Pancakes made from crickets, lamps made from fungus, handbags made from discarded cow stomachs, and charcoal made from human feces.
The ideas for these products came easily to their inventors. The hard part is trying to sell them to finicky consumers grossed out by the ick factor. But where there is a will, there is a way to sell even the most repulsive products by changing how the public perceives them.
That process is part of what INSEAD organizational behavior professor Spencer Harrison and Wharton management professor Samir Nurmohamed call “dirty creativity,” which they define as novel and useful ideas or products that are stigmatized in the context in which they are introduced.
“The idea for the research came out of conversations that Spencer and I were having about what we teach our students,” Nurmohamed said. “When we talk about creativity to our students and executives, they often think of it as something very novel or innovative. But what a lot of entrepreneurs and companies realize is that they have to put these novel items out there in a form that people will embrace.”
This tricky transformation is the key to success for dirty creativity, he said. It’s what has inspired consumers to gobble up lab-grown hamburgers, sit on furniture built out of recycled construction debris, and wear clothes woven from plastic waste.
The professors interviewed dozens of creative workers and their associates, surveyed more than 200 consumers, and culled through countless written articles and reviews about weird products to determine how they become accepted in the marketplace. They found two specific tactics: relocating the dirt and recasting the dirt as value.
“Our inductive theory reveals that creative workers champion their products by drawing attention to the dirtiness while simultaneously mitigating the ramifications of doing so,” they wrote in the paper titled “Dirty Creativity: An Inductive Study of How Creative Workers Champion New Designs that are Stigmatized” published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
“Nobody says, ‘I’m eating cow’ when they are eating steak. These are labels that we use to reframe what we are eating.”— Samir Nurmohamed
Relocate the Dirt to a Less Stigmatized Place
Helping consumers develop a taste for an unpalatable product or service requires a bit of shuffling to “relocate” the item from a place of stigma. Dirty creatives do this through wordplay by developing a vocabulary that connects the product to more familiar, normal items. Instead of describing insect-based food as made from ground crickets, inventors label it as cricket flour. The owner of a clothing company that uses ink made from captured air pollution said their products started selling after they rebranded from Pollution Ink to Sky-Ink.
“We talk about relocating dirt as this idea of not hiding or concealing, but moving the stigma of dirtiness within a network of common ideas that people have,” Nurmohamed said. “Nobody says, ‘I’m eating cow’ when they are eating steak. These are labels that we use to reframe what we are eating. What these entrepreneurs are doing is the same. They are trying to come up with a connective vocabulary so that their products are more pleasing.”
In addition to connective vocabulary, designers also have to disguise the dirt in a way that doesn’t signal stigma. In other words, they relocate consumer attention away from the ickiness. One example cited in the paper is Worm Tofu, a company that makes tofu and ice cream out of ground mealworms. “I can definitely say we get more people tasting worm tofu than we would if we just showed up with a plate of steamed worms,” the owner told the professors. The maker of cow-stomach handbags said they choose to reinvent the discarded material as handbags because accessories are instantly recognizable to consumers.
Recast the Dirt as a Valuable Product
The final step for dirty creatives is recasting the dirt as something of value. This is most commonly achieved by refining the aesthetics of a product, like creating cow-stomach bags that are lovely enough to make the consumer forget about the contents. These innovators also work hard to emphasize the sustainability of their products as an important reason to buy them.
“To create a cleaner planet, we need products that make us more comfortable being close to waste.”— Samir Nurmohamed
“Recasting is all about instilling the features of whatever is dirty and trying to redeem the value,” Nurmohamed said. “It’s sometimes a harder argument to make for people. If you look at crickets as food, it’s much more sustainable than cows or other animals, and you get a lot more nutritional bang for your buck. But you aren’t going to persuade everyone to eat them.”
The professor said it’s also a challenge to convince consumers that their novel products are safe, especially when there are no standards of comparison because similar products do not exist. This is why these innovators are taking the initiative to create their own standards to ensure safety.
How to Destigmatize Repulsive Products for a Cleaner Planet
Selling what seems like a crazy idea is particularly important these days because of the attention on the circular economy. More consumers are demanding environmentally friendly practices and less waste generation. The circular economy is expected to grow, and so will the need for dirty creativity, according to the professors.
“To create a cleaner planet, we need products that make us more comfortable being close to waste. For organizations to conform to a circular economy, products will increasingly rely on dirty creativity,” they wrote.
Nurmohamed said many of the entrepreneurs he interviewed for the research believe in a higher purpose for their dirty creativity and want their products to succeed for reasons beyond profit. That component of social impact resonates deeply with his students, he said.
“Entrepreneurship is already an uphill battle, and then you’re adding this even bigger obstacle, which is that the idea is inherently stigmatized or tainted,” he said. “But a lot of these entrepreneurs are willing to do this. They want these ingredients to be part of the solution, and there is something really cool and interesting about that when you think about the meaning of work.”