with Jasmine Bina

25: Bizarre, Strange and Highly Relatable

insights in culture

In this house episode, we speak with Concept Bureau strategist Rebecca Johnson about the concept of “weirdness” and brands. 

All humans are weird, and brands that are willing to venture into strange and bizarre territories have a chance to connect with their audiences in a deeply emotional way. From Puppy Monkey Baby to the Pet Rock, we analyze brand weirdness’s impact on consumer engagement and differentiation. 

Weird is risky, but it’s also highly relatable when it’s done right. It can engender a form of trust that brands don’t usually experience with their users, while also signaling a brand’s values and vision. 

It’s also a strong force of creativity. Everything new feels weird at first. Instead of shying away, Rebecca talks about how to lean into the odd side of human nature and create something novel.


Podcast Transcript

OCTOBER 23, 2023

25 min read



Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. We’re all familiar with brands getting weird. It’s somewhere on the spectrum of relatability, where we go from, “Hey, what that brand did is cool, they totally get me,” to, “Oh my God, what that brand did is so weird. I cannot believe they totally get me.” But weird, although it can be relatable, is also divisive.


You may have heard of Collina Strada’s fall 2023 fashion show entitled, Please Don’t Eat My Friends. It was a decidedly weird show with models in hyperrealistic animal prosthetics and an overall vibe of animalia. The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman described it best when she said quote, “Friends of all ages, sizes, and physical abilities strutting the runway in a room painted earthy green, or only partially strutting. The rest of the time they were crawling, hopping, prancing, sniffing the audience, and otherwise giving into their inner animals, all the while wearing deer ears, a pig snout, a dog’s head, a toucan’s beak, and other assorted creature-feature prosthetics, created by the makeup artist, Isamaya Ffrench. Imagine Animal Farm meets The Wind in the Willows meets a spirit retreat and you’ll get the idea.”


Fashion critics like Vanessa Friedman loved the show, but other people not so much. What’s interesting, however, is not that some people like the show and others didn’t. People disagree on fashion shows all of the time, but rather that the people who loved it really loved it, but the ones who didn’t love it really felt something else.


Audio Clip:
I think these animal collections have a deeper meaning, although it creeped me the hell out.


Audio Clip:
Collina Strada’s 2023 New York Fashion Week show was called, Please Don’t Eat My Friends. Critics called this a nightmare. What the hell? This is freaky.


You can go on YouTube or Instagram or TikTok and see more comments that show how people were either really thrilled by the weirdness or instead very disturbed by it. The power of weird is that it makes people feel things, and if you dig deep, you will find that the good kind of weird, the kind that makes people feel something so intimately that they are forced to engage with it usually has an incredibly deep well of meaning beneath it. In today’s house episode, we’re talking to our concept bureau strategist, Rebecca Johnson, about how our sense of weird is evolving and why it’s becoming an important cultural force that brands need to pay attention to. To understand all of this, we need to understand how extreme emotions like this operate, and it starts with a really important question. Why does weird matter?


First, we have to acknowledge that humans are weird. We do weird things. Sometimes they’re explainable and sometimes they’re not. But some of the weird signals that we do see do actually say a little bit more about who we are as people. And so when we think about brand and we think about the consumer, we have to consider the weird as just something that’s part of the human experience.


When we see certain weird signals in the wild, I don’t necessarily always believe that they’re there by chance. So when you take a closer look, there’s usually something more beneath the surface than what we initially think. Take for example, in Seoul, Korea, there’s this annual space-out competition and basically people compete to be the most spaced-out- looking person in the room. So it’s a very strange site. You just see a bunch of people sitting on the ground facing the same direction, and what they’re doing is they just look completely zoned out. They don’t look fully like they’re there. But this happens every year. And this was created by an artist named Woopsyang, who used it as a protest against a culture that craves constant productivity. And this event was essentially created as a way to embrace the value of doing just absolutely nothing.


Signals like this tell us a little bit about where we are today. In a world where we’re obsessed with productivity, spaced-out competitions or zoning-out competitions feel necessary even if they look really weird or out of the norm.


So I’ve read, obviously, all of your writing on weird. You’ve also written a lot about relatability in brands, and I feel like weirdness and relatability can cross over. Sometimes if you go deep enough into what feels weird, it actually starts to feel a bit more relatable. Where do you see these two intersecting?


We live in an era today where the baseline measure for trust is now relatability, and at its simplest, it’s just one’s ability to relate to someone or something. Relatability is crucial because it affects who we trust and how we make our decisions. And culturally, we’ve lost a lot of trust in our major institutions, like our medical system, education system, and it’s also given rise to a lot of different voices in the room. And so now you have scientists who used to be on the same page fighting and conflicting with each other, doctors who are doing the same thing.There’s just thousands of different opinions, and what’s ended up happening is that people have started to gravitate to the voices that sound and feel the most familiar. And so that is what relatability is.


