important one is the likes of Donald Watson didn’t give up on it. You know, there were people who were committed to a vegan lifestyle, and they didn’t stop because it was so important to them. So it wasn’t a trend. It wasn’t a fad. I think probably the biggest thing was the understanding about diet changed. So, you know, in those early days, a lot of people felt that they couldn’t be a vegan because we needed meat products in our diet just to stay healthy. And I think a lot of understanding about diet changed. Then you’ve got companies beginning to kind of normalize being a vegan. Oatly is a brilliant example of that. Vegetarian and vegan options became easier. You could be a vegan some of the time. It became more dilute. And then other issues like global warming and the impact to meet production on greenhouse gases begin to push things along a bit. So the research on the story of veganism, if you like, told us a lot about what it takes for a marginal behavior to become mainstream and what you might look for if you’re looking at other marginal behaviors.

Adrian Tennant: Helen, how did you select the marginal to mainstream or M2M behaviors you identified in the book?

Helen Edwards: Well, to be honest, when I started writing the book, and I’ve said a couple of times, there was team of us who were on it. It takes quite a lot of work. It was all a bit vague, to be honest. I had in my head the idea about marginal to mainstream and veganism. I wanted to see, “Are there other behaviors out there that we would call marginal? Can we understand more about what propels marginal behaviors into the mainstream?” So we were running sort of 2 parallel pieces of research at the same time. And I, in fact, hired a a TV documentary researcher and gave her a brief saying, “This is what a marginal behavior is. Can you find any more?” And so she went out looking for marginal behaviors and interviewing people who took part in them. And in fact, every chapter now has a little piece from her about a particular marginal behavior and often has a direct interview with the people she met. But, you know, we found 47 in total. They’re listed in the book, actually, right at the end of the book. There’s a table with them all on, from polyphasic sleeping to free birthing to uniform wardrobe. And that was only in the Western world, actually. We ran out of time. We ran out of money. We didn’t have enough time to look in other cultures as well. And obviously, not all of those are gonna become mainstream, but that is how we started. So we started with the definition, and then we went out to look for more. And that that was how we did it.

Adrian Tennant: Another behavior you write about is no soaping. How can reframing change perceptions about this and other behaviors?

Helen Edwards: Yeah. No soaping is a good one, isn’t it? It’s interesting. So no soaping is obviously not using traditional sort of detergents on your body and on your hair, basically. I did a live session on the book at one point, and we asked a live audience about no soaping. I work with a research company, and we produced a scale. So we put twenty behaviors through a model that the research company had developed through quali-quant research, and then we produced a scale of the top twenty. Now, what was interesting about no soaping was it wasn’t in our top 20. If I was gonna do it again, which I may well, I’ll put it in. So we use it as a live example and we did a live scale with it. We said to people we described we said, “We’re gonna talk about no soaping,” and you immediately get “Oh, that’s disgusting!” But it was only when I then said, “Oh, yeah. But let me just tell you the reason why people do it. The reason why people do it is because our skin and hair microbiome is just as important as our gut microbiome, and we know a lot about our gut microbiome. And actually using a lot of detergents on our skin and hair is not the optimum way to look after our skin and hair microbiome.” And then everyone goes, “Oh, okay.” And so what happened then with no soaping is when we did a rough and ready piece of research with an audience, it actually appeared about halfway up the scale as one of those behaviors that would have potential. But it’s got potential when people understand a little bit more about it.

Adrian Tennant: Could you give us an overview of the eight M2M beacons?

