Why mainstream is a mainstay: the power of mass-market brands in uncertain times

In a complex and confusing era, mass-market brands provide a rare touchpoint for shared understanding, a lens through which consumers can better navigate the world around them. But are brands taking them for granted?

Wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed he was "disabled before it was popular", this year’s Britain’s Got Talent winner, Lee Ridley (above), who uses the stage name Lost Voice Guy, was notable not just because he is the first comedian to win the show, but also because he has cerebral palsy. This year’s runner-up on the show, Robert White, also a comedian, has Asperger Syndrome.

The victory was hailed as a "watershed moment" for the depiction of disability in the media. Yet, as Ridley told the BBC, there is still a long way to go.

He said: "It was really good to see two people with disabilities in the final of Britain’s Got Talent, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Only when we see more disabled people on television, and elsewhere in public life, will some of the stigma about disability be taken away."

Yet the cultural significance and the power of a mainstream television show to change the dominant narrative around disability should not be underestimated. Nor should the popularity of the show itself. The 2018 final was the programme’s most-watched in three years, with an average audience of 8.7 million viewers.

Innovation bias

For the marketing industry, seemingly forever in search of the next big thing and enthralled by the shiny and new, the enduring success and social significance of Britain’s Got Talent should provide pause for thought. For the ability of the mainstream, both to better reflect the diversity of the world as it truly is, and drive meaningful, emotional relationships with consumers must not be overlooked.

As Simon Daglish, deputy managing director, commercial at ITV, says, the show, firmly in the mainstream, continues to thrive in the face of competition. "There will also be an element of innovation bias towards new technologies [in the industry], but Britain’s Got Talent is now in its 11th year of broadcasting and it continues to grow," he adds.

Robert White: Britain’s Got Talent runner-upRobert White: Britain’s Got Talent runner-up

For all the talk surrounding disruption, Daglish believes that the most disruptive brands are investing heavily in what more-established brand advertisers have dismissed as "traditional advertising".

He says: "Just Eat, Amazon and Airbnb all spend the vast majority of their advertising budgets on TV. Yet traditional advertisers are trying to find new ways of advertising." However, as he goes on to point out: "Procter & Gamble and Unilever have realised they have overspent on digital."

It is a development also recognised by Lindsey Clay, chief executive of Thinkbox, who warns: "There is a risk that, as we chase the new, we unconsciously downgrade the existing for no better reason than that it isn’t new."

Of course, what constitutes the mainstream varies greatly depending on who you are trying to reach. Chaka Sobhani, chief creative officer at Leo Burnett London, describes the "mainstream" simply as "the stuff that matters to the most people – the stuff that, if you get it right, can tap into something that truly connects people, giving you the chance to create long-term relationships with audiences".

Shortcut to engagement

This ability to tap into a shared language of understanding to reach consumers has long been used to connect with them. Cheryl Calverley, marketing director of the AA, says that the mainstream provides a shortcut to common experience and view of the world.

"Human society seeks, inherently, cohesion and agreement," she says. "It is fundamentally built on the finding of common ground, and mainstream media platforms are an absolutely core part of that, and will always remain so. Whether we like it or not, common experiences continue – we live in a world together."

She believes that it is only when society has a robust commonality of view and culture that the "alternative" can comfortably be accommodated. In short, in order to deviate from the norm, society needs to feel safe and comfortable with that norm in the first place.

"Many of the core ‘tribes’ of society, from religions to football fanship, are rooted in a need to create a cohesive, simplified, ‘red versus blue’ view of the world, and to provide a safe base from which to sprout alternative views," she says.

Therefore the more the media and content landscape fragments, the more the "mainstream" cultural events and platforms increase in importance and relevance. "They give people a firm footing to stand on, a river from which to divert," she adds. 