And so for example, we follow influencers who are like us. We see ourselves through these people, and that’s essentially relatability. And we follow them for our medical advice, our financial advice. And there’s something about them that we follow, it’s beyond sort of their expertise. We follow them because they have a similar story or similar background, maybe race or ethnicity. Those are baseline things. But sometimes even their humor, for example, could be something, a reason why we follow certain influencers and why we are more prone to follow their advice.


A classic platform is TikTok, which is the ultimate relatability platform with an algorithm that caters specifically to all of your niche interests. And once you start spending enough time on TikTok, you start to feel like you’re looking at a virtual mirror. You start to see a version of yourself being reflected back to you. But now brands have, obviously, capitalized on this and attempting to hop on popular sounds and try to create relationships with their audience. But ultimately, hopping onto trendy sounds isn’t quite enough. You have to uncover the things that your audience feels and experiences below the surface, bringing those things out into the open. And when done successfully, it creates a great deal of a validation to your audience, to an audience that’s also craving to be seen.



Reddit, for their first US TV campaign, did a campaign called Find Your People. And it was a great example of this in which it showcased three different scenarios in which even the people that were closest to them didn’t really get them. And the only way they felt seen was through these Reddit subreddits.



So for example, the first person is sharing a shower thought and their partner sort of dismisses them, or one person talks about, “Oh, my plant is dying, what should I do?” And the roommate’s like, “Just buy another one.” The third person, their partner’s dressed up in cosplay and the other is just like, “Oh, cute role play,” or very dismissive in some ways. And then it ends with them going onto the subreddit and being like, “Oh, my people get me.”



And it was just a great example of how Reddit’s become sort of also, in addition to TikTok, it’s also become this relatability platform where you can find community in the most niche interests that you have. And that’s how relatability intersects with weirdness because sometimes the weirdest things, again, are the most relatable. And I’m sure we’ve all gone down the rabbit hole of subreddits that lead us to all kinds of places.



I see a whole spectrum, going back to weirdness. There’s weirdness on one end that is very cringey. It’s weirdness for the sake of being weird. And then you go onto the other end where, again, things are super weird, but it’s also very coded. There’s a secret language here that either you get or you don’t get expressed through whatever the weird gesture or idea or concept is. And that’s more for insiders to understand that.



I see a lot of brands on the cringey, weirdness for weirdness sake, almost like it releases a tension in the room. It gets you to a point of tension and releases it. The coded stuff is a little different, but there’s a whole spectrum. How do you see this spectrum playing out in the market when it comes to brands?


There are two different kinds of weird. First one, again, like you mentioned, is sort of just for weirdness sake. So these are things that are just… The whole point is to turn heads and just sort of create a lot of attention. Think of 2016 Super Bowl, Mountain Dew’s Puppy Monkey Baby.


Audio Clip:
Puppy Monkey Baby. Puppy Monkey Baby. Puppy Monkey Baby. Puppy Monkey Baby.


It doesn’t really do anything else except say that word throughout the entire commercial. Super strange, but again, it’s very memorable and really hard to forget. And another example of that too is Christmas mascot, like Spongmonkeys from the early days of the internet.


Audio Clip:
They are tasty. They are crunchy. They are warm because they toast them. The Quiznos subs.


What was born of a meme eventually became this $25 million pitch from the Martin Agency to Quiznos in which nothing was changed. They won the account and nothing was changed except for obviously the lyrics. It’s very strange, but it’s funny.


Some other more recent examples. Liquid Death created these enema kits with Travis Barker and the whole idea of being like, “Oh, our water’s so good, you can use it for an enema.” Or KFC created a gaming console but also can heat up your fried chicken as you’re playing.


Some of these things, they’re funny and they’re kitschy and they’re memorable. They don’t necessarily have anything deeper than that, but that’s the whole point. So that’s the first kind of weird.


And the other kind of weird that I refer to more in my work and in my research is much more deep and more meaningful. So these are usually the outliers that kind of find their ways into our mainstream and providing opportunities for brands and companies to better leverage and better connect with their audiences. For example, AI partners and relationships. There’s so much right now in regards to how AI is going to impact our interpersonal relationships with each other or just with other AI chatbots, et cetera.


