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SXSW 2016

Niche: The New Mainstream

“I’m off to Southby. I’ll be bringing back the future,” I announced a few days ago to one of my more punchy colleagues at the London HQ of my global activation agency. “The future of what?” he quipped. “Southby’s just a niche.”

He didn’t yet know that his would be the year in which 35,000 Southby Interactive participants would listen to a keynote on Day One by none other than President Barack Obama.

As cyber-punk novelist and futurist Bruce Sterling put it four days later, in his closing remarks, “Now, in its 30th year, Southby, matured, was visited by the very top of the food chain of the pundits. The only higher up would be the Pope.”

The Internet itself was once a niche pursuit by computer programmers. The Internet got Obama elected. And is not Obama himself a triple triumph of what was once niche (intellectual, black, arch-leftist), now become resolutely mainstream?

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Obama relaxed in the company of mostly benevolent well-wishers as his new mainstream now finds itself threatened by even newer niche challengers. The Bush dynasty is dead. The Clinton dynasty severely harassed. The Democratic challenger is not a Democrat. And the Republican challenger is a reality-TV star who is not a Republican.

The American political mainstream has vanished in the space of a year. The establishment didn’t listen to its public and the public is voting with its attention span. The mainstream is an illusion, the illusion that things won’t change – or will agree to do so at a pace we find comfortable.

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VR was a niche technology in the 90s but now, as the founding editor of Wired, Kevin Kelly, observed, it’s going to become an irresistible force thanks to vastly cheaper processors, high-res screens and accelerometers that the smart phone explosion made possible. And…Boom. It’s now possible to build shopper experiences, activations, entertainment and social networking all on it. Consumers love it and want to see as much of it as they can.  Case histories abounded of how to use it for brands and among the many activations you could visit at this year’s Southby, the “it” item was a VR headset.

Remember when SnapChat was a niche marketing tool? Remember when Kansas City used to have more Burger Kings than yoga studios? When the world had more toilets than mobile phones?

And then there’s “Friendertainment,” the trend in which we rely increasingly on our network of friends for our entertainment needs making each of us learn to cultivate a profile of being a bit unique and quirky…a niche of our own. Together we form the new mainstream, full of passionate niche energy.

Maybe what marketers call niche is no more than “the sum of our fears.” But as Under Armor’s Kevin Plank put it, “No one ever won a horse race by yelling Whoa.”

So what transforms something that starts small into a movement and what transforms the movement into something that becomes palpably mainstream?

Malcolm Gladwell notwithstanding, there’s no magic formula for this. But it is possible to spot three big themes behind the transformation: Purpose. Passion. Participation. People are up to something new and important that provides us with an alternative to the same old, same old; their passion is contagious and they give the rest of us a way to participate.

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Take the food truck phenomenon. Their meteoric rise coincided with the social media explosion. Traditional sit-down restaurants were the same old. Someone used the low entry barriers of what used to be called roach coaches to offer us a taste of something unusual. It was so good we put up with the absence of air conditioning and bathrooms to have that experience. The people making it for us showed passion. They gave us a way to be participants. We liked their stuff. We followed them. We raved about them to our friends. Now you can find them at Disneyland. It doesn’t get any more mainstream than that.

Here’s the question for brand marketers: where are the sub-groups, the alternative forms, the band of outsiders your brand can help advance? Do their values amplify your brand’s values? Then get involved and ask how you can help. It’s not just about underwriting stuff, it’s about asking them: where do you want to go with this? How can we help? Let the passion they have infect your own brand’s culture. Get caught up in it. Care. Share. Not everything you invest in will turn to gold but some of it will and you will have been there at its inception – you won’t be ‘The Man’ trying to cash in. You will understand why Kevin Plank of Under Armor says, “culture always eats strategy for breakfast.”

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This is what I learned listening to talks given by Chris Barth, editor of Contagious magazine and Philippe von Borries, founder of, the latter now reaching over 120 million Millennial women all over the globe. And I saw it in action when Nick Fairbairn, VP of Brand Marketing at Dollar Shave Club showed how he has built a host of online influencers and given them the freedom to share about his brand in a way that’s relevant to theirbrand.

I saw it in action again when I witnessed how AT&T had skillfully become a sponsor of “Shut up and Go,” a YouTube channel of adventure travel ideas from the rising YouTube star Brazilian immigrant Jo Franco. Lots of brands had approached her and they usually started the conversation with a list of things they wanted her to say about their brand. AT&T showed up and said, “What do you want to do next?” That blew her away. The connection with the brand was a no-brainer and plenty of opportunities rapidly appeared for organic, natural brand visibility (they’re traveling, pulling out their mobiles everywhere they go).

Cadillac was big, fat and well established back in the day. Then the German brands took it away from them. Now Cadillac is back with a hot product line up. Their Director of Brand Strategy, Melody Lee, held the dais with her design partner, John Bricker of Gensler and her neuroscience guru, Dr. James Thompson of Evoke Neuroscience. She told the story of how she is treating Cadillac as a niche brand that will give its new owners niche passion. The folks at the plant want her to tell everybody how good the product is but all of her learning is you’ve got to lead with emotion, first then follow with RTBs. Which is why the brand is hot again with its brand campaign on the theme of “Dare Greatly.” Here:

Purpose. Passion. Participation.

Richard Wise is Geometry Global’s Chief Brand Anthropologist. Click on his complete SXSW recap on tumblr.

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