Pop Helen Edward's new book onto your reading list

Richard Hytner, Adjunct Professor of Marketing, delves into Marginal to Mainstream: Why Tomorrow’s Brand Growth Will Come from the Fringes


Marketing faculty members were asked recently what marketing book they would take to their desert island. I was sorely tempted to pick the complete works of Adam Morgan, the bard of challenger brands. Instead, I chose Peter Watson’s The History of Ideas because unlike the mighty Morgan’s corpus, I have not read it countless times. In fact, I have never been close to finishing it; so vast is its scope and word count. 

Given half the chance to hustle for business on the island, my choice would have been different. I spent 12 fulfilling years cheerleading for Kevin Roberts’ Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands. Whilst it would not make the cut with my academic colleagues, it was – and remains – a source of endless inspiration. Brands that earn their customers’ loyalty beyond reason deserve their significant premium. As long as they pay attention to the rules of brand growth evidenced by Byron Sharp in How to Grow Brands (and its ingeniously titled sequel, How to Grow Brands 2). I came to these rules shamefully late. In mitigation, I failed every science exam I took at school, so it took considerable exposure therapy to overcome the naked fear induced by the science word. 

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“Marketers and business leaders would be wise to confront, evaluate and embrace the strangeness of behaviours, ideas and ways of life at the fringes”

Dr Helen Edwards attributed her choice of desert island reading – Jogging by William Bowerman and W.E. Harris – to its ‘constant reminder that to stay ahead of the competition, you have to stay ahead of the consumer.’ She went on to explain that the book was written in 1968 when exercise for its own sake was pretty much unheard of. One of the authors, William Bowerman, struggled to find the right shoes for this unusual activity, so he worked with one Phil Knight to start an athletic footwear distribution company. In 1971 the company changed its name to Nike. 

Helen uses this story – and an abundant array of irresistible others – in her brilliant new book, Marginal to Mainstream: Why Tomorrow’s Brand Growth Will Come from the Fringes – and How to Get There First. In today’s impossibly commoditized, ever converging business world, she says, marketers and business leaders would be wise to ‘confront, evaluate and embrace the strangeness of behaviours, ideas and ways of life at the fringes, where people variously take a 20-minute nap every four hours around the clock; are tempted to dabble in the delights of insect protein; even drink their own urine.

I was sharing Helen’s thesis with Philip Norman, best known for his biographies of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly and Elton John; a world class author and journalist, too. He rewarded me with a story from the newspaper business. Asked by a colleague when he’d first suspected he had diabetes, Milt Machlin, a tough old New York newspaper man, replied: ‘I think it was one time in Paris when I realised my urine tasted sweet.’

This wouldn’t have seemed funny to Mahatma Gandhi who, like many devout Hindus, regularly drank his own urine. Nor is the fixation limited to Hindus, or even India for that matter. An aspiring election candidate in New Zealand, Joe Glenn, was dropped by his party after he said on national television that drinking his own urine had helped him to cure his arthritis.

If you find yourself easily disgusted or quick to disparage, then, at least as a brand builder, prepare to settle for more hand-to-hand combat with your direct competitor and ‘endless scrapping for incremental share gains – nudging them up a point or two, striving to stop them sliding back down again’. Helen argues that real growth has been found and can be found by those leaders curious and courageous enough to explore at the edges for tomorrow’s business. 

I believe her, having practised some marginal behaviours in years gone by. Instead of doing everything to keep quiet about them, I wished I had invested in their potential.

I was first introduced to transcendental meditation in 1998 when I was helping to run an advertising agency on Baker Street, near London Business School. I snuck off to the first appointment, hiding from colleagues the fruit and flowers I had been told to bring as part of an initiation ritual. On my return, I shared the news with my PA that, each evening, I would need 20 minutes on my own and urged her not to open my office door to anyone. Her attempt to mask bewilderment was as magnificent as it was futile. Proof at last. Her boss was a weirdo. She would have agreed with Helen that it was back then, ‘at best esoteric and fringe – a trope of the rich or those, like the hippies, with time on their hands, who could make the journey to India or Korea to learn the practice’. Transcendental meditators may not like their distinctive practice being mistaken for mindfulness. Transformational marketers, however, should note that this reframe alone lowered resistance to the ancient idea and helped it become a $3.5 billion mainstream industry. 

“It is precisely their strangeness and our resistance to them that makes apparent weirdness so fertile for idea exploration”

Written with the same punch she packs in her regular column for Marketing Week and with the trademark panache she brings to the classroom at LBS, Helen makes an unignorable case for going fishing at the fringes. Her hypothesis was widely tested quantitatively and qualitatively in the UK and the US. More impressive still is the wide range of stories from the worlds of sociology, history and psychology, as well as business and evidence rooted in academia. What emerges are insights that create a playbook for growth hunters.

Some of her examples of marginal behaviour transforming to mainstream practice – veganism, for example – seem now to be so obvious. But that movement’s history is the perfect model for her playbook of eight beacons to observe and on which to act.

And for those leaders inclined to dismiss as too fringe to take seriously, her examples of marginal behaviour – a behaviour practised in Helen’s definition by less than 3% of the population – be careful. In every chapter, one is confronted by how easily we overlook what is taking place at the edge of our own experiences. Converts to ice showers, people who wear the same outfit every day, freebirthers, ‘No Soapers’ may appear to offer few opportunities to marketers, but it is precisely their strangeness and our resistance to them that makes apparent weirdness so fertile for idea exploration. Helen ends her book with the assertion that entrepreneurs get it because of their courage to experiment, and their capacity to learn, reflect, and to go again.

John Osborne’s autobiography, A Better Class of Person, tells the story of a residential hotel in Bournemouth where a wealthy male guest was served his early-morning tea by an elderly waiter. He never tipped the waiter, so the man took revenge by urinating a fraction into the teapot. As the years passed and no tip was forthcoming, he increased the ratio of pee to tea, but the resident never complained. Then the elderly waiter died and a new, younger one started bringing him his tea, undiluted. He complained bitterly that it was nowhere near as flavourful as he’d been used to.

To be a better class of marketing person, you can afford to skip the urine in your tea and Osborne’s biography, but not Helen’s Marginal to Mainstream.


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