Crowd DNA New York's Eden Lauffer takes aim and explores which of this year's Super Bowl ads soared - and which ones flopped...

This year’s Super Bowl can be described in one word, ‘meh’. By halftime, the score was a whopping 3-0 Patriots-Rams. The game was the lowest scoring of all time and fans were less than impressed with the halftime show. While the much-hyped ads were mostly well-received, not many stood out particularly strongly. We’ve looked into a few ads that worked well – and some that didn’t work as well.

Amazon Alexa – “Not Everything Makes The Cut”

In the 2018 Super Bowl, Alexa lost her voice, allowing celebrities to step in to help answer user questions. This year, Amazon Alexa took a similar approach, leaning on celebrities to poke fun at the voice assistant device, reminiscing on fictitious failed Alexa products such as an electric toothbrush and a dog collar.

Both playing on a theme from last year and poking fun at itself, Amazon hit the mark with this ad. The celebrities chosen for this year’s spot appealed to a wider audience, with the likes of Harrison Ford and Forest Whitaker, but also Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City. With the final season of Broad City now airing – plus a pairing with Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now,’ tapping into the Golden Globe wins for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – this makes this ad deftly pop culture relevant.

Verizon – “Team That Wouldn’t Be Here”

Like in 2018, Verizon used the Super Bowl to comment on their link to first responders. This year, they tied in NFL players who had been rescued by first responders after near fatal accidents.

An improvement from last year’s ad, this year Verizon worked off of the link to the NFL rather than just reporting how they helped first responders do their jobs. However, as with last year’s spot, claiming to be responsible for part of the work first responders do feels to be a bit of a stretch for a telecom brand.

T-Mobile – “We’ll Keep This Brief,” “What’s For Dinner?,” “We’re Here For You,” and “Dad?!”

This year, T-Mobile ran a spot in every quarter of the game, playing off the same concept – text conversations. Each spot in the series showed a common text scenario most people have experienced, paired with a brand partnership for T-Mobile users at the end. For example, in “What’s For Dinner?,” a texter struggles with how to respond to a text from their friend about what to get for dinner. The offer at the end features free Taco Bell on Tuesdays for T-Mobile users. In the fourth quarter spot, “Dad?!,” a user deals with her not-so-tech-savvy father; the end card reading, “you can’t change your dad, but you can change your carrier,” offering non T-Mobile users a chance to switch.

With a recognisably similar spot in each quarter, viewers had a reason to pay attention to each ad, staying engaged. Further, each ad built up desire to be a T-Mobile user, so when the final spot played, non-users may have been curious as to how they could benefit from T-Mobile too. In past Super Bowls, T-Mobile has run several spots, but usually poke fun at competitors. This series was far less uptight and kept viewers engaged to see what came next.

Toyota RAV4 – “Toni”

Toyota used this 2019 spot to introduce its new hybrid RAV4. The spot features Toni Harris, the first woman to be offered a football scholarship with hopes of being in the NFL. The music and tone of the spot convey female empowerment. The ad finishes with Toni driving a RAV4 hybrid, the narrator stating that assumptions have been made about her, but Toyota doesn’t stand for assumptions.

While the bulk of the spot is empowering and relevant to the Super Bowl, the brand and product it’s pushing don’t match. The closing statement of the ad speaks to those who assume SUVs can’t be hybrids. It also compares Toni Harris to a car and further, to a hybrid, causing the ad to feel confusing, off base, and a little insulting.

Pepsi – “More Than OK”

No stranger to star-studded Super Bowl ads, Pepsi’s 2019 spot featured Steve Carell, Cardi B and Lil Jon. The ad plays on the common scenario of ordering a Coke in a restaurant and being asked if a Pepsi is okay instead. Using the humor of all three celebrities, Pepsi builds up that their brand is more than okay, poking fun at itself.

