Let's Get Freaky

🥴 How "Unhinged" Brands Are Winning And You Can Too 🥜

👋 Hello fellow Ladderers!

Firstly, my sincere apologies for the late edition this week.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in paddle pop stick dinosaurs and hiding confectionery with the school holidays. Three kids, two in primary school now and I’m still taken by surprise when school holidays come round, which feels like every two weeks.

Also, Official Announcement: We’re moving send dayz! YAY!

If you didn’t notice, today is a beautiful Sunday - and from now on that’s where you’ll be able to find The Ladder each week going forward. All tightly rolled-up and safely secured in your inbox waiting for you and your Sunday morning coffee ☕️ 

If you missed last week’s case study on Duolingo and how you can put into action some of the lessons learned in hitting 600 million users, you can catch-up here

This week:

I hope you enjoy.

It’s hip to be square,

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While everyone else is looking respectable in their khakis and a polo, you get to be the mo-hawk and leather jacket. Which one gets all the attention?


⏱️ ~ 9 minutes 27 seconds read

Normally I like to start our weekly essays off with a bit of a story or analogy, but today this…

Someone in the PBR social team, thought this was a good idea.

Someone much smarter in the Slim Jim social team, thought this was a great opportunity for the burn 🔥 

This week we’re taking a look into the edgelord (yes, that’s a word look it up) world of “Unhinged” marketing.

“Unhinged” is a relatively new phenomenon, and after spending several days bathing in it a) I’m vibing this might actually be a bit of game-changer and b) I think I need a shower.

So let’s get freaky.


Unhinged Marketing is a relatively new form of content that uses trends, meme culture, irreverent brand voices, nonsensical content, and in some cases literally satirises traditional marketing.

Sounds like letting your 21 year old nephew loose on the brand account right? And TBH that’s kinda what we’re talking about here.

But underneath the “social media intern gone wild” vibe, it’s really marketing that flips the bird to the serious, polished, corporate-approved and bland “brand” voices most firms have relied on being able to shove down people’s throats for decades.

In some cases it’s a complete brand identity (like Liquid Death) or more often than not it’s a stylistic flex of one or more digital/ social channels of a brand (like Wendys). We’ll get to these examples later.

Why do it? Well it earns seriously outsized attention for the effort that goes in - kinda sounds like the original promise of organic social media for brands huh? Remember that? Remember all those marketing ‘futurists’ on stage in 2010 babbling on about “you build this direct relationship with an audience - and you don’t have to pay for advertising!” - Anyway, I digress.

It earns outsized attention for brands because it takes on a real personality, is often snarky and willing to roast others and critically; is willing to be disliked, especially by those it knows is not its target audience.

Being willing to be disliked is financially brave, and not something many brands are willing to be.

I’ve always found this puzzling. But I’ve also seen bravery killed a million times over when it comes to the inner-workings of a firm's social media accounts or digital channels.

Every senior person in the organisation sees the IG feed as a personal reflection of their career and professionalism - most don’t bother to even check the TikTok account. Maybe that’s why this is often where the Unhinged starts….

So let’s take a look at some of the best examples around and then I’ll share with you why this might just be one of the most exciting things to happen in marketing in recent years and how you might consider getting in on that sweet sweet action.


I gotta say researching this week’s edition has been an absolute delight! So much Unhinged, crazy AF that’s kept me giggling through my day. I should spend more time with a bit of what you're about to see.

Let’s take a look at what you might call the “big-uns” of Unhinged (in no particular order):

Duolingo - You can’t do a piece on Unhinged without showcasing the biggest account of them all. Probably the brand that really brought Unhinged to the messes - but what makes Duolingo such an outstanding case study is how perfectly they navigate the fine balance between snarky, pop-culture and borderline “nope” with the fundamental promise and purpose of the product in every post (getting those daily lessons in). Perfection 🤌


sad g(owl) hours #duoplushie #duolingo #languagelearning #emo


bebop ❤️😭 #duolingo #kpop


En route ⚓️🌊 #northsea #duolingo

Wendy’s - The genuine OG of Unhinged, Wendy’s first flipped their lid and starting torching unhappy customers on twitter in 2017. It went off and they simply doubled-down. Probably still the most refreshing brand account on X these days although, some of the newer entrants really do give them a run.

Ryan Air - Probably my favourite as they go very hard on the snarky customer feedback and lean right into meme culture and trends, all the while remaining perfectly positioned to appeal to their bullseye target market Gen Z travellers. Clever lo-fi mascot too with the eyes on the plane. I love this TikTok.


