The Myth of the Mainstream

Chasing the mass market is a losing proposition for marketers in a polarized culture. Allying with the subculture that loves you is the best way to drive brand success.

Reading Time: 8 min 


  • Benedetto Cristofani/

    For years, McDonald’s seemed to embody everything that was wrong with the American diet. The brand had become a symbol of food choices that were driving escalating rates of obesity and hypertension.

    The company spent more than a decade trying to fight this perception among American consumers by targeting them with messaging about its updated menu, which offered healthier alternatives more in line with contemporary diet trends — but to no avail. Year over year, McDonald’s sales declined, and its brand perception continued to spiral downward.

    Finally, the company decided to go on the offensive. Instead of combating the opposition’s hate and attempting to win over those in the middle, McDonald’s decided to focus on its fans — the people who self-identify as McDonald’s devotees despite the vitriol directed at the brand. The company’s tactics included launching its Famous Orders campaign, which celebrated the favored menu items of superstar fans (like hip-hop mogul Travis Scott and K-pop megastars BTS); creating adult-targeted Happy Meals; and promoting fans’ own menu hacks. In doing so, it tapped into what these devotees love about McDonald’s and not only activated their collective consumption but also inspired them to spread the word on behalf of the brand. The result of this strategy was a 10.4% increase in global revenue for McDonald’s from 2018 to 2021 and the return of dormant customers: more than a quarter of those who came in to buy the Travis Scott meal, for example, hadn’t visited the chain in over a year. Seemingly overnight, McDonald’s went from being a cautionary tale to the darling of brand marketing and a case study for advertising effectiveness.

    If you want to get people to move, you must choose a side. The notion that you can win by playing to the middle is a misleading myth.

    What’s going on here? Conventional wisdom would tell us that in a world of increasingly polarized opinions, our best bet is to appease the middle, if only because that’s where the majority of the market is. That also seems like a safe bet to many companies, as a middle-of-the-road position is less likely to alienate potential customers. But McDonald’s demonstrated what can happen when you dismiss this conventional approach. Instead of trying to speak to the mass market, it chose a side. It chose to embrace the love instead, fighting the hate, and it abandoned the notion of enticing the large but indifferent middle of the market. By doing so, McDonald’s marketing efforts activated a legion of fans who not only consumed but also won over others as well. What McDonald’s realized is an important lesson for contemporary marketers: If you want to get people to move, you must choose a side. The notion that you can win by playing to the middle is a misleading myth.

    Choose a Side

    The core function of marketing is to influence people to adopt a desired behavior. That is to say, we go to market to get people to move — to buy, to vote, to recycle, to subscribe, to download, to watch, to evangelize, to wear a mask — and to drive a host of other desirable behavioral outcomes that will benefit our organization or interests. And what influences people the most? Well, according to everything we know about human behavior, we are most influenced by other people — not ads, not value propositions, but other people. More specifically, we are most influenced by our people: the individuals who abide by the same culturally established conventions and expectations that dictate what is considered acceptable behavior for people like us. These individuals typically share a similar worldview and, therefore, adhere to a shared way of life in an effort to promote social solidarity among themselves — their subculture. They consume the way the subculture consumes, vote the way it votes, and behave the way it behaves, because that is what is expected of people like them.

    If these people are against you because of the shared conventions and expectations of people like them (their culture), then the likelihood of getting them to take action on your behalf will be slim. That’s why right-wing Republicans won’t bother trying to convert left-leaning Democrats. Instead, Republicans speak to their base — the collective of people who see the world similarly, express a similar set of cultural characteristics as the brand, and are more inclined to move in step with the brand as an act of social solidarity. They identify as members of this group and follow its behavioral norms.

    Those in the unaffiliated middle of the population, on the other hand, are by nature indifferent and risk averse. While they may have opinions, they lack strong convictions in either direction and are therefore less likely to take action. In politics, they don’t vote in primaries or campaign for candidates; instead, they sit on the sidelines and wait to see how things shake out. Their behavior is the same when it comes to brands.

    The middle doesn’t adopt new products with any urgency. They are not the first to respond to marketing communications, nor are they likely to weigh in on a debate between advocates and detractors. They mitigate their own risk of moving out of step with what might be considered generally acceptable by stepping back and observing other people’s responses first.

    The red herring is that we perceive this indifference as an opportunity to persuade them to one side or the other. But the truth is, they are not typically convinced by any marketing communications. Instead, they, too, take cues from other people — sometimes those who are for you, and at other times those who are against you.

    Our chances of successfully influencing behavior increases when we choose to address the people who are most likely to take action.

    With this in mind, it becomes abundantly clear that in a polarized scenario, the chances of marketers getting people to move are far greater when we activate the collective of the willing as opposed to trying to convince detractors or even persuade the indifferent. And yet, historically, marketers have focused their efforts on the middle because it represents the biggest market opportunity. However, our chances of successfully influencing behavior increases when we choose to address the people who are most likely to take action. When we do so effectively, we catalyze a propagation effect that causes the product, behavior, or idea to cascade throughout the population, thanks to the process of social contagion — the spread of affects, behaviors, cognitions, and desires due to direct or indirect peer influence of people “like us.”

    The Power of Propagation

    The idea of propagation demands that marketers leave behind the conventional approach of targeting the middle, where the majority of the population resides. Besides being of questionable effectiveness, as discussed above, reaching the middle requires costly media spending (think prime-time TV and Super Bowl ads) and places marketing messages in an arena that is noisy and saturated with competing messages. Marketers pay little attention to the fringe, a population that conventional wisdom tells us is too small and too niche. But everything that is now mainstream once started on the fringe: It started within a subculture and propagated out to become popular culture.

    For instance, if you were into comic books 20 years ago, you would have been considered a nerd. Today, however, many of the most-viewed movies across the globe, such as Marvel’s Avengers series, originated from comics. Twenty years ago, if you were into video games, you would have been perceived as an immature adult. Today, gaming is not only considered cool but is also a multibillion-dollar industry. Indeed, what is now normal was once fringe. Thanks to social contagion, the cultural characteristics of a community propagate from the fringe to the middle — from the subculture to popular culture. It happens from the outside in, not the inside out.

    Unlike traditional marketing communications, the reach and subsequent adoption that is achieved through this kind of propagation does not rely on people hearing a message from a company or brand. (It helps, but it’s not necessary.) Instead, people hear about it from someone they trust — someone like them — which increases their likelihood of adoption. As the network scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler contended, “When a small group of people begin acting in concert — displaying similar visible symptoms — the epidemic can spread along social network ties via emotion contagion and large groups can become quickly emotionally synchronized.” This is the network effect that is catalyzed when you activate the collective of the willing. Don’t focus on the middle: Focus on the people who see the world the way you do. Choose a side, and they will convince the bystanders, the passive, the indifferent.

    Although broadcast messaging might get our attention, it’s the influence of people like us, people with whom we identify, that changes our outlook and, subsequently, our behaviors. This provides a new perspective, and corresponding strategies, for marketers who aim to communicate with consumers in a culture where ideological binaries seem to divide the market. Like McDonald’s did, marketers benefit from choosing a side that is most likely to move and then activating its members so that they might convert people on the brand’s behalf. Status quo practices position the middle as a safe bet. However, the dynamics of cultural diffusion subvert these long-standing best practices for connecting with consumers and influencing behavioral adoption, and demand that today’s practitioners develop new strategies and accompanying tactics.


    More Like This

    You must to post a comment.

    First time here? : Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.