As Consumers Crave Rebellion, Turn to the Carnivalesque

What Savage X Fenty and Crocs can teach brands

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After three years of pandemic-driven anxiety, societal division and occupational burnout, consumers are eager to buy brands and relish in experiences that offer inclusive escape, freedom and joyful rebellion.

Indeed, consumers are embracing irreverent and playful brands like Liquid Death, which promises to “murder your thirst” with its canned water and recruited a porn star to remind people not to “f*** the planet” in a sustainability campaign. They’re celebrating iconoclastic artists like Lil Nas X, known for camp fashion and scandalous performances like giving Satan a lap dance in his music video for “Montero.” They’re gathering at events such as the anti-consumerist Burning Man festival, the music and arts festival Coachella, and vibrant Pride parades.

Tarot cards, crystals, and themes of witchcraft and astrology are increasingly permeating consumer goods and branding. And carnivalcore—an aesthetic associated with neon signs, bright colors, tacky art and joyful atmospheres—is the new interior design trend, displacing the coziness of cottagecore.

What exactly is carnivalesque?

The concept of the carnivalesque was first described by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in the 1960s. Bakhtin originally described carnivalesque experiences as gatherings characterized by grotesque realism, transgressive resistance, laughter, play and sexuality. At the carnival, attendees flout social norms, turn hierarchies upside down, freely express sexual desires and confront taboo subjects head-on, often through humor, mockery or satire. Fun and debauchery reign supreme.

However, while this may give you some idea of what carnivalesque experiences look and feel like, the concept has yet to be well-defined or crystalized in the area of marketing and branding, making it difficult for brand managers and experience designers to identify the specific ingredients for creating an authentic carnivalesque experience.

However, through consumer research conducted with colleagues at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, we have developed a more precise understanding of what constitutes the carnivalesque, distilling the concept down to four defining features: rebellious, fun, nonjudgmental and sexual.

We observed a positive relationship between feelings of anxiety, boredom and loneliness, and interest in carnivalesque brands and experiences.

The rebellious aspect relates to brands being anti-authority and boundary-pushing. Fun captures the silly, jokester aspects of the carnival. The nonjudgmental aspect encompasses whether a brand feels welcoming and inclusive. And the sexual dimension describes the extent to which a brand or experience feels naughty, suggestive or has sensual overtones.

When these four features come together, carnivalesque emerges. Thus, while different brands and experiences may express the carnivalesque in unique ways, they typically share these four essential features, even if certain dimensions are more or less exaggerated across instances.

Why the carnivalesque now?

Bakhtin and subsequent writers suggested that part of the appeal of carnivalesque experiences is the temporary freedom they offer from rigid social expectations and stress stemming from cultural, political and religious pressures. The carnivalesque, Bakhtin mused, represents an escape, liberation and ecstasy from an otherwise oppressive and dull society.

Through our research, we found evidence in support of this hypothesis. Specifically, we observed a positive relationship between feelings of anxiety, boredom and loneliness, and interest in carnivalesque brands and experiences.

Consumers who view the world as dangerous, and those who desire autonomy, also showed a stronger preference for carnivalesque brands and experiences compared to consumers who see the world as safe or have a lower need for autonomy. The more consumers feel trapped, the more they pine for release.

Thus, some brands trying to connect with consumers who are feeling stressed, frustrated or lonely may be wise to consider integrating carnivalesque themes into messaging and experiences. Does your target market or consumer community feel chronically anxious or bored?

Determine your brand archetype: Do consumers see you as a caregiver, an explorer or an expert resource? If so, a carnivalesque experience may not be the right fit for your brand image. On the other hand, if consumers view your brand as an outlaw or an everyman, the carnivalesque may be a better fit.

For example, Savage X Fenty—Rihanna’s lingerie line known for confidence-inspiring inclusivity—has created effective, brand-aligning experiences that tap into the four features of the carnivalesque, such as its Savage in the Streets event. This works because both Savage X Fenty and carnivalesque experiences celebrate inclusion, authenticity, rebellion and embracing one’s sensuality.

If you think carnivalesque is the right fit for your brand, consider how to embody its pillars through the lens of your brand image. Ask yourself: How can the different pillars of the carnivalesque be best brought to life through the perspective or values of my brand and what my customers expect from it?

Crocs, for example, often fosters a carnivalesque tone through its marketing and social presence, but in a way that aligns with its positioning and image. In terms of rebellion, Crocs frequently creates polarizing and surprising product collaborations with partners such as KFC, Post Malone, General Mills and Justin Bieber. The defiantly authentic nature of the shoes allows Crocs wearers to feel a sense of liberation from social expectations and norms.

Meanwhile, Crocs embraces fun through these loud, colorful, playful and imaginative product designs and surrounding digital content. It promotes the inclusive and nonjudgmental aspect by leaning into the idea that everyone should feel welcome to use the shoes (and accompanying Jibbitz) as a form of self-expression—even if many people wouldn’t be caught dead wearing them. In fact, the notion that many consumers don’t want to wear Crocs because they see them as ugly or different reinforces the rebellious and playful nature of the carnivalesque product experience.

While the sexual is less emphasized in Crocs marketing and social media—because it is not as clearly aligned with the brand image—some elements can be discerned in certain collaborators such as Nicki Minaj, who posed wearing little else besides her hot pink Crocs in promotional images.

Crocs takes the pillars of the carnivalesque but reinterprets and conveys them in a way that makes sense for its brand. As a result, carnivalesque marketing at Crocs looks decidedly different than, say, Liquid Death or Savage X Fenty, while offering the same feelings of liberation, release and freedom from hierarchies and rigid social expectations.

This is how brands should think about creating carnivalesque experiences for their consumers, using the four pillars as a strategic guide to shape their voice and image.