Helen Edwards: Yeah. And I’m sorry, there are eight of them. That’s quite a lot. So basically, one of the key things that I wanted to do was to give people a way to read these behaviors better. Because I don’t know about you, but whenever I see a trends presentation, you look at all of these trends, you’re going, “Well, how am I supposed to know which one of those actually really is gonna take off, and how could I analyze it in the context of my own category?” And so the idea for the beacons was to give people a way to understand the potential of a behavior better. So these eight beacons, and we called them beacons because they’re not all equal. They’re like signs, signals, clues, and motifs, a lens through which you could look at a behavior and understand its potential better. And there are 8 of them, which is not ideal – I realize this! It would be better if there were a kind of rule of three to this, but there are eight. And I think if you use all eight, you then end up with a pretty deep understanding of the potential of that behavior. So I’m gonna I’ll run through them quickly. The first 2 really important beacons actually are intensity and resistance. So intensity is the degree to which the people who are doing it now feel very strongly about it and their commitment to it, if you like. So, if you think about Donald Watson and his commitment to animal welfare and his choice about that, his intense commitment and the people around him were important. Now, the reason intensity is important from the few is because without intensity, you won’t get traction. So if you haven’t got a small group of people who are really committed to it, who are willing to make their lives pretty inconvenient and perhaps more expensive to choose this particular behavior, then you won’t get traction. It will just disappear and go. It will be more like a trend. It’s like, “Oh, I’ve done that,” or “It’s too difficult, I’m not gonna do it.” So intensity is the commitment of the few. Resistance is the rejection of the mainstream. Now, of course, it wouldn’t be marginal if there weren’t a mainstream of people sort of going, “Well, that’s not for me.” But what’s important is you need to understand what’s going on underneath that initial resistance. Basically, you need to know what type of resistance you’ve got. So, intensity number 1, resistance number 2. Misalignment is number 3, and that’s to understand whether or not what’s going on here is a misalignment between why the intense few believe this is a good thing to do. And very often, they think they would like more people to do it because they believe in their lifestyle choice. Sometimes, what we see is their reason to do it is misaligned with the mainstream’s reason not to do it. So, if I give you an example, this also happened in veganism. So, for the intense few, the reason to do it was animal welfare. The reason not to do it was the belief that I need animal products in order to stay alive, to be healthy. So, in a sense, what you’ve got is the two parties just talking across each other. And you’re never gonna get past that. You must do this because it’s horrible to animals. I can’t do it because I need animals. Homeopathy is a similar example, actually, which is that you’ve got the scientific community saying, “It doesn’t work,” and then you got the homeopathic community going “It does work!” They just sort of talk across each other instead of perhaps acknowledging that there’s a role for homeopathy rather than going head to head with clinical solutions. So misalignment is where the mainstream and the intense few are talking across each other, and there’s no meeting there, if you see what I mean. So we’ve got intensity, resistance, misalignment. Reframing is a way to get around misalignment, actually, and that’s where marketers and agencies themselves have got agency because this is where we can use our ingenuity, our imagination to reframe, to basically put a different perspective to what people are seeing. So, I talked about homeopathy, whereas, at the moment, it tends to go head to head with the clinical world of medicine. The clinical world going, “It’s not proven, it doesn’t work.” Homeopaths going, “It does work.” Whereas, in fact, maybe a way to reframe homeopathy is to say where homeopathy’s power lies is as a placebo releaser in a sense. It works as a new human therapy, and it works really well. But that might work. It might not. But thinking about how to reframe to come across that misalignment is where marketers can apply their skills.

Adrian Tennant: I think we’re at four beacons, so let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Helen Edwards, an award-winning expert on brand positioning and brand strategy and the author of the Bigeye Book Club selection, “From Marginal To Mainstream.” Helen, we just discussed the first four of those marginal-to-mainstream beacons. Could you take us through the remaining four?

Helen Edwards: So after reframing, we have vectors. So vectors are basically if you can see a subculture where this particular behavior is part of that bigger subculture. So, punks, for example, part of being a punk was also to be a vegan. Now, what happens is the subculture works almost like a vector into the mainstream. So punk kids would introduce their families to the notion of veganism because it was part of punk culture or being a hippie and meditation. So vectors are like subcultures that sort of bring that behavior or could into the mainstream. Accelerators are things from the external environment that could give this behavior a shove, and you need to look out for them. So legislation changes, natural events, new information, new science. Reversal is rare but worth looking for. It’s when the reason not to do it becomes the reason to do it is like a switchback. And when you get that switchback, it’s really powerful, and I think we did see that in veganism, actually. You know, there was a reason not to do it. “I need animal products to stay alive.” Actually, then science told us almost the complete opposite – that it would be better to eat plant-based food for our health. Exercise for its own sake is another classic one of them, and people just didn’t exercise for its own sake. You know, jog, go to gyms and stuff. They didn’t need to because work and being alive did it for them. So by the time you’d gone and done what was probably a manual job and then hand-washed your clothes or mowed the lawn without an electric lawnmower in the fifties and the early sixties, you didn’t need to do any exercise. You needed to rest, then there was a switch back. Work became more sedentary. We got labor-saving devices. So then you did need to exercise because you weren’t getting it anywhere else. So that was like a reversal. It’s like a switchback, and that’s when something really shifts fast. So, it’s one that’s really worth looking at. And the last beacon is dilution, and that’s usually as a behavior is becoming more mainstream. A marketer or a brand can find ways to bring bits of it or light versions of it to the more mainstream population. So, again, we’ve we’ve seen this in veganism. Now, you don’t have to choose to be a vegan for your entire time. You can be a vegan for one meal, or you can choose the vegan option on a particular day. It’s a way to dilute something to make it easier for the mainstream to take part in it because they kinda want to, but they don’t want to go all the way to the intense few. So that’s eight: intensity, resistance, misalignment, reframing, vectors, accelerators, reversal, and dilution. If you take a behavior and you refract it through each of those beacons, it gives you a very sort of methodical way to analyze it and understand its potential, and that was my intention with them.