While previous Pepsi Super Bowl ads flaunted their heritage, this ad acknowledged that they have a strong and unforgettable competitor. Seeing an iconic brand poke fun at its downfalls makes Pepsi feel more human. This ad also plays directly into each celebrities’ own character, taking advantage of their catchphrases rather than just dropping them into the ad.

In total, this year’s ads felt a little tired, with several borrowing tactics from last year’s, such as brand partnerships (Bud Light and Game Of Thrones) and reoccurring series (T-Mobile). Let’s hope for better, on and off the field, next Super Bowl.

Rise: The Leading Edge

Our Rise breakfast series is back for 2019. First up: how we use leading edge behaviour to predict what’s next for our clients and for mainstream consumers…

Date: February 28

Time: 8.15am-9am

Location: Crowd DNA, 5 Lux Building, 2-4 Hoxton Square, London, N1 6NU

Staying ahead of upcoming trends is vital for brands. But if you keep doing the same insight work, digging deeper into the same audiences, in the same geographies, probably in the same way as your competitors, you’ll inevitably get to the same outputs. Ideas become incremental and generic. You keep the spaces that your brand operates in small, safe and contained.

In this session, Dr Matilda Andersson, our London managing director, and senior consultant Roberta Graham explain how we get beyond those small spaces by using leading edge behaviour to predict what’s next for our clients – and, crucially, how we apply the learnings to strategies that target more mainstream consumers.

We’ll bust the common misunderstandings associated with working with leading edgers – like, why use an unrepresentative sample? Isn’t it just cool hunting? Isn’t this only relevant to niche brands?  – before moving on to the exciting ways that we collaborate with these audiences.

We’ll share ideas on how to use hashtag analysis and cast cultural gatekeepers; how to shift from working with ‘respondents’ to ‘collaborators’; how leading edge typologies are by no means limited to those of the ‘cool kid’ variety; how, through analysis of our conversations with early adopters, experts and influencers, we reach truly fresh perspectives on engaging everyday consumers.   

If you’d like to join us for leading edge conversation and croissants, please fill out this form or contact And feel free to pass this invite on to colleagues (leading edge or otherwise).

With urban environments changing rapidly, our third issue of City Limits dives into youth culture's past, present and future…

Having first delved into the urban experience in Volume One, then taken a ride into mobility in Volume TwoVolume Three of City Limits has us exploring urban living from the perspective of young people.  

It’s impossible to think of youth culture without thinking of cities. Traditionally, they’ve gone hand in hand; it’s within our urban hubs that young people have ignited new trends, with creativity delivered direct from the streets. But cities are changing – free spaces are being squeezed out, gentrification is altering their complexion – and youth culture is changing along with it. 

In this issue, we explore the history of youth culture claiming its space in the city; we pinpoint the urban tribes of today; the challenge the online world presents to the city; and highlight best-in-class examples of brands connecting with young urban trends

City Limits Volume Three is available to download here.

And you can watch the video trailer below: 

Decoding The Ads Of 18

Last post of the year from us: Crowd DNA semiotician Roberta Graham decodes some of the year’s most successful campaigns, identifying the key stylistic themes connecting them to wider culture...

2018 has been an interesting year in cultural insight. With global discussions around such huge themes as gender, sexuality, racial equality, political polarisation and the death of truth driving major shifts, there’s been no end of contradictions to get our heads around.

These factors have made a great impact on the world of advertising (Adweek ads of the year) and how brands are communicating with their consumers.

To round off the year, we’ve honed in on a few key themes, to give you a run-down of some of our favourite adverts. We’ve decoded their hidden meanings to understand why they have resonated so strongly with consumers around the world. Let’s go.

Polarisation – Black and white and everything in between

In their striking campaign featuring NFL star turned activist Colin Kaepernick, Nike used the traditional simplicity of black and white photography to communicate strength, honesty and authenticity. The exclusion of colour strips the star bare, as does the frame of the image, which focuses keenly on his facial expression, as he gazes directly back at the viewer, determined and unshaken. The caption, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,’ refers directly to Kaepernick’s forced departure from the NFL, due to his political beliefs on racial equality. This is also reflected by the pointed use of black and white imagery, which makes clear reference to issues of racial inequality, as well as the stark contrast between right and wrong. However, the greyscale of Kaepernick’s face, central to the images also represents connection between the two and offers potential for soft, empathetic and human centred change.