So for example, Replika is a company where you can create a customized version of an avatar of your liking and you can converse with it and it can talk how you want it to talk to you, give you advice in the way that you want it to give you advice. And what’s happened is that people have started to form really deep and intimate relationships with these AI, romantic relationships, and to the point where Replika had to update their software due to some of the more sexually explicit content that was going on, I guess, through a lot of this Replika conversation.


But what ended up happening was people were left completely heartbroken because these AI chatbots weren’t who they were anymore. It’s like if someone just ghosted you or broke up with you and just left, just completely broken, heartbroken. And it feels strange to think about that even happening, but even today we have some level of understanding of why this could be the case in terms of the rates of depression, anxiety are much higher and we’re much more lonelier than we used to be. So it makes sense that Replika fills this gap of companionship where we’re not getting it in our regular environment.


But I also remember back in 2018 before, obviously, ChatGPT became the technology of the century, it was this Japanese man named Akihiko Kondo who married his holographic girlfriend, Hatsune Miku. She’s an anime digital songstress, very popular in Japan. Because obviously this went viral, it also elicited a lot of mean comments and a lot of death threats too. Just huge rejection from the public essentially.


And in an interview he said that she had come into his life at a point where he really needed it the most and that he was really deeply in love with her. But then obviously when I heard this for the first time, I was also taken aback because it’s like how can you fall in love with someone who’s not made of flesh and bone? But even companies like Replika are challenging our idea of what it means to form intimacy and have relationships. And it might really seem weird, but potentially might change a lot of people’s lives or for people who are feeling really lonely and depressed. So that’s super, super interesting to think about.


A smaller example is the Pet Rock. So this advertising executive named Gary Dahl created it in the 70s, and it was sort of this humorous critique on sort of the perils of pet ownership. So he would sell these rocks and put them in these cardboard vented boxes with their own little manuals of how to take care of your pet rock or how to teach it tricks, which obviously it can’t do any of that. That fad eventually sort of died down in that same decade, but we still see remnants of it through things like Tamagotchi Pets or Neopets or Furbies or other digital pets that we’ve had. So that’s a very interesting way to think about how weird continues to find itself in our culture even if it looks different on the surface and that it’s still very much relevant to our lives and the new innovations that we create.


That’s interesting. I did not connect the Pet Rock to Neopets and Furbies and Tamagotchis and all of that other stuff, but you’re right, it’s the same thing.


So I’m thinking of this CMO who’s listening to this and all of this sounds interesting, but it also obviously sounds very risky because the spectrum of weird is so wide, it would be hard to make sure you’re landing in the right place and hitting the right resonance for your audience. If you’re even just a step before that trying to make sense of weird or even relatability in the landscape, how do you know which signals are real and worth acting on versus the ones that maybe aren’t deeper and they’re not worth actually doing something with?


I’m in the camp of believing that you should always just be playing and experimenting rather than waiting for the right signal because truthfully, I don’t know if anyone can truly tell anyone which exact ones are irrelevant and which ones to follow. That’s where creativity comes in. Weird signals are leaning into the weird really forces you to actually think differently and to sort of look at things in a different perspective. If you even just do that, you will find something new and interesting.


And we do a lot of this even in our work at CB where we’re thinking about the future. We’re always playing out a lot of what-ifs or playing out scenarios based on the outliers that we’re seeing. And some experiments will work and some won’t, but that’s sort of part of the process and it’s trusting that continuous experimentation will ultimately lead to something valuable.


But as a CMO, I can understand why that might feel risky, and you have to find the ones that matter to your brand and your industry. It requires active listening and having an open mind to deeply understand your audience. So that actually requires leaving a lot of your own biases at the door potentially so that you can really listen. And then it’s also just spending a lot of time in the spaces your audience is part of. LANEIGE recently did a lot of work within spending a lot of time in the Reddit subreddits for skincare, and that actually helped them increase a lot of brand awareness.


And it’s not just about learning things on the surface level, but what you’re doing by going into, for example, Reddit subreddits, is that you’re trying to really unearth something that you don’t typically see on the surface. And when you do spend more time, you will learn things about your audience that you might not have expected before.


I don’t know if you heard about Tube Girl, her name is Sabrina Bahsoon, but she’s become this sort of viral sensation. And when you think about trying to consider dancing in public by yourself on the subway, pretending you’re the main character of a music video and recording yourself at the same time, it’s interesting in our culture and time today, we still perceive people who film themselves in public as strange and weird, even though we love that kind of content.


For Sabrina, what is perceived as initially weird is now turned into confidence. She’s filming herself in the tubes of London and she’s at the front of the cart and there’s people behind her and she looks like she’s pretending like she’s the only person in the room and she exudes sort of this super confidence that maybe most people would shy away from or have a difficult time doing. And MAC Cosmetics saw this and they picked her up really quick. They filmed a whole photo shoot with her. They did sponsored videos with her. They even put her on the runway for London Fashion Week.