Adrian Tennant: Excellent. Are there any marginal behaviors that didn’t make it into the book, but you saw on the horizon and maybe still have a good chance of becoming mainstream?

Helen Edwards: Oh, it’s an interesting one, actually. I think there probably are some that we just didn’t get to because they weren’t in our sort of immediate cultural environment. And by that, I mean we just didn’t have the resources or the time to go looking in particular in Asia, Africa, the other continents, and other cultures, and I would very much like to have done that and may well still do it. So I’m sure there are, actually. I think because these behaviors are lifestyle choices, as I said, we found 47 of them, and they’re all in the book. I don’t think we’re gonna see lots coming in and out each year. I think what we will see is the status of various ones of them changing over time. So because they are life choices, you wouldn’t expect nuance to keep coming in and out each year, but I think we’ll see the status of them changing, and that’s what I’m kind of interested in. If there were one that I think I don’t even know whether it’s marginal – it might be minority even – is I think there is a behavior which, at the moment in my head, I’m calling “Living for longevity,” which is doing lots of things. It’s a lifestyle choice, which is specifically not to live for a long time, but to live well for a long time. And there are trends within it. So I think a trend within it, for example, is cold water swimming or cold water bath things that people buy. There are things within it that I think are more like trends, but I think that overall choice of, “I wanna live my life in a way that means I can live for as long as is natural to me, but in the best possible health.” I think that’s one. Whether it’s marginal, it might actually be minority. I don’t know. Is one that we didn’t include, but probably should have and could have.

Adrian Tennant: From Marginal To Mainstream” was published at the beginning of this year. What are some common misconceptions or challenges you’ve encountered when discussing marginal behaviors with brands or marketers?

Helen Edwards: It would be, “Why is this different from trends? Aren’t you just talking about trends?” And I’m really not. If I were, I’d be the first to admit, “Yeah. You’re right to find an angle on trends.” I think this is very different, and I stand by that. I think the other thing is the slightly counterintuitive not coming in through consumption. You know, we, as marketers and businesses, are all about “What can I sell? What’s going on in consumption?” Whereas what we’re saying is “Come away from consumption. Think about people and how they want to live their lives, and then come back to how we could help them do that better.”  I think also the other thing is it’s a way of thinking that we can use very flexibly. So I think when I’ve talked to businesses about it a bit, some of them have gone, “Oh, but I’m not in beauty, so that’s not really relevant to me,” on, say, no, soaping, for example. Whereas I think you’ve got to think very simply because there are three ways that you could use marginal thinking. The first one is literally to inspire innovation. So you come straight down the line at it. You are in beauty, and you probably ought to be thinking about, you know, using fewer detergents. I think Head and Shoulders just have. I’m pretty sure they’ve just launched something actually that is around this area. So you could come straight down the line at it. The other thing is to think obliquely about it. So, for example, if you take something like Wicca, which is modern-day witchcraft, I think the way to think about that is what is this telling us about a really important audience and how they’re thinking and feeling? So it tends to be young women who are quite interested, not always, but quite interested in Wicca. And rather than think, “Oh, I’m in fashion or I’m in beauty. Maybe I should be producing kind of witchy, spelly-type stuff.” I think the way to think about something like Wicca is what is it telling us about this audience? Well, it’s telling us quite a lot about what they value about things like spiritualism, empowerment, togetherness, storytelling, and rituals. Now, if you think about that, you could take that into many categories and think about “How could we respond to that?” So I think the second thing is to think flexibly about a marginal behavior and what it’s telling you about a future audience. I think the other way you can use marginal behaviors is literally to inspire new thinking. You know, there are some categories we all work in that just feel so stuck, where the whole category makes the argument around the same thing. And if you go to the margins and look to marginal behaviors around that category, it can force you to just think differently rather than just landing in the same things like in laundry before Unilever broke through with the kind of “Dirt Is Good,” and made it about parenting. It’s always been about white and whiteness. And, you know, for example, I do quite a lot of work in pain in analgesics. It’s always about getting rid of the pain fast so you can get on with your day. Well, you know, there are people on the margins who are embracing pain in their life as a rite of passage. What could that tell us about maybe having a different conversation about pain and breaking away from our competition? So, I think it’s about thinking flexibly about how marginal behaviors could help us in the business.