Truth Seeking – Comedic conspiracies

Taco Bell created an irreverent response to our post-truth society’s obsession with anti-establishment, truth-seeking documentaries in their comedic ‘Web Of Fries’ campaign. Set in the format of a movie trailer, the campaign uses classic motifs and tropes of conspiracy movies to paint the picture of an establishment cover-up of their product – Nacho Fries. This perfectly pitches Taco Bell within the zeitgeist, while maintaining their brand positioning as a playful indulgence and antidote to reality.

Liberation – Autonomy of automation

Apple, of course, made two of the most striking adverts of the year. Their Homepod advert, featuring FKA Twigs, and ‘Unlock’ for the iPhone X were both widely praised. They both leverage the themes of female autonomy and independence which have been making waves throughout culture. But the way in which this has been communicated is particularly interesting. ‘Unlock’ sees a central female character throw open her entire world using only her eyes, linking the functionality of the product directly to physical empowerment and freedom of expression. The bright block colours of the advert, primarily orange and blue, echo this by communicating ideas of democracy and simplicity. This is also reflected by the setting of a school, representing future potential and broadened horizons.

Visibility – Highlighting greatness

Visibility has been another key theme for discussion this year. Increased awareness of intersectionality drives calls for diversity in the media, beyond physical appearance alone. Brands are going out of their way to highlight the achievements of people from marginalised groups within society. One brand is doing this in the most literal sense possible: Stabilo Boss’s campaign ‘Highlight The Remarkable’ used its own product to flag up forgotten heroines across history, from mathematicians to first ladies. The iconic fluorescent yellow of the highlighter disrupts the simplicity of black and white photographs, drawing attention to those who would be forgotten among the crowd. This bestows these historic moments with a renewed vibrancy and significance. Placing the highlighter pen itself as the silent hero, this allows these stories of greatness to be retold many years later.

Gender and sexuality – Reimagining romance

Among much global discussion of gender and LGBTQ+ visibility, these themes have been reflected in advertising, as we reimagine what romance can mean. Japanese cosmetics company Shisheido created a surreal romance in their short Halloween themed film, ‘The Party Bus’. The lead character, a young girl, moves between the physical space of the bus and surreal imaginary landscapes, as she tries to choose between three romantic suitors. Each are dressed in unique costumes made up of traditional Japanese dress, classic Halloween costumes and contemporary streetwear. This communicates strong themes of self-curation and individuality among hyper-traditional tropes of ‘romance’. The film ends with the protagonist unmasking and kissing her androgynous choice of partner. This coupling drives home a message of inclusion within individuality.

With such richness across comms this year, particularly at a time when so many brands are going above and beyond to engage with wider cultural meanings, it was tricky to narrow our list down. We can’t wait to see what 2019 might bring…

The Firestarters series of events took a sharp turn in our direction this week, with insight, and its role in the planning process, under investigation. Crowd DNA’s Andy Crysell took notes.

Three great speakers, and a mix of both singular and overlapping perspectives were on show at Google’s London HQ for the Firestarters’ Brilliance & Brutalism Of Insight event. It was wonderful to hear ‘the insight’ held in such high esteem, but also a firm reminder of how often that term is used wrongly, or there in name but not in reality.

First on stage was…

Rob Campbell, head of strategy EMEA, R/GA

Rob enjoys swearing and, now that he’s back in the UK, after lengthy stints in China and the US, he’s hoping he’ll get away with way more of it than ever before.

For him, the question of whether insight is important or not is pretty absurd. Of course it’s important. To do good work, he says, you need to understand wider culture; not just zoom in on your category.

Helpfully, he also came up with fives ways not to be as boring as fuck.