The pitfalls of personalisation

For many marketers, this reappraisal of the mainstream also demands a reassessment of accepted marketing thinking. The belief that the future of marketing lies in "one-to-one personalised messages", which, for consumers, often manifest themselves as advertising that stalks them across the web, faces greater scrutiny. With both Unilever and Procter & Gamble slashing their digital adspend, a review of the role of mass media is already in full swing.

Abby Carvosso, group managing director, advertising, at Bauer Media, says: "We’re constantly bombarded with the idea that all marketing has to be hyper-targeted. Using information such as a person’s location, weather, or even phone type can be hugely effective but is just one way of meeting the objective of reaching a relevant audience."

Carvosso cites the importance of a shared experience, while cultural references can be used very effectively to unite a mass-market, mainstream community. She points to the example of a commercial partnership between Magic Radio and Universal Orlando Resort. The pair teamed up for an outside broadcast of the Magic Breakfast show to promote family-friendly holidays to the US theme park, reaching a mainstream audience of 1.1 million.

I'm so happy the focus has shifted back on to the need for populism and collective experience.Chaka Sobhani, Leo Burnett London

The tie-up culminated in singer and Magic Breakfast presenter Ronan Keating performing his track Life is a Rollercoaster while travelling at 65 miles an hour on the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit at the park. The activity also included a video on social media that garnered nearly 600,000 organic views.

The diversity-shaped elephant in the room

Of course, no conversation on the relationship between consumers, the ad industry and the mainstream can ignore the issue of diversity. An industry that fails to reflect society’s diversity may also fail to understand what mainstream really means to different segments of society.

Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, refers to a recent article in the Financial Times, which focused on the downfall of former WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell. The piece quoted a "former executive" as saying: "[Sorrell’s] business model has come under stress at a time when he is distant from the consumer trends that are putting it under pressure. You won’t learn what 16-year-old girls are thinking about when you hang out at Davos."

Gallop warns that when the top of every agency and holding company is a "closed loop of white guys", those agencies and holding companies will be "out of touch with the mainstream and mass market".

She adds: "It’s only when chairmen, chief executives and boards absolutely insist, mandate and impose that every level of every agency and holding company reflects the world as it really is – gender-equal (and in the case of our industry where women are the primary purchasing targets, more female than male), of colour, LGBTQ, disabled, older as much as younger – that those agencies and holding companies will truly respect, empathise with, connect with and, therefore, do far better business with, the mainstream and mass market on behalf of our clients." 

Bursting the London bubble

But are London-centric agencies increasingly out of touch with the mainstream and mass market? "Yes and no," Sobhani says. "There’s a need to get out of a geographical and mental space, and look outside ‘[travel] zone six’ for cultural and social stimulus, as well as relevance. We’re all familiar with agencies being intoxicated by the power of ‘the new’ regardless of efficacy. But I’m so happy that the focus has shifted back onto the need for populism and collective experience, especially in current times when society is so fractured."

Ali Hanan, founder and chief executive of Creative Equals, contends that if you believe diverse teams create diverse work for diverse audiences, there is no doubt that London agencies are increasingly inaccessible to talent from outside the M25.

She says: "Without this talent, there is a strong chance creative work may not reflect ‘mainstream’ attitudes. Why? Rising London rent prices, Brexit (where we see European Union talent leaving) and a trend towards sourcing freelance-to-perm talent from our local London talent pool (where talent is ‘on-demand’ and ‘available for hire’), means we are continually fishing from the same pond of talent, and with it, London attitudes.

"There does feel like a groundswell of change on the diversity conversation in London with this now being front-of-mind, but this movement has yet to hit outside the M25."

Yet it is outside the M25 that many of the UK’s biggest brands and their consumers reside, and more than one marketing director has expressed concerns that their agencies aren’t necessarily in touch with the day-today realities of their target audience.

"We know for a fact that people who work in advertising are out of touch, and this can be damaging to brands," Clay says. She points to Thinkbox’s "Ad Nation" research, undertaken by Ipsos, which shows that the ad industry has very different media habits and opinions from the average and tends to overestimate the popularity of newer ad formats.