Adrian Tennant: Helen, your career successfully combines the business and academic worlds of marketing, consulting with your agency Passionbrand, teaching at the London Business School, and writing regularly for Marketing Week, for whom you’ve recently launched a mini MBA in management. What kinds of material are you teaching in the mini MBA?

Helen Edwards: Well, I think the first thing to say is that I actually don’t teach at all on the mini MBA in management; I’m the sort of host and the guide because the teaching part of it is done by subject area experts. So very like a regular MBA. What the mini MBA in management is, it sort of parallels, if you like, those core courses that everybody has to do. So everyone has to do finance and accounting and organizational behavior and innovation and negotiation and strategy. And basically, what the team did at the mini MBA management is scoured the globe to find the best subject area experts, the best professor in that particular area, and ask them to produce a condensed version of the core elements that you would teach to an MBA student. And they’re the people who teach. Now, what I do is I make the links because it’s primarily marketers who are doing it. I’m there to draw the links together, so to say, “Listen: you’ve heard about best practice decision analysis and and the models and the ways of doing it. Now, how would we apply that in marketing? Let’s think about this for a minute.” And similarly, when it comes to analyzing financial data, “Okay, you’ve learned the fundamentals of how to analyze financial reporting. How should we be using that in marketing?” So that’s the role that I play, basically.

Adrian Tennant: In what ways do you foresee artificial intelligence-based tools supporting quantitative and qualitative research in the context of brand marketing?

Helen Edwards: Yeah. This is an interesting one, isn’t it? It’s using generative AI to get your answers really rather than people. I mean, I think we’re in the very early days of this, and it’s one to watch, actually, definitely, and I would expect it to get better. I was very recently reading a piece from Kantar actually where they’ve done an experiment where they’ve done the same questionnaire, if you like, on an actual sample and a synthetic sample to look at the difference. And there were some weird biases in the synthetic example, which is what you’d expect. But I don’t think we should be rubbishing it at all. I think it’s got value. It’s just like any research; it’s knowing what its downsides are. I mean, you know, any research that we do, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative, isn’t some sort of truth. You know? It’s what we get on that day with that sample. I think using synthetic audiences or AI-based research will have its own advantages and disadvantages that we should be aware of, but I think it will become a very useful tool.

Adrian Tennant: “From Marginal To Mainstream” is a great place to start, but what advice would you give to marketers and brands looking to stay ahead of the curve?

Helen Edwards: Well, I think I’m gonna be obvious here, which is to say, I think this is not easy. And I think our job is to stay ahead of not just the competition but also consumers. That is what marketers and businesses need to do to succeed. If all we do is just do what consumers tell us to, rather than staying ahead of where they’re going and serving them better and adding value to where they wanna go with their lives. What we have to do. Now how do we do that? Well, this is about seeing what’s coming and avoiding being on catch-up. And I suppose I would say that thinking about marginal behaviors and integrating marginal behavioral analysis into your innovation plans, into your approach to marketing, is a way of doing that. So, it’s not easy to stay ahead of the curve. We generally do it by thinking about trends if you like, or we look for a disruptive innovation from our innovation teams. What I’m saying is don’t stop doing those things. They’re great as well. But think about marginal behaviors because I think they’ve got something to offer, too.

Adrian Tennant: Helen, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you, your consulting, teaching, or writing, what’s the best way to do so?

Helen Edwards: I think definitely on LinkedIn. So, of all the social media platforms, I’m probably the most active on LinkedIn. So please do reach out to me on LinkedIn, and I will always respond.

Adrian Tennant: And if you’d like a copy of Helen’s book, “From Marginal To Mainstream,” you can save 25 percent when you order directly from the publisher at using the promo code BIGEYE25 at checkout. Helen, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Helen Edwards: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Helen Edwards, the cofounder of Passionbrand and author of “From Marginal To Mainstream.” As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at, just select ‘podcast’ from the menu. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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