The coming of the desperate brands

A note before we begin: the below describes a trend which I’m sure is true, but which would benefit from more research than I’ve had time to do.  It references certain brands only from an outside consumer perspective – and thus does so perhaps a bit unfairly.

But still I’m not a journalist or academic, and this newsletter is about insight, not reportage, so it’ll have to do.  I’m sure you’ll get my broader point.


Like any closing-in-on-middle-age man, I’ve now reached the point in my life where I like literally every piece of music from my adolescence.

At the time I hated most of it – my tastes, like most people’s, were much more narrow and particular – but the passage of time has progressively widened them, to the point now where I’ll happily listen to anything from B*Witched to Placebo to Nelly.  Anything that taps me into that time frankly.  I’ll take it all, I bloody love it.

The reason I bring up this self-indulgent reflection is because I think it acts as a small example for how anything – not just music – achieves wider adoption over time:

It’s not the thing that changes to suit the audience; it’s the audience that changes to suit the thing.

This music has not changed in the slightest in the past 25 years.  The only thing that’s changed is me, and of course the culture surrounding the music.  These contextual changes have made me (and others) move towards music we would have previously rejected, with the music itself remaining steady and true to its original form.

I’d suggest that this same dynamic applies to anything seeking to move along the adoption curve:

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this concept; how an idea gradually moves from niche to mainstream, starting with the “innovators” (people who like to try new things for their own sake), moving to “early adopters”, then “early majority” as the mainstream starts to take hold, followed by the “late majority” and finally the “laggards” (the sort of people who are still using CDs and suchlike).

It’s a good model, but it has one big problem in it which is inherent to the way I described it above: the concept of ideas moving along the curve.

This implies that the audience remains static, and it is the idea which “travels”, but for the most part this is the opposite of what actually happens.  In reality the more true interpretation is that the idea remains static, and the audience shifts beneath it.

To give a basic brand example, Apple didn’t move along the adoption curve by adapting themselves to become more like Dell or Nokia, and therefore more mainstream.  No, instead the technology audience matured in a direction whereby Apple became more mainstream over time, without changing.  Apple didn’t go to the audience, the audience went to Apple.

This isn’t to suggest that they didn’t have agency in their wider adoption, nor that there was no strategy at play.  Naturally they made smart bets on the way the industry was going.

No, the point is that Apple didn’t have to dilute themselves or dumb themselves down in order grow.

It’s basic law of attraction stuff.  Chasing someone (a customer, an investor, a romantic prospect), and being inauthentic in order to persuade them to get with you is needy, desperate, and fundamentally ineffective.

But it’s something we’ve all been guilty of.

And moreover, something I’ve increasingly noticed brands doing.

One example I noted the other day was when Huel, the meal-replacement shakes brand, was forced to pull a series of ads which attempted flog the product as a remedy for the cost-of-living crisis.  The details of the case are fairly unimportant – basically they claimed a month’s worth of Huel would cost £50 whereas the ASA said it would actually cost £350 – fine, whatever.  What matters for our purposes here is not the ban, but the overall game Huel were trying to play.

These ads were clearly a blatant pitch to “mainstream” what has up to this point been a fairy niche, even “cult” product.  The thought process is pretty transparent: “Ordinary people (early/late majority) aren’t buying our product, so what do they care about that we can play on?  Ah yes, the cost of living.  Let’s pitch ourselves as budget product”.

There’s nothing wrong with this ethically (assuming the sums add up), or logically.  It all seems very sensible.  But where it falls down is in its backward attempt to force progression along the adoption curve, but corrupting what Huel has traditionally been all about (basically a premium and progressive tech-bro life hack), in order to become something that they think will have wider appeal to “normies”.

Now to be clear, I’m sure there is more to this Huel story than I’m aware of.  I don’t know anything about what’s going on within that particular company other than what I observe as a consumer, so I don’t want to make this an unfair criticism of them.

No, the point is only illustrative.  That this is just one of many examples that are emerging where exciting and innovative brands in the “early adopter” phase are debasing themselves in order to “hack” quick growth.

I spotted another this week with this WeWork ad:

Again, there’s a sensible idea here.  Why don’t we widen our appeal beyond startup culture to include ordinary office workers who are bored of their post-Covid work-from-home lifestyles?  Yes, this is logical.  But it also undermines what that brand is (or used to be) about: creativity, entrepreneurship, risk taking.  Not just a glorified Starbucks, which is what this is.

What I’m sensing here is desperation.

We’re seeing (theoretically) great brands who are early-ish on the adoption curve starting to lose their nerve, and so make tin-eared and frankly somewhat patronising pitches to ordinary folk who aren’t naturally aligned with their innovations.  (Or at least not yet).

Huel and WeWork aren’t outlying examples.  To me they feel entirely representative of a trend which is only going to grow stronger – as over-invested “revolutionary” start-ups begin to panic as it becomes clear that their pitch deck promises of world domination were perhaps a little overstated.

We can probably trace this trend back to the moment when tech-logic began to infect the world of bricks-and-mortar businesses, CPG brands, and so on.  It used to be that it was enough to simply build a hugely profitable and sustainable company, that provided great value to its customers, its employees, and its shareholders.  Brands like Huel and WeWork both have that potential with little bother.  But then suddenly, it seemed that was no longer enough.  Nothing less than tech-style global disruption would do.  It was’t enough to be a mayonnaise; you had to be the “Uber of mayonnaise”.  It wasn’t enough to be a gym.  You had to be the “Amazon of gyms”.

With these promises, the seeds of desperation were scattered.  And now it seems to me they’re starting to shoot.

Although I have no evidence for this, it wouldn’t remotely surprise me if Huel had promised investors that it would “make food obsolete”, or if WeWork had promised that it would “consolidate global office space under one umbrella”.  Such claims are now commonplace.  The cost of doing business almost.

And who knows, perhaps they were, or even still are, achievable.

But only if they stood their ground, owned who they are, and let people come to them.

Only if they positioned themselves to profit from shifting cultural sands, rather than abandoning that position in pursuit of an unfit audience.

This is how adoption works.

And it’s also how brands maintain their dignity.

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