Similarly, Radiocentre’s recent "Re-evaluating Media" study found that, when it comes to effectiveness, advertisers are underestimating established mass media and overrating the value of things such as online video and social media.

This challenge is keenly felt by chief marketers. The comments of one former Birds Eye marketer that it was doubtful many of his agency team were aware of how "waffly versatile" the brand’s products are, because not only have they never eaten them, many don’t even own a freezer, is a refrain mirrored across the marketing industry.

Yet Calverley contends that "London agencies" is not a useful descriptor. She says: "It brings together a wide range of specialist, creative, niche and mass players, working across local and global brands, and every channel imaginable, in every industry in the world. The challenge for any agency – London or otherwise – is to understand and begin to think like your audience, [and about] their aspiration and needs." Calverley believes that unless your target audience is "agency folk" you cannot reflect it directly with your own recruitment strategy – nor should you try.

"What matters is what’s always mattered," she says. "That agencies, and marketers spend as much time as possible deeply immersed in the culture of their target group, listening to them, talking to them, and doing the things they do."

The many faces of mainstream

When creativity has often been rooted in the notion of being an outlier, it is easy to overlook that simply fitting in or sharing a common experience of a mainstream brand can be aspirational.

Tania Barr, planning partner at Jellyfish, says that individuality is exhausting: "Not every decision needs to define ‘who we are’. Sometimes, there is comfort in being part of a crowd – relief in simply going with the flow."

She adds: "Big accessible brands can occupy a valuable position in the market as the happy default, attracting a customer base who are grateful to know exactly what they’re going to get, so they can focus their energy on the life choices that really matter to them."

Not every decision needs to define 'who we are'. Sometimes, there is comfort in being part of a crowdTania Barr, Jellyfish

Yet this doesn’t mean brands can simply stand still, Barr picks out McDonald’s as a great example of a brand that has always been a mainstream destination but, in its marketing strategy, has both kept pace with what mainstream means and demonstrated a welcome and warm humility around the life experience on which it can genuinely deliver.

While established brands can work hard to maintain relevance, Lou Weiss, chief marketer at Shutterstock, points out that it is becoming much harder to create a truly mainstream brand from scratch because consumers’ media attention has become so fragmented, first by cable TV and now by the internet and mobile devices.

He says: "Coca-Cola, Disney and McDonald’s are all centrally relevant brands today that still drive culture globally but they were all created and built in an era when mass-media marketing, if done properly, could reach and influence audience shares that marketers today can only dream of."

Comforting routines

In times of economic and political uncertainty, mainstream brands and the reassurance provided by a known and trusted name should not be underestimated. Ben Hooper, co-founder of Wax On, cites as an example The X Factor, which he describes as being like a "comfort blanket".

He says: "[People] may not watch regular TV most of the week but they will still sit down and watch it on a Saturday and Sunday night – it’s a ritual. It’s less about relevance and more about trust and reliability, which are, arguably, more important to brands."

Of course, new rituals are always in the making, and the ways in which consumers access mainstream media brands is significantly shifting. As Daglish says: "Consumer media consumption habits have changed drastically. Ten years ago we didn’t have the ITV Hub. In ITV’s case, we are having the best audiences we have had in 10 years. We just need simple, easy platforms to access. You can have laid-back, lean-back viewing on different platforms."

In a marketing environment in which the discussion about technology or traditional media channels is often unnecessarily binary, it is all too easy to overlook the power of the mainstream and be forever in search of the next big thing. What constitutes lean-back viewing or the very concept of brand loyalty may have altered exponentially over the past decade, but the human threads that knit the experiences of everyday lives together remain the same.

Marketing may also have a predisposition to looking for innovation at the edges, but often consumers’ emotional heartland can still be found in the comfort and the sense of belonging provided by the mainstream and mass market.

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