Feature

Normcore marketing: how boring became big

A culture of airbrushing, the Lean In mindset and performative living via social media have driven consumers to seek meaning in the mundane, with significant implications for brands, writes Nicola Kemp.

Normcore marketing: how boring became big

Watching video of a puddle online has, it seems, replaced the distinctly analogue pursuit of watching paint dry as a mundane way of passing time. 

In January, more than half a million people watched a live stream of a puddle blocking a popular footpath near strategic agency Drummond Central in Newcastle upon Tyne. Its staff said they became fascinated by the ways in which people negotiated the obstruction, and started the live stream of the view for their own amusement – but it then took social media by storm. 

The puddle, which spawned its own hashtag, #DrummondPuddleWatch, was the break-out star of Twitter-owned streaming app Periscope, with 547,828 live viewers and 24,263 replay viewers. In the first 48 hours, there were about 100,000 tweets relating to the puddle. 

The shift toward the mundane taps into a deeper, specific appeal to our primal brain

In San Francisco, Twitter co-founder and chief executive Jack Dorsey was one of those viewers. More than two months later, in a March interview, he was still talking about the puddle and its implications: "It was just so cool to see how this tiny little thing became an event."

Technology may offer us seemingly limitless opportunities to expand our horizons, but it is often the banal that really captures consumers’ imagination. "In a world where we’re operating at full capacity 24/7, the moments of calm that experiences like ‘PuddleWatch’ create are things we will increasingly savour," says Barnaby Girling, editor-in-chief and co-founder of creative agency Alpha Century. "The rise of mindfulness will increase these moments."

Digital drudgery

With so many demands placed on consumers’ attention, it is easy to see the attraction and reassurance provided by moments of the familiar. Nonetheless, rather than simply switching off to escape into their imaginations or watch the proverbial paint dry, consumers are demanding space to unwind without ever going offline. Just as athleisure has allowed consumers to buy into sports fashion without leaving the couch, technology is, in effect, embracing the mundane to solve a problem of its own creation.

From the popularity of repetitive games such as Candy Crush Saga and cat videos on YouTube to the rise of mindfulness apps such as Headspace, there are many digital rabbit holes for consumers to disappear down to unwind online. 

"When technology has advanced so quickly, instead of feeling bombarded by it, consumers increasingly want to wrap it around themselves like a comfort blanket," explains Chris Baréz-Brown, founder of creative-leadership specialists Upping Your Elvis.

Aspirationally mediocre

Many consumers are actively rejecting traditional ideals of beauty, success and aspiration, whether that is seen through the rise of the #uglyselfie or the triumph of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. 

Jonathan Fraser, chief strategy officer at agency Exposure Digital, explains: "Aspiration used to be about living the high life, but now, thanks to our heavily curated lives, everyone looks like they are living it. So much so that this stereotypical vision of the high life has become devalued." 

In line with this shift, today’s aspirations are about moving away from the herd by venturing into less-trodden areas – and it is this that is making the mundane aspirational.

This trend also reflects a broader one among members of ‘Generation Rent’ – young people who are facing up to the fact that traditional markers of success, such as home ownership and saving for retirement, are increasingly out of reach. In fact, millennials are increasingly rejecting the achievement economy in favour of seeking to live more authentically in the moment. 

Baréz-Brown says that what constitutes ambition has fundamentally shifted. "It was once all about the lifestyle, the salary and the freedom that brings," he says. "Now it is about living today well, being authentic and grounded."

Many in the marketing industry have struggled to understand and adapt to this, as it fundamentally challenges the received wisdom regarding what really motivates consumers, whether in the office or the supermarket.

Some think that the generation brought up in a world of winning at all costs has struggled to adapt to millennials’ demands for instant gratification and their search for meaning in the everyday. Sir Martin Sorrell’s recent advice, for example, that graduates should not have a gap year, but instead study computer science and Mandarin, is symptomatic of the limitations of the achievement economy based on traditional measures of success such as what job you have or what car you drive, not how happy you are.

Comfortably dull: the new normal

Two years ago the art collective K-Hole introduced the world to Normcore, the trend of embracing preppy, plain and ‘normal’ styles as a rebellion against the demands of social media for the new and exciting. 

McDonald’s ‘McCafé moments’ is a great example of a brand trying to do mundane and getting it wrong

However, Jo Lowndes, senior strategist for innovation at brand experience agency Rufus Leonard, contends what is happening now is distinct from that much-hyped trend. "Normcore is a catchy label for a passing fad, while the shift to the mundane taps into something much deeper – a specific appeal to our primal brain," she says.

A growing number of brands are embracing a purely functional message. Rob Hunter, managing director of Hunterlodge Advertising, points to low-cost airline Ryanair as an example of a brand that is harnessing the power of the mundane. "CEO Michael O’Leary is embracing ‘dullness’ and leaving behind the ‘errant teenager’ stage to become more adult in interactions with consumers and handling of issues. This new approach has led to the company’s full-year profit guidance in 2015 soaring by 25%."

The high street is adopting a similar strategy with down-to-earth, ‘normal’ brand positioning, which goes against the norms of the market. Mark Wood, design director of The Partners, cites the example of Argos’ Simple Value collection, which offers home essentials from 99p. "It is a very interesting
example of a simple approach to life, with the pared-back packaging that
simply states ‘Iron’, or ‘Drill’, or ‘Clock’," he explains.

Marketing the McMundane

The average marketer would be wise to bear in mind that this trend does not mean consumers are more accepting of mediocre content. 

"McDonald’s ‘McCafé moments’ is a great example of a brand trying to do mundane and getting it wrong," says Exposure Digital’s Fraser. "Two people sharing a very mundane story while sat in a McDonald’s café. The trouble is, it is not mundane enough to be interesting to a passive viewer. The brand may argue that it wanted to reflect real life, in which case it should have used real-life mundane conversations."

Of course, the majority of brands don’t set out to be mundane or boring, but frequently end up being ‘vanilla’ – which amounts to much the same thing. 

Ben Lunt, executive digital director at ad agency BMB, believes the move toward the mundane is, in fact, anything but. "The trend toward simplicity and honesty is something very different," he argues. "It’s a reaction against omnipresent technology and mass production, and a desire to create the hand-crafted and limited-edition." 

For, at its heart, the drive to find meaning in the mundane, to seek shared, honest and authentic experiences, is anything but ordinary.