Brands & Outliers: Sensemaking at the Extremes

In this month's episode of Brands & Outliers, we're taking a broad survey of all the brands moving their categories forward, and the outliers that signal our coming future.

We're seeing 3 big themes emerge right now:

  1. Foreign Touch: We're about to feel the physical touch of AI through AI-enabled robotics, gaming and medicine

  2. Redrawing The Line of Blasphemy: We're writing new rules at the extremes with the resurgence of swearing in everyday speech, raunchy Christian brands, and criminalization of alternative meat

  3. Anxieties About Our Kids: It's not just Jonathan Haidt's campaign against phones. It's also a glut of low-grade AI content that's being fed to young minds, deepfake loopholes and antinatalism on billboards

Many of our recent episodes have circled around a sense of confusion in culture, but this one feels more like a turning point.

People and brands are having tough conversations about the future we want for ourselves, and starting to make some decisions about what we will allow, and not allow, into that picture.

What is especially interesting in this month's report is how god chatbot brands like Mark Wahlberg's Hallow, and the god-touting-money-minting personal brands of people like Hailey Bieber and Ballerina Farm are branding religion in new ways. It's bite sized, doesn't ask you to change, and preaches the prosperity gospel.

Meanwhile, a whole movement around children and mentally damaging tech is starting to gain some real steam. We'll see if Jonathan Haidt's crusade leads to actual legislation, but what's apparent right now is that he and his cohort are drawing a very strong moral line. Bad parents give their kids phones. Good parents don't.

Overall, we're in a moment of good versus evil, right versus wrong. If the past year was about change, it's possible that this year will be about choices. There's a feeling in our culture right now that, despite years of increasing fragmentation, people are ready to agree on what is allowed and what isn't... at least in some domains.

Building a brand in that kind of climate is never easy. It's important to know how people are redrawing the rules, and what that means for how they relate to the brands around them.

Escaping the Obvious

Here's what we've been consuming.

What Slutty Vegan Teaches Us About Effective Moral Marketing (The Neuroscience of...): "Morality has a branding problem... Few organizations have made as significant an impact as Slutty Vegan in adopting vegan foods. And it’s done so by challenging the traditional argument that a vegan diet should be an act of moralistic constraint. And herein lies Cole's true genius: to inspire moral behavior without making a single, moral claim."

All Together Now: The Return Of The Commune (Elle): "‘We love hippies, but an encouraging aspect is that the people who have been coming to us are not necessarily who you would have thought would be drawn to a commune,’ Ramm explains. The majority of interest comes from burnt out professionals in their thirties and forties. ‘It’s not just that modernity isn’t working for most people, but you’re paying £2,000 a month [in rent] – for what, exactly?’"

A Digital Twin Might Just Save Your Life (Noema): "The inefficiencies of the physical world, so the sales pitch goes, can be ironed out in a virtual one and then reflected back onto reality. Test virtual planes in virtual wind tunnels, virtual tires on virtual roads. “Risk is removed” reads a recent Microsoft advertorial in Wired, and “problems can be solved before they happen.”"

To escape the algorithm, fashion girls are shopping via Substack (Vogue Business): "Affiliate links and brand partnerships on Substack, plus subscription payments, are fueling a new economy of social shopping. But, while part of the platform’s appeal is its lack of overt advertising, this makes it a challenging nut to crack for brands."

Song lyrics getting simpler, more repetitive, angry and self-obsessed (The Guardian): "“Across all genres, lyrics had a tendency to become more simple and more repetitive,” Zangerle summarized. The results also confirmed previous research which had shown a decrease in positive, joyful lyrics over time and a rise in those that express anger, disgust or sadness."

Larger Than They Appear

Quick hits of insight in socially acceptable places.

Welcome Change

Creative inspirations for the other side of your brain.

I've always loved Ian Bogost's writing and insights, but I recently came across an incredible talk where he discusses the counterintuitive secret to fun. 

Fun is hard work. Fun is obsession. Fun is in the friction. 

"We've misunderstood fun to mean something like enjoyment without effort... 

It turns out, it doesn't involve making something easier by rewarding it with points as if life is some latent version of Space Invaders. Instead, fun means deliberately manipulating a familiar situation in a new way. And we can only have fun once we've accepted the truth of that situation treated it for what it is...

When you think about it, a job is made fun not by turning it into a game, but by deeply and deliberately pursuing it as a job. Jobs are fun when their work is meaningful, when their activities matter, when the act of conducting them can be done over and over again with increased adeptness...

Even seemingly stupid boring activities can be fun in the process. Maybe especially stupid, boring activities can be. Feeling that you are having fun at something is a sign that you've given it respect. And when we fail to have fun we fail to design for it too. Because we don't take things seriously enough. Not because we take them too seriously."


Jasmine Bina
Founder & CEO
Concept Bureau, Inc.