1. Don’t State The Obvious

A recurring theme through the evening really, and where research work can really lose its way. Stop asking the same people the same questions. Get out in the real world and get to the ‘dirty little secrets.’

He recalled the time that, for a car brand who mistakenly thought they were held in similar esteem to Mercedes Benz, Audi and Lexus, he interviewed sex workers, who make a call on the financial status of a potential client based on the motor they’re driving. Said car brand was in no way seen in a similar light to the prestige marques mentioned. This changed the conversation.

2. Play In The Jungle, Not The Zoo

Great work needs to come from inside of culture – so get inside of culture. Get to the nuance and the texture. There’s meaning everywhere. Get stuck in.

Don’t try and appease people with insight – provoke them, create conflict. This was certainly one of the louder messages of the evening; just as it should be. There really is no excuse for tame and timid work.

3. The Work is The Sun

…Meaning insight doesn’t have to overpower all other parts of the process. Insight is never meant to be a literal dictation – it should inspire.

Slight tangent perhaps, but he commented that the folks behind the boat that was almost called Boaty McBoatface missed a trick – if they’d have gone with that name, the scope to build a narrative around the topic (cartoons, toys etc) that kids would connect with would’ve been massive.

4. Stop Thinking You’re Yoda

Don’t think that insight will solve everything. Insight can provide the directional plan but you’ve got to then add the context. The challenge is to show you’re culturally engaged, not – as too many assume – to simply aim for intellectual victory.

5. Anyone Who Says Insights Aren’t Important Is A Giant Cockerel (you get what he means)

Henry Ford was an idiot, says Rob, referencing the Detroit mogul’s famous/apocryphal “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” quote.

Rather than this being an argument for not seeking the view of others, anyone with their insight faculties switched on should be taking from this that people want to get from A to B faster – and therein was the opportunity for the automobile, not a speedier horse.

Culture is texture and nuance
Culture is texture and nuance

Dr Helen Edwards, founding partner, Passionbrand

Helen starts her talk from the angle that not all successes, whether great or small, are necessarily derived from insight, citing a number of examples (from Apple to Emirates).

By this she was largely meaning the ‘killer’ consumer insight, the singular game changer. But while, in part, she was clearly here to be the dissenting voice on the importance of insight, what she was suggesting instead, ‘outsight’, could be argued as simply other forms of insight. Such as drawing from your own team’s understanding of their customers, or from academia, or from broader cultural understanding.

As per Rob, she noted the underwhelming qualities of many so-called insights. Choice examples: “When my hair feels good, I feel good.”/“I prefer my kids to eat healthy snacks between meals.” Shudder…

We clearly need to set the bar higher, and here’s the model she works to:

Revelatory: an insight should, of course, not just be plain obvious – but it should be surprising and a little obvious at the same time. An ‘of course!’ moment, because it feels fresh, but is also in line with what you already understand about human nature.

Directive: everyone across the business knows what to do with the insight; it doesn’t just live in the abstract.

About Them, Not You: as in that too many insights are shaped from the business perspective (either in the sense of taken from stakeholder experiences or based on what the business feels it can solve) rather what’s truly coming from the audience.

Serving People: there’s only real value in an insight if it addresses an issue that’s currently unaddressed, and from the point of view of the customer.

Helen gives the example of the Golden Sleep work from Pampers. Where previously the comms message majored around issues of averting leakage and offering better movement, the insight – which then shaped the campaign – was that what people (parents and baby!) really crave is sleep (wetness being a barrier to it) and that this is where the emotional energy can be found.

Pampers, Golden Sleep
Pampers, Golden Sleep

Mark Pollard, CEO, Mighty Jungle

Mark begins, amusingly, with hip-hip, lounge jazz, Chevy Chase and Andrea Pirlo. A little hard to explain in brief, in a blog, but somehow we get from there to some well-formed views on the role of insight (again, the lens here seems primarily about the role of insight in creative development work).