We’ve seen it all…. #ryanair #ksi


its giving fomo 😭 #ryanair


€19.99 or €136,000,000 your choice 🤷‍♀️ #stairs #ryanair

Scrub Daddy - These dudes take it to a whole new level. NSFW audio warning on the first TikTok here. Seriously, just try to watch this first TikTok without smiling… I don’t know if I’m in the market for cleaning products, but I’ve got one brand burned into my memory now 🧽 


Wowzers! What a great product! 😀. #scrubdaddy #smile #cleantok #cleaningtiktok #americasfavoritesponge #scrubdaddycif


A duster that is damp… Who would’ve thought?? 🤔 #scrubdaddy #smile #cleantok #cleaningtiktok #americasfavoritesponge #dampduster


Do it for love. #scrubdaddy #smile #cleantok #cleaningtiktok #americasfavoritesponge

Honestly there’s so much more.

If you’re in need of more giggles and sh examples check out Nutter Butter, and Liquid Death.


Why is Unhinged becoming a trend? Because it’s breaking the brand rules, it’s grabbing attention (which gets the attention of marketers) and it’s resonating with a generation that’s famously “impossible” to reach.

I’m not going to get into a “generation this, generation that” thing here - however something that uniquely characterises Gen Z and some younger Millennials right now is a strong BS radar for brand content and deep respect for authenticity and humour.

Differentiated from Millennial “Instagram-polished” content - Unhinged appeals to Gen Z who are hyper aware that a person behind every social post and they want to see real content from a real person. But above all, they want to be entertained.

The most effective unhinged marketing uses humour, and at the heart of good humour is truth. Honesty and authenticity are the foundations of what makes Unhinged work.

If you’re just trying Unhinged on for the weekend, good luck, they’ll smell it a mile away and you’ll regret it - either through some serious trolling or shooting yourself in the foot (I’ll share some delicious fails later).

Also, the chaotic and unpredictable nature of Unhinged connects with consumers through a certain type of empathy. Unhinged tells audiences “The world is whack, you’re whack and so are we. We get you fam”.

It’s the “we’re in this together” message, but with integrity and without the nauseating piano and dystopian aerial shots.

The “outside the safe zone” aspect of unhinged marketing is exactly what makes it stand out, as most brands are simply unwilling to do anything unsafe. Which means for savvy marketers there is white space to be attacked.

If you have a clear customer profile that looks like someone who spends a decent amount of time with their eyeballs fused to TikTok - you have an Unhinged play to consider.


Because the above listed heroes have earned some serious word count in industry rags of late, there’s been no shortage of wanna-be-heroes attempting to throw themselves off buildings without a cape.

Let’s take a bit of a look at “the cooked”, and see if we can take a lesson or two on how not to do Unhinged - ⚠️ WARNING STRONG THEMES INCOMING ⚠️ 

Yeah, banks telling people what to do with their money didn’t go down well 😅 

This was an actual ad that Snapchat ran… Yikes. 😱 

This, as you can imagine, caught absolute fire on twitter 🔥 

So. they backed it in with even more… Now they are no more #RIP

Where every single one of the above went wrong is in not reading the room. Not everything outlandish is worth saying. How your brand makes an Unhinged move depends entirely on what your product is, how it fits into people’s lives and most importantly, are you punching up, or playing along?

Even Duolingo makes a wrong move from time to time - but they apologize and get on with the show. But to do this you have to have already earned that trust and social capital. Banks and megacorps are less likely to get a pass.


Unhinged is showing us that whilst crystal clear brand strategy is fundamental to execution and overall growth, there’s a very important aspect of meeting consumers where they are, earning the right to their attention, dropping the veil and showing some authenticity and critically it shows that channel strategy is more important than ever.

It’s crazy this needs reminding but, your LinkedIn should look nothing like your TikTok account.

It’s easy to disregard Unhinged as a flash-in-the-pan marketing “moment”, but I think there’s something deeper to it. This is not an NFT, Metaverse, 5G hype moment.

I think it is the signalling of a larger, transformative moment in marketing, where things aren’t ever quite the same after. Let me explain.

Unhinged social is exactly what social platforms are built for. All your usual beige brand posts get exactly what they deserve, a shrug (but fear not, there’s an ad system for that “branded content”).

And social platforms, like it or not, are where the vast amount of consumers' attention and lives are lived these days. There’s simply no comparison when it comes to cheap accessible reach and distribution but it requires thought, empathy, cleverness and above all a desire to ‘get’ your audience and give to them - not just ‘sell’ them.

These audiences have been delighted and expectations have been set via Unhinged content.

And I don’t think this expectation and relationship with brands is going to change for Gen Z going forward. I think this remains. Yes, it will change in its form - and as Gen Z gets older and TikTok becomes today’s IG or Facey, how that honesty and authenticity comes through might not be quite so snarky and harsh, but the expectation will remain.

And the smartest brand communicators will take note. They will understand the psychological dynamics at play here, they will persist and adapt.

And things won’t be the same again for truly savvy communicators and brands.


So how do you be one of those savvy communicators and brands? Is this a playbook applicable to all? How do I avoid becoming another Radioshack edgelord?

