Helen Edwards’ book a must for marketers

John Fanning recommends From Marginal to Mainstream, Helen Edwards’ new book on how brands can be strengthened and the way to get there

In these uncertain times even trying to stay afloat is difficult as marketers try to navigate the conflicting demands of anxious price-fixated customers, paranoid chief executives and their boards, rapacious retailers and nervous staff. The idea that a mere book – that pre-historic artifact – could actually contribute to solving the problem may seem far-fetched to most people.

However, Helen Edwards’ From Marginal to Mainstream is the most thought-provoking and even inspirational marketing book I’ve come across in a long time. It begins with a premise that all Irish marketers will be familiar with; the difficulty of achieving growth. Edwards argues that modern mainstream marketing is a low growth zone for three main reasons.

Firstly, the author writes, there is too much convergence around sectoral points of parity, secondly too much latent innovation; where managers display a cynical absence of pride in getting as close as possible to competitors offers and finally a slowdown in technological breakthroughs.

‘As legacy brands struggle, brand owners must break free from their mainstream inhibition to confront, evaluate and embrace the strangeness of behaviours, ideas and ways of life on the margins’  – Helen Edwards 

Marketing’s response is to dig deeper into the trenches of attritional warfare in an effort to become even more ‘consumer-centric’ and an obsession with increasing Net Promotor Scores. Edwards is dubious about these strategies, summarising her thoughts in a brilliant phrase.

The line deserves to be the new mantra for Ireland’s marketing departments: ‘Unless you’re ahead of the consumer, you can’t be ahead of the competition’. Apple CEO Steve Jobs made a similar point; it’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want; it’s the responsibility of marketers.

So, if all the usual suspects; market research, brainstorming, away-days and – God forbid – management consultants, are not going to be able to solve the growth dilemma, are we on our own? Not quite says the bould Edwards; by trawling through the margins looking for nascent signs of unusual behaviour we can find some answers. The now ubiquitous tattoo is a good example.

It was first introduced to the West by returning sailors from Tahiti where the word and practice originated. It was apparently adopted by the aristocracy in the early part of the 20th century, by the underworld in mid-century and by half the population by the end of the century.

But from a commercial exploitation point of view, jogging is a better example. In 1968, a local politician was jogging along a street in South Carolina and was quickly apprehended by a suspicious police officer who had never seen anyone jogging before. But within a short while, jogging went mainstream and just think of the many global brands this particular phenomenon kick-started.

Everyone from Nike to Lululemon, from Gymshark to Under Armour – not to mention the multiplicity of energy drinks like Red Bull and fashion accessories. Helpfully, the book describes 21 examples of marginal behaviour in our time which could suggest new growth opportunities.

They range from ‘new nomads’, people who permanently reside in motor homes; to ‘biohacking’; embedding tech into human bodies to create cyborg possibilities; and from ‘neo-luddites; people who reject all tech; to ‘human burials’ in gardens, backyards and on private land.

Veganism is on the list, but it has already been thoroughly mined. However, ‘insect protein’, although starting to make waves, is still ripe for further brand development. ‘Urophagia’, drinking your own urine, is quite unlikely to be a major hit in the immediate future but it does fulfil a key criterion for future success; it was practiced by the ancients, so it is not creating a new precedent.


‘Living off the sea’, harvesting and eating ocean plant kelp, should be attracting more attention from Irish food producers, given how rich we are in this resource. Some of these new behaviours; extreme frugalism, living without money as well as living off the sea and new nomads, suggest a common theme; a growing rejection of consumerism and life as we know it today.

Given the problems we currently face, it is hardly surprising but as always it does suggest opportunities for enterprising entrepreneurs. Right on cue, Edwards includes an interesting section on how to develop your entrepreneurial capacity with case histories on some of the successes.

For me, the most absorbing was how the Swedish oat milk brand, Oatly, was launched in the US and how the brand’s owners managed to overcome many hurdles. Of particular interest was the way they tackled the pack design, threading a delicate path between risible amateurism and ersatz irrelevance. The resulting artisan vernacular was to be a major factor in Oatly’s success.

Like all new marketing developments, variations of this approach have been tried before with the 1980’s craze for ‘cool hunters’ coming to mind. However, this book presents a more coherent argument and can be heartedly recommended to all marketers on the lookout for inspiration.

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School; john.fanning44@gmail.com




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