Insight, he says, works in one of two ways –

1. It gives language and shape to things we kind of have on our minds already (the ‘I wish I’d said it like that’ moment).

2. Or it’s ideas that seem brand new, but that you can immediately relate to (much like Dr Helen Edwards’ point).

Mark also leaned heavily on the role of insights as sources of conflict and friction. It’s okay to tell the client they have a problem to solve. That’s not being negative – not it you are then willing to take on that problem and reach solutions.

An example of a charged, provocative insight was an interviewee telling him: “I don’t feel successful enough to be bald yet.” You don’t need to know much about the brief, or the objectives, to realise that’s the type of thing you can work with; that’s going to change current thinking.

Mark also spoke of the need for craft. To really work at shaping an insight, capturing the tension it packs in a way that others will empathise with (thus, this is most definitely not about plonking fairly random consumer quotes in a PowerPoint and thinking your work is done).

Insights, he concluded, are really important; life and death stuff. But we also take them too seriously. We’ll get more from them with a greater sense of mischief and play.

You can read more about Google Firestarters here

From Now – To Next

Victoria’s Secret’s CMO recently argued against presenting a more diverse representation of women in their shows. Crowd DNA Singapore’s Emma Gage counter-argues that projecting the ‘where next', rather than just the ‘right now’, is exactly what their powerful event platform should be for…

We love a debate about culture and brands, so thank you, Ed Razek, for giving us so much to work with. And in the same week we launch our How To Speak Woman work.  It’s like we planned it…

For those who missed the story, or who have never heard of Ed Razek: he’s the chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret and when asked in an interview with this week if they should be casting a more diverse representation of women in their shows (plus size, transsexual, older models… the list of possible ways they could be celebrating female diversity goes on) his response was a very clear: “No, I don’t think we should, because the show is a fantasy… we market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world.”

Clearly this is a PR error and, of course, Victoria’s Secret have been quick to manage the fallout. But even without uttering those words, it’s evident what Victoria’s Secret’s stance is. Every brand touchpoint – from the show to the in-store experience; from the product to communications – is a celebration of a fairly outdated, and certainly one-dimensional, view of femininity. It’s a ‘fantasy’ told through the male experience. It’s why the brand is falling out of favour with young buyers and has been for a number of years.

But it does bring up an interesting point. The topic of gender is hot right now. Debate is loud and for a number of brands it can feel more minefield than opportunity. Consumers are calling for brands to have a stance on these kinds of issues and to walk the talk in every aspect of how they operate as a company – and when they get it wrong, people are quick to call them out.

At Crowd DNA we talk a lot about the power of cultural relevance. It’s the number one measure of brand health and while not every brand can be culturally iconic, a la Nike, Google or Gap, we believe that every one has the ability to be culturally relevant, whether selling shampoo, toilet cleaner or biscuits. 

So how do brands get this magic ingredient?  And how do they balance it with selling product in the short term?   

We believe it comes from working with a more nuanced understanding of the culture in which you operate and in which your consumer exists. It can be very tempting to play it safe and to generate lots of ever deeper insight around your core (often, mainstream) consumer. You understand how they buy, how they use your product, what they do in the supermarket, why they choose your brand rather than someone else’s. They take on the persona of ‘category buyer’, as though that’s literally all they are.

But how would her broader experiences as a woman inform her role as mother, wife, care-giver? How would understanding her as a three-dimensional woman change things and allow you to represent a world that’s relatable but aspirational, grounded but still progressive. This comes from also understanding her relationships; with her partner, her friends. The things she really cares about; her dreams, her ambitions and what empowerment looks like for her. And the things that limit or constrain her today.

It’s also about a culture tap; what does the trajectory of change look like? What’s influencing it? What are the more progressive narratives that are brewing (even if she’s not currently aware of them) to forecast what her world could look like in the future. The most powerful brands pitch themselves here, in the stretch and the aspiration, not in the quagmire of the reality.