And I don’t know MAC’s strategy that well, but seeing that the speed at which they brought her in tells me, first of all, that they’re paying attention and that they’re aware of the people that they were trying to reach. And I think fundamentally what makes her videos so interesting is they’re not even about makeup, they’re just about confidence and how you feel. And MAC obviously understands this and that beauty isn’t necessarily about how people look, but more so how people feel. And so MAC leveraged this as a way to better connect with a younger audience, a younger generation, and next to brands like Rare Beauty or Tower 28 that take up a lot of mind share in youth. And Sabrina is now the face of new confidence now, but MAC is now tied to that.


I think for some context, people need to know that the Tube in London is very different than the New York subway. It’s silent, it’s really taboo. I mean, when I used to ride it, it was taboo if you talked, it’s like there’s a very strict code of normalcy. She was really breaking a lot of social norms, but she was doing it without a care in the world. And I think just to give people context about what it took for her to do that on that rail system specifically.


So what’s the line between being weird or relatable and alienating your customer as a brand? Can you go too far? I’m assuming the answer is yes, but I also think with any brand that engages with weird, there’s different levels and the deeper you go, the more you will speak to the people who get it, while the number of people who don’t get it will increase. So where’s the balance between those two?


Yeah, not every kind of weird makes sense, and that goes for relatability as well. But in general with brands, where can be actually a really powerful way to showcase who your brand is for and who it’s not and ultimately create a lot of strategic differentiation, especially in credit categories. So for example, Half Magic Beauty is a beauty brand that was started by the makeup artist who worked on Euphoria. She was the lead makeup artist. And Half Magic Beauty, when you look at a lot of their photos and a lot of their content, the beauty looks aren’t your typical beauty looks. They’re not like Makeup by Mario or Patrick Ta, or Charlotte Tilbury, where the looks are flawless, they’re beautiful, they’re perfected. Half Magic Beauty is definitely not like that. You see gemstones, eyeliner in places that you probably wouldn’t typically see eyeliner, or colors and shimmers and all these different ways of playing with makeup.


And that’s essentially what Half Magic Beauty is saying, for them beauty is imagination, creativity, and play. It’s not just about creating the most perfected look, but more so about creative self-expression. And on their About Us page, they explicitly call out that Half Magic Beauty is for those who believe that normal means nothing. And so they’ve used that as a way to really, again, create a lot of differentiation in a crowded market.


The second example that I have is for a brand called Fude Experience. And I recently came across it in this LA Times article about the person who went to this dining experience in which you connect with people in the nude. So you’re eating food and you’re just hanging out with people, but nobody’s wearing clothes, everybody’s naked. And it’s sort of weird because it’s also just really vulnerable to put yourself in a room full of strangers completely just naked. But that’s sort of their whole ethos.


For them, nudity is about celebrating your most purest self, your most authentic self, and the way to connect more deeply and authentically with other people is through this act of nudity and sharing food and ritual and things like that. And so was nudity necessarily necessary? I mean, I don’t necessarily think so. There’s tons of different communities, community brands in which they facilitate deeper connection with each other, but Fude Experience is using nudity, for example, as a way to really differentiate themselves against all these other brands that offer very, very similar things. Dinner with Friends is an example. Or there’s this other one where it’s a collective where people get, strangers eat and dine together. So yeah, compared to that, Fude Experience obviously stands out.


Another thing that I was thinking of as I was going through your work and preparing for this episode was I do feel like in some ways you can say that we’ve reached peak relatability, there’s so much exposure, so much vulnerability and messiness and authenticity and however else you want to call it online. I think I’ve seen journalists writing about enough is enough. There’s maybe a little bit of a backlash, but I also don’t see relatability going away. So how do you see the idea of relatability continuing to play out from here?


Even as time goes on, relatability, like you said, will always show up as sort of an important meter of trust because it changes how we communicate and connect with our audiences on the much deeper level. The core of it will stay the same, even if maybe the approach might look different.


And I see this also playing out in a couple of different ways. I think that relatability is really, if it’s at its peak right now, it is reorganizing our culture. And one of those ways is that I see it potentially forcing us to only connect with the people that we want to connect with, the people who are most like us, which results potentially in these echo chambers, which would potentially make it hard for brands to maybe cross certain categories, because it’ll ultimately feel like you’re portraying one for the other.


