Does blending in with the pack risk killing my business? Is business as usual a safe approach right now? At a time of uncertainty, in a cost-of-living crisis, and with consumer confidence faltering, these are questions increasingly being asked – about brands and the values and cultures, purposes and objectives that brands exist to articulate.
Conventional wisdom is that when the going gets tough you keep your head down and play it safe, meaning don’t rock the boat. You want to stand out, but not too much. Instead, you want to reassure, to be seen as familiar. A safe pair of hands. Yet by being so, businesses are missing an important trick – the strength of not conforming and challenging convention.
Or, to put it another way, the power of weird.
The word ‘weird’ can conjure up many associations, but I’m talking about unusual and unexpected. It’s about deviating from the norm. Seeing and doing things differently. Joining up the dots in a different way.
And when a business does all this, people can find it arresting and fascinating – even compelling.
Consider Airbnb, an accommodation business without any of its own properties, and Uber, a transportation business without any drivers on its payroll. Or Lemonade Insurance, a business set up to make insurance ‘downright lovable’. Not to mention the pride that US online retailer Zappos has long taken in its self-declared ‘weird culture’.
Be it about a business model, business objective or brand strategy, each of these businesses has leaned into the weird and enjoyed, as a direct result, significant bottom-line impact.
Why? Because non-conforming has a powerful allure that captivates and keeps us coming back for more. And science proves it. When we experience a novel situation, research has found we more easily store this event in our memory. Neurobiologists discovered that the ‘novelty centre’ of the brain responds to motivation and seeks exploration. Put simply, it’s got a lot to do with why some of our best ideas sometimes come in the weirdest of places.
Despite this, over the years weird has got bad press. At best, it’s not been seen as a positive. At worst, it’s been taken by some as a reason not to take someone seriously.
Yet in today’s post-pandemic world, at last, weird is being reappraised. And this is being driven by two things:
1. On the one hand, consumers are demanding more moments of joy – including more bold and unique experiences from businesses they interact with, which is turning the tide against ‘blanding’ (the copy-and-paste model of consumer product development and brand marketing that spread across product categories in recent years).
2. On the other, the canniest businesses are understanding that experience and culture go hand-in-hand when building brands. And they are putting this into action. By building a single powerful future vision and ethos made true inside their business through their culture and employee experience and outside through each and every interaction with their audience.
The right internal culture brings a brand to life, and the right brand attracts people to that culture. Through well-conceived and designed experiences, inside and outside the organisation the brand is made real. And that’s a powerful virtuous circle, if you can make it all work harmoniously.
As a direct result of this, weird is coming into its own.
The smartest businesses now view oddness and non-conformity as clear points of differentiation in a sea of similarity. Something that can convey who they really are beyond a collection of ads or stunts. Something that, by demonstrating individuals are prized not standardised, can cut to the core of what they stand for by underlining their diversity and inclusivity.
Tap into your inner weirdness, nurture and encourage it – understanding the value it holds as a business tool – and weird can be an invaluable pillar of your brand, too. And I say so from firsthand experience.
At my company, Wolff Olins, we believe in the power of weird and see weird as the ingredient critical to the success of some of the world’s best brands. This comes in different forms and isn’t about a forced approach. It’s more about taking an alternative view; it’s about the people in the room and their freedom to offer diverse ideas and perspectives; it’s about people looking at some of our work and saying, “How did they get the client to agree to that!”.
We believe it can be an essential part of a unique and distinctive business culture. And we believe it is our own best creative trait, which is why it plays a central role in our own just-launched global rebrand.
Our new identity is all about our core strengths – our people and our approach. We are unashamedly non-conformist, which is evident in the new wordmark.
In a world of perpetual change in which society and clients are constantly shifting, weird can be your super strength. But trying to use it to impress younger consumers with off-the-wall stunts or one-off gimmicks won’t unlock its true potential. Rather, it’s about embracing what exists already, being strikingly different in how you show it to the world – and always with 100% authenticity.