Digital
Transformation
Festival


16 March - 24 April 2020

Our online festival is underway with a packed programme of interviews and panels. Featuring talks from the industry’s biggest brands and most innovative individuals, this event explores what digital transformation really means for marketing.

Finished
16 Mar 10:00 GMT / 06:00 EST

The Drum Digital Transformation Festival launch

FEATURING
Gordon Young
Editor-in-chief at The Drum

Why are brands trying so hard to be weird?

Three and LadBible's 'Relaxing Stuff' campaign, featuring East 17 / LadBible

For a while now, brands have been behaving like our clever, smart-ass friends: talking to us in the first person, going heavy on the gifs and memes, obsessing about products and pop cultural moments with in-jokes and archness, the way we do in our private group texts.

Recently, though, in an attempt to speak our language even more fluently, they’ve begun posting content that is at best head-scratching, and at worst utterly nonsensical. They’re being weird.

Fast food brands jumped on the trend early. Remember Denny’s mocking customers who buttered their pancakes by picturing butter as a revenge-seeking butterfly?

But lately, the trend has been migrating to other consumer verticals.

Sustainable bedding brand Buffy enlisted a performance artist to demonstrate how to peel a mango with a glass. Women’s razor brand Billie paid respects to a ‘Tiny. Pink. Comb.’ Dog care company Barkbox orchestrated a squirrel-led takeover of its Instagram account.

Then there was Spotify, which released a toxic haze-themed playlist in Southeast Asia inspired by record air pollution levels there.

What’s behind this proliferation of weird content?

For starters, digital-driven satire is having a moment, and weird content dovetails with that trend. New parodies, product drops and oddball websites that seem to exist for no other reason than to send up some aspect of internet culture are popping up all over the place.

Exhibit A: customized Air Max 97s with soles containing “holy water from the River Jordan” from the Brooklyn-based creative collective MSCHF. In this context, when sparkling water brand Recess shares this hypnotizing video to its Instagram account of a thick toothpaste-like substance being squeezed from an unknown source, what at first might seem strange makes sense as a send-up of the ASMR videos proliferating online.

The content is understandable, in other words, as long as you’re in on the joke.

Another reason weird content is having a moment is simple: it stands out.

Distinguishing your brand and getting noticed – especially by a younger audience – has always been challenging. But in an insanely competitive media environment of fractured attention spans, overwhelmed audiences and #overit, brands continually have to push the envelope just to survive.

They’re already behaving like our BFFs – ones we encounter alongside our IRL friends and influencers in our feeds (like, say, YouTube star Emma Chamberlain, who regularly indulges her inner weirdo for her nearly 9 million followers). So, the idea of responding to bizarre content doesn’t require much of a leap.

But the trend is flourishing for a third, perhaps less obvious reason: language acts as a signaling mechanism and taste arbiter.

Today, acting a bit weird has, paradoxically come to be considered cool, especially for the generation who came of age ironically sharing Awkward Family Photos and binge-watching YouTuber Joana Ceddia's unflattering and ultra-low-production-on-purpose videos.

In this context, getting weird has a ton of value for brands, because it telegraphs to the consumer: this brand gets me, and therefore I trust that the product or service it is offering will get me as well. For the right audience, then, weird content functions as a kind of instant shorthand, indicating to that audience that the brand shares its sensibility and is therefore deserving of its time, attention and money.

Case in point: late last year, when Netflix asked its Twitter followers about their sex habits, the question not only struck a chord among those aware of the meme it was referencing but also stirred up OMG-level excitement online. That’s because most brands wouldn’t dare to go near such provocative content.

What better way for a brand to show its fans that it knows how to speak their language? And for a company whose survival depends on matching the right content to the right audience, that message was about as on-brand as it gets.

So will this trend continue to proliferate? Or is it simply a blip – or worse, an embarrassment, like the feed @BrandsSayingBae once immortalized?

It depends.

As audiences continue to fracture across multiple online spaces such as private message threads, Twitch and Fortnite, I predict we’ll see more bizarre content designed specifically to resonate with smaller and increasingly niche audiences.

As long as the content is seamlessly integrated with the overall brand positioning, it can work.

If it isn’t, it will feel gimmicky, and instead of cutting through the noise, it will simply wind up contributing to it.

Sara Wilson is a brand and digital content strategist in Los Angeles. She tweets @wilsonspeaks.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.