The other outcome is that I think if you find the right relatability points, you could actually bring in audiences who didn’t feel at first reachable. So another example of this person who I saw on TikTok, her name is Kelsey, and she got The New York Times subscription, printed subscription for her birthday. And she started posting videos of her just literally sitting in front of her phone and just reading The New York Times to her, what she calls her media illiterate audience.


And we know that traditional news has been waning and journalism has been struggling a bit. And more and more people are getting their news from social media platforms like TikTok. And when she reads The New York Times, she doesn’t read it verbatim. She speaks it in a way that younger generations can understand, so by using their language, by using their gestures and lingo while still staying true to the original piece. And it was super effective. She was invited to New York Times to tour. She’s done multiple sponsored posts with them as well as with The Washington Post who also worked with her.


And we know that traditional news has been waning and journalism has been struggling a bit. And more and more people are getting their news from social media platforms like TikTok. And when she reads The New York Times, she doesn’t read it verbatim. She speaks it in a way that younger generations can understand, so by using their language, by using their gestures and lingo while still staying true to the original piece. And it was super effective. She was invited to New York Times to tour. She’s done multiple sponsored posts with them as well as with The Washington Post who also worked with her.


And so relatability is really effective and it works. And in the right spaces, it has the potential to perhaps save journalism or save entire categories. And that’s really interesting and exciting. And all to say what ultimately relatability offers is beyond consumers just buying your products. It’s about a deep connection. And when you create this relatable connection, you ultimately become a part of your audience’s identity. And so they see themselves in your brand, which creates a much more deeper sense of loyalty.


And so people who relate to your brand are more likely to forgive smaller mistakes, they’re more likely to be receptive to change or even the new things that maybe your brand is trying to explore and experiment with. And good brands are capable of having one foot in their identity and one foot in the lives of their audience. So this means obviously staying true to the soul of your brand, not compromising the integrity of your brand, but also understanding that your core audience has the capacity to grow and change.


So we say this a lot and internally too, is when you respect your audience and continue to listen to them, you will ultimately find the things that are relatable. That, in essence, creates depth in your own brand while you’re able to grow at the same time. And some of those things might be weird and some of them might not be, but the ones that last, the brands that last know how to balance both.


What about on the weird side? There’s backlash there too. People are over all the weirdness stuff, like the Duolingo Instagram and all that stuff. What about weird? I don’t see as clear of a path forward for weird. How do you see weird playing out?


There are always weird things whether we say we’re over them or not, and maybe it’s not flashing in our faces, but I believe what’s weird is ultimately what shapes our future. It surfaces the innovations that matter and it really ultimately will shape our culture moving forward and push it into more meaningful places.


I think generally though, the aversion to weird comes from really a place of fear and not knowing and not understanding where it’s coming from because I think when we lean more into weird, we learn more about people. And this is crucial when we think about creating something meaningful for people and creating brands that mean something to people or coming up with technological innovations that can potentially change people’s lives.


Personally, I see more weird coming our way, and that’s super exciting to think about because it’s really the only way newness happens. Otherwise, we’re just recycling old things all the time. Our current culture is craving for something new. And weirdness can be a way to really push us out of that.


And obviously, there are always negative effects, but I’m personally also working to remain optimistic about the future and about how we can really make a positive effect on us in the future, which reminds me of this interview actually with Kevin Kelly who’s a futurist and so-called prophet of the tech world. And he said, “When evaluating new technologies, you always have to ask as compared to what?” So for example, the examples he used was mercury-based dental fillings may cause some harm, but compared to what? Compared to cavities, obviously they’re a miracle. And he also was saying that we tend to scrutinize new technologies over existing ones. For example, with social media, we talk about how all this misinformation spread through social media and things like that. And he was like, “Well, as compared to what?” Even social media’s influence on elections, for example, was far less than the existing media outlets and traditional talk radio, which were false information was just very, very rampant itself.


So all this to say that it’s easy to dismiss weirdness as something that might be unproductive, as zoning out or a pet rock or whatever, but when we shift our perspective, it has the potential to really tell us something important about our future. And it’s an opportunity for brands to play and experiment and innovate. And when you lean into weirdness, you can have the potential to discover something very profound about your audience or your industry, which can in turn help you grow your brand, create more brand loyalty and strategic differentiation.


Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you’re new here and like what you’re listening to, do us a favor and leave a review. Those reviews mean a lot and they help our audience grow. And don’t forget, you can always get more of our brand strategy and culture articles, our videos, our podcasts, all at conceptbureau.com. And while you’re there, you can also sign up for our awesome newsletter that will deliver valuable thinking to your inbox a few times a month. I promise you will love it more than your other newsletters. It’s a bold claim, but I stand by it. We put a lot of heart and work into that newsletter and I really want you to get it. Anyways, thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time.

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