The power of an unfashionable business

There’s a theory in music which suggests, broadly speaking, that there have been no significant new genres created since the advent of the internet. Whilst no rock n’ roll song could ever have been written in the 40s, no disco song could have been written in the 50s, and no grunge song could have been written in the 70s, all songs we have today could have been written in the 90s. In other words, musical evolution has stalled. Now clearly many people would vigorously dispute this claim, but that’s a conversation for another time. What matters here is the principle behind this theory: namely that the more information you can access, the less creative you become because of the pull of fashion.

The way it works is that generic leaps are created by isolated communities with limited access to other versions of their art form. Limited peer pressure if you like. Because they don’t have anything to copy, their creativity takes on far more original forms, whilst communities with lots to copy can’t help but simply rehash what’s all around them. Nowadays, in our connected world, there are virtually no pockets of “cultural poverty” from which original expression can bloom, thus condemning music to an infinite cycle of remixes and retro mash-ups from which it cannot escape. That’s the idea, and on paper it’s a compelling one.

What I want to put forward here is that a similar thing has happened in business, whereby our vast knowledge of industry norms and trends is progressively narrowing the types of companies that get created.

Many of us are already somewhat aware of this clustering effect, at least within specific categories. This is where the idea of “category norms” comes from – tropes that businesses in a given sector tend to repeat and cluster around, often for no good reason other than herd mentality. So for instance in the world of condiments, if you look across the brands that populate it, there is an almost blanket adherence to the benefits of “tradition” and “doing things properly”, often manifested in psudeo-Victorian imagery and language. Is there any reason why sauces can’t be modern and edgy? Not really, but it’s not the norm so people tend not to think of it – and moreover they don’t even realise they aren’t thinking of it. This is why breaking category norms can be so effective; it enables you to be distinctive with very little effort. Method are one of the most obvious examples of this approach, successfully producing products like bleach and laundry detergent in attractive packaging that looks more at home in a fragrance cabinet than the cleaning aisle. In hindsight it seems an obviously a good idea – but it’s not easy to break a thought patter everyone’s trapped in.

Now, profound as category norms are, we can take things a step further and suggest that norms are now bleeding across categories. Different businesses in entirely different sectors are starting to look more and more alike, not only diminishing their distinctiveness but leading them to criminally underserve vast chunks of their potential markets.

This process was pithily illustrated by Mark Ritson, decrying the unimaginative use of “brand purpose”, one of the primary contributors to clustering:

“Do you want to ‘inspire moments of optimism’ or ‘make today great’ or ‘get more out of today’ or ‘inspire the human spirit’ or ‘make everyday life better’ or ‘create a more positive future’? So much for differentiation if you are Coke, Kellogg’s, Barclaycard, Ikea, Starbucks or Futurebrand.”

All of these businesses are suffering a strong social pull to be a certain way, to say certain things, to appeal to certain people – and it’s doubtful they even realise that this process is happening, since it’s unlikely they’d go along with it strategically if they did. Everywhere you care to look, businesses are converging on the fashions of our time, becoming more tasteful, more design-led, more performatively ethical, more urban, more healthy, and more hipster-ish. This makeup is great now and again, but not when everyone is doing it, as there are so many other ways for a business to be.

A brand that illustrates this perfectly – because it doesn’t fall into the trap – is Monster energy drinks. Monster are a brand that, from a consumption perspective, barely register on the radar of the taste-makers who control business and media, primarily because they adhere to none of these tropes. Their appeal is more, shall we say, “redneck”: very male, health-unconscious, not necessarily urban, and un-idealistic. This alternative focus makes Monster appear quite weird, not only by the standards of the beverage industry, but business in general. They look like a throwback to the days of lads mags and hot hatches; of Tango and Pot Noodle. Just look at this whole aesthetic:

They are relentlessly unfashionable. But that’s not the same thing as unprofitable. Monster have recently broken the $1billion net sales barrier; an extraordinary accomplishment you’d think for a brand that supposedly serves a cultural “niche” nobody else bothers with.

The truth here is that Monster are successful in large part not in spite of being unfashionable, but because of it. There are no pastel colours or promises to “make the everyday extraordinary” here, and that makes them stick out like a sore thumb in modern context. This is something you’d perhaps rather avoid as an individual, but as a brand it’s essential, since if you can’t pass the noticeability threshold everything else after that is pointless as nobody’s listening.

Not only that, Monster recognise that in real life most people themselves are unfashionable. There are a lot of different kinds of people out there, but many of them have few brands that culturally reflect them, whilst a handful are courted by a disproportionate abundance. Of course, it’s not like people shop exclusively in their “tribe” – the vast majority of brands are indistinct enough to appeal to a broad cross-cultural swathe of people. But if you are looking to create a company that is culturally relevant, as many these days seek to do, then you can profit from looking past the fashionably dominant culture.

The moral of the story then, is to pay a little more attention to what’s uncool. Give your business a “fashion audit”, with the goal not being to become more fashionable, more in line with the times, but less. Ask yourself how strongly your product might appeal to anyone who isn’t an “experience seeking millennial”, or “busy mum”. Try being a little less tasteful and a little more tasteless. Stop learning from other people for a moment, and incubate yourself from what Wired and Fast Company and Forbes are talking about. Because, with businesses as with people, fashion is not how we express our individuality – it’s how we hide it.

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