It used to come down to a decision of whether you want to create a longer-term platform for activating your brand, or just sell product today. Now the two are one and the same. It’s not CSR; it’s about aligning your brand and organisation with positive change and having equity in cultural relevance.

We believe that brands have a responsibility to do better. To understand their core consumer, but also to understand this trajectory of change and to help them get there, be that practically or through inspiration. Whether you are Nike showing crowds of bold, empowered young women running through the streets of Mumbai (‘Da Da Ding’) as a celebration of how far women have come; or Ariel challenging men to ‘Share The Load’ in the household. This work captures a zeitgeist and presents a direction for a whole organisation to get behind. This is the kind of exciting work that gets called out for the right reasons.

So back to Ed. Yes Ed, we get it. Many of the everyday consumers buying your lacy undies are thin, ‘girly girls’ or at least they wish they looked like a Victoria’s Secret model. But what are you saying as a brand? How are you representing yourself? How are you part of an evolving conversation around issues affecting women? A brand with global reach, and a high-profile platform like the Victoria’s Secret show, absolutely has the opportunity to be culturally iconic and representative of the most progressive narratives surrounding the female experience today. Otherwise it just becomes an exceptionally expensive way to sell knickers and bras.

Come and talk to us Ed – we’d love to work with you and your brand.

How To Speak Woman

Crowd DNA’s Elyse Pigram and Roberta Graham offered an early-morning masterclass in female archetypes at our recent Rise breakfast in London. Here’s the highlights...

You can download our How To Speak Woman report here.


Putting the words ‘we need to stop talking about women, and start talking to them’ into full effect, our latest Rise event opened with a short film of women discussing their thoughts on female representation. The soundbites and anecdotes were overwhelmingly negative. Not a great way to start the day, but our presenters Elyse and Roberta explained how this was to be expected when stats show that only 14 percent of women in the US and UK relate to the way they’re represented in advertising (OnePulse research for Crowd DNA).

So what is it about representing women that brands don’t always get right? Why, as Roberta pointed out, amid all the current discussions, debates and rise of movements such as #metoo, is this still happening?

The presenters explained how part of the problem is that narratives surrounding gender shift at lightning speed, which, naturally, creates a very challenging landscape for brands to operate in. What’s more, debates around womanhood are often tied to wider cultural tensions and friction, which no doubt add to an emotionally-charged atmosphere. There’s a sense of urgency for brands to ‘get it right’ and harsh punishment for those who ‘get it wrong’ or jump on the tokenistic bandwagon.

To help keep on the right track of these ever-changing expressions, Elyse and Roberta used a simple framework based on Jungian archetypes and a past, present, future trajectory. First up, they explored how traditional female archetypes have been systematically reinforcement via, yep, you guessed it: ‘the lover’, ‘the innocent’ and ‘the caregiver’. Images of scantily-clad women, creepy child-like nymphs and proud domestic goddesses were deconstructed as a ‘how not to speak to modern women’ guide, before moving onto a more hopeful discussion around present narratives of femininity.

Current expressions were shown to be about claiming and reframing female archetypes. Whether it be ‘the hero’, ‘the rebel’ or ‘the every(wo)man’ (all traditionally male reserves), women are being depicted with a ‘girls can do it too’ attitude of strength and ownership. Furthermore, as more women are shown in these ways, traditional expressions of femininity are being reframed to be more culturally relevant to the modern woman. For example, narratives of ‘the lover’ are moving beyond overt displays of sexuality and objectification, towards a more conscious sensuality and portrayal of playful, female confidence.

Wrapping up with ideas around the future of female archetypes – which, Elyse explained, are not about eradicating gender and making femininity invisible, but simply about giving voice to fluid experiences around the world – it was shown how womanhood is being reinvented. Women depicted as ‘the creator’ is an exciting archetype to look out for, as are more blended expressions of gender altogether – with women (and men) embracing pick-and-mixed characteristics from across the whole archetypal wheel.

Thanks to everyone who that came along for croissants and a chat. For those who missed it, you can download our How To Speak Woman report here.

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).