Engaging The Leading Edge

Crowd DNA Singapore's Emma Gage recently presented at the Qual 360 conference on how we leverage the ‘leading edge’. It’s a powerful way to see categories, consumers, brands and products from different perspectives, she explains...

We often receive briefs that aspire to transformation; communications that will kill the competition, reinvention of flagging categories, the re-writing of brand stories to carve out potent spaces, or the development of new product and service ideas that will change the game. Everyone wants something new and fresh. But, generally, insight strategies are focused on the core: the mainstream consumers that are likely buying the product day-to-day.

Yes, Crowd DNA also spends a lot of time understanding core consumers; purchase journeys and decision-making; existing rituals, routines and behaviours. But we also know that ‘consumers’ (in the purist sense) can be limited in what they can provide us with. We know from behavioural economics that action mostly precedes attitude and certainly any changes in deeper values.

This is true the world over, but especially in Asia where contextual change happens rapidly and where there can be significant differences in lives lived even between siblings.  Consumers will struggle to articulate ‘why?’, no matter how deep you dig, and imagining ‘what could be?’, rather than just ‘what is’, is an even bigger ask.

The role of cultural understanding

This is where cultural understanding comes in; having the ability to look at what’s happening on-the-street, working back to the bigger trends and then the more fundamental macro changes being represented. For this we read, we keep up to date with various academic and cultural texts, we speak to our CrowdStars network of academic and cultural experts and we formulate a perspective on what’s happening with femininity, masculinity, the modern family, youth and so on. But what brings ‘cultural intelligence’ and ‘consumer reality’ together in the most powerful way is the ‘leading edge’. 

We engage them as consumers in their own right, finding out how they’re living their lives in different ways and the factors that are motivating them. We use them as on-the-ground scouts or citizen journalists, to observe and chart change; we use them for their perspective and their ideas, as ‘fresh brains’, sparks or controversial voices that will inject something different to the mix and will help to shake us all out of old ways of thinking. Or we use them as cultural gatekeepers; they may have a following, or create content that influences others and we’re interested in them engaging the people they know on our behalf.

Insight as disruptor

To see the value in these kinds of approaches requires a bit of a re-set of the role of insight. It moves it from directional intelligence, to disruptor and provocateur. For clients with a sense of adventure it can, if wielded in the right way, lead to very exciting new spaces.

The common fears are…  ‘aren’t these people a bit random, they have no relationship with my consumer and how will that help me sell shampoo?’  ‘Isn’t this just about the cool kids hanging out at skateparks, it’s probably only relevant for youth brands.’

While, yes, we do a lot of this work for the more typical ‘cool categories’ and for brands interested in youth and staying on-trend, we contend it’s just as relevant for biscuits, for shampoo and for laundry. Every brand should be aspiring to cultural relevance and if there’s a job of transformation to be done, doing the same thing you’ve always done won’t cut it. Seeing your category, your consumer, your brand and your product via a different perspective is powerful.

Leading Edgers take many forms, but they’re always relative to a market, to a category or to a brand. They are real people who also do their grocery shopping, but we’re engaging them because they have a different way of seeing things, or behave differently to the mainstream, or are just more in touch with fast cultural change.

Context and purpose

It has to happen in context, with a clearly defined role and reason for being. We use cultural understanding and trends work to inform who is needed and how we’ll do it. And once that is clear, we cast them. There’s more info on how we go about it here, but, in short, they aren’t a sample; they are a curated set of people representing a way of thinking, a lifestyle, a personality, maybe a category relationship (sometimes core, sometimes a different category) and a level of interest in what we’re trying to do.

Sometimes we work with the leading edge in short and snappy ways (to bring different angles to workshops, for instance) but, when we’re engaging them long-term, we have to keep them energised. We all know a relationship that’s purely transactional is probably going to be fairly empty and short-lived. So we give communities and networks a name and a sense of identity. We explain the bigger purpose and their role within it. We keep them entertained, interested and feeling useful.

We’ve done this kind of work for sneaker companies, manufacturers of contemporary Swedish furniture, for whisky, tech and for the travel industry. We now hope we can inspire a few more categories and brands to see what it can produce for them.

For more info on how we conduct leading edge work, reach out to Emma Gage (Singapore) Hollie Jones (New York) | Dr Matilda Andersson (London).