Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Findings from the Fringe

Account Planning Group Event Recap

Are cultural trends born on the fringes of society? Do "Fringers" hold the secret to future shifts in mainstream values? What does mainstream actually MEAN, anyway?

These questions and more were batted around the beautiful head office of Google Canada at the latest Account Planning Group of Canada event, elaborately titled "Are the fringes of culture more important than ever?" As the planners, strategists, and even one client(!!!) looked on, three guest speakers gave their unique perspectives on the trend-setting fringe.

Here's what we learned:

(1) Passions spread over time

First up, Michael Barry Jr., the owner of Mariposa Cycles, a high-end custom bicycle manufacturer. A former professional cyclist, Michael grew up in his parent's bike shop, living and breathing what was at that time a fairly niche hobby. As he followed his love of cycles and cycling, he became a leader in the small Toronto cycling community like his parents. Cycling WAS a fringe community, said Michael — everyone knew each other.

Not anymore.

Now, of course, cycling is a major part of mainstream culture, as is the passion for bikes and the push for more bike lanes and infrastructure. It's a way of life driven by our increased awareness of environmental issues and climate change, and as a solution for widespread health problems and obesity.

But also, of course, the pure love and joy of cycling that many people have now discovered. The same universal insight — the exhilarating feeling of freedom you get from riding a bike — that drove that tiny fringe community is the same insight that drives our mainstream love of biking and our understanding of the universal good that more cycling can do for society.

Even Mariposa, which started as an extremely niche manufacturer, is now on the verge of going mainstream, with more and more bikers interested in high-quality custom cycles.

Cycling is just one example of a fringe activity that actually had a universal insight and a universal application, and has now gone mainstream.

(2) The fringe has a lot to teach us

Next up, Matthew Lawrence, an ethnographer / anthropologist and Director of The Sound market research firm. As finding and documenting fringe communities (through snazzy, music video-style videography) is part of his business, he shared many examples of what he's learned from the fringe.

He's studied:
  • people living off the grid
  • female fight club members
  • drag queens
  • 'Victorians'
  • parkour artists
  • weed culture

Matthew called the fringe the "people that mainstream culture forgets", often because they are spread out, few in number, and not very vocal about their passions. And though they're niche in their beliefs, they aren't necessarily cultural rebels or against mainstream values, either.

That said, the passion and dedication that fringe communities have also make them very aspirational to those of us in the mainstream — we envy them, and want to adopt much of their passion and uniqueness and perspective on life. Though they may seem strange to us at first, we can feel that they're insightful and that they're on to something.

We want that, too.

An example includes the fringe community that has a passion for analog media. Not against or disruptive to digital media in any way, these people simply have a love of vinyl, CDs, and even cassette tapes — their look, their feel, their unique sound. The tactile experience of music is important to them, it represents both a physical collection and a physical connection.

That's a universal insight the mainstream also shares and, in the case of music, may eventually adopt once again.

(3) All that matters is what's popular

Lastly, Adam Green, Creative Agency Lead at Google and the contrarian of the group. To him, "mainstream" is simply a construct of the media, a term more representative of primetime TV audiences than an actual group of society.

There are NO mainstream, average consumers!

Adam argued that we are all made up of a combination of unique interests, passions, and values, something that traditional media can't possibly address. TV, for example, is inherently limited, it will never speak to the entire spectrum of human interests, even with its army of specialty channels and shows. So the idea of mainstream (primetime) and niche (specialty) is bunk.

To Adam, what's POPULAR is more important than what's mainstream.

And how do we find out what's truly popular? Well, of course. We're at Google...


YouTube, Adam said, suddenly addressed all kinds of cultural interests that mass media did not, and has revealed all kinds of formerly fringe interests that are actually more popular than mainstream ones.

For example, videogame culture and competition, especially the behaviour of watching others play and compete against each other, is extremely popular, as much as typically mainstream interests like food and the home. And these aren't all teenage boys watching — the average age of this 'fringe' community is 31(!). And yet this culture is almost completely ignored by mainstream media, including Jimmy Kimmel...

And so, mainstream culture does not necessarily equal what's popular.

We are all snowflakes, Adam said, with unique interests and a lot of passion for them. Instead of targeting mainstream interests, look for what's popular, what's lit a fire of passion among people.! Convinced yet!

Dusting off your Sony Walkman yet!!!

As event host and moderator Matt Foulk said in closing, the fringes of culture have ALWAYS been important. It's only now, with the Internet, that we have an easy way to find, study, and learn from them.

(1) Passions spread over time
(2) The fringe has a lot to teach us
(3) All that matters is what's popular

Happy hunting!

To stay updated on the next APG event, join the mailing list here.

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