The first question to ask yourself is do you have 15 to 30 year olds in your target market? And that shouldn’t be just a “sure why not 🤷”, this should be a “heck yes we do - bullseye! 👊”

Fantastic. Now it’s time to pull the team together and start looking at the opportunity for your brand.

Here’s a 10 step action guide that will help you think through, carefully plan, mitigate risk, get buy in and then launch your own Unhinged strategy:

  1. "Unhinged" Marketing Landscape Analysis Workshop:

    • Objective: To review and dissect successful and unsuccessful cases of "Unhinged" marketing across various industries. This here article might prove a good starting point 😉

    • Activities: Analyse examples, identify patterns in successes and failures, and derive key insights relevant to your brand’s context.

  2. Target Audience Deep Dive Session:

    • Objective: To gain a nuanced understanding of the 18-30 year old demographic that constitutes your brand's target market.

    • Activities: Do your primary and secondary market research - use social listening tools, and customer data to create a detailed persona representing this demographic. Get under the skin and get really clear on who you’re looking to entertain.

  3. Brand Voice, Identity, Themes and Channels Workshop:

    • Objective: To assess the current brand voice and identity and its alignment with "Unhinged" marketing principles.

    • Activities: Evaluate existing brand materials and social media presence to identify potential for more authentic, irreverent communication - what are the adjacent content themes and topics you could find some truths to expose and have some fun with? Also get 100% clear on what channels are in and what are out for your Unhinged play. Also consider, how does this look? Do we need to make our other channels slightly more playful to enable this?

  4. Risk Assessment and Mitigation Planning: 🥱 

    • Objective: To identify potential risks associated with adopting an "Unhinged" marketing strategy and plan for mitigation.

    • Activities: Scenario planning for potential backlash, legal considerations, and brand image risks, with development of response strategies. Develop a really clear “no go” list of topics and areas that you simply will not touch - this is key. Also develop a process for “wowser-proofing”, where someone with almost zero humour can review content and prompt ways this might be taken out of context and used against you.

  5. Creative Ideation and Tissue Lab:

    • Objective: To generate and ideate on "Unhinged" marketing concepts and campaigns.

    • Activities: Use brainstorming techniques and rapid prototyping to create a range of ideas from across your previous themes and voice work, from mildly unconventional to highly disruptive/ inappropriate.

  6. Stakeholder Engagement Sessions:

    • Objective: To build buy-in and prepare senior stakeholders for a shift in marketing strategy.

    • Activities: Present findings from the landscape analysis, audience deep dive, and ideation lab, highlighting the strategic rationale and expected benefits.

  7. Ethics and Brand Consistency Roundtable:

    • Objective: To ensure that "Unhinged" marketing efforts remain ethical and consistent with the brand’s core values.

    • Activities: Develop guidelines for maintaining brand integrity and ethical standards, even when pushing boundaries. This includes the above protocols for “wowser-proofing” and reputational management.

  8. Pilot Campaign Planning and Execution Workshop:

    • Objective: To plan and launch a pilot "Unhinged" marketing campaign based on insights and ideas generated.

    • Activities: Select a concept series from the ideation lab - even if it’s a serious shift go for your favourite and most high-potential idea (don’t half-ass-unhinge it), develop a detailed campaign plan, executed over at least a couple of weeks and test effectiveness, engagement and gather feedback.

  9. Review and Analyse Results:

    • Objective: To review the outcomes of the pilot campaign, gather learnings, and consider next steps.

    • Activities: Analyze campaign performance data, collect qualitative feedback from stakeholders (inside and outside the organisation) and the target audience, and then take a position on if this was successful and should be considered a way forward for the brand.

  10. Long Term Strategy:

    • Objective: To equip the entire marketing team with the evidence, knowledge and strategy to successfully execute Unhinged year-round.

    • Activities: Using the above documents and processes - step the approach out into a complete strategy for the chosen social channel. Develop BAU processes that bring the team together regularly to ideate, challenge, forward plan, review and create unhinged content that grows the brand and evolves with it’s audience.

By systematically working through these workshops and actions, you can carefully evaluate how fit for Unhinged your brand is, develop a clear plan of attack, and secure the necessary support (if needed). Sure, you can squish a few of these in together - but you can see the flow.

That’s it for today - Inspired by our Duolingo case study the week earlier, I hope you enjoyed our dive into Unhinged marketing and perhaps took away some food for thought for how you might be able to inject a little “WTF?!?” into your marketing.

For me, underneath all the talking planes and pooping owls, I think this is something really powerful that is not going to change going forward, particularly on social media - and I hope you can use this to stay ahead of the pack.

  • Have I got this wrong and am just fanboying all over a marketing ‘flavour of the month’?

  • Are you currently following any of these Unhinged brands on social media?

  • Have seen other examples where it has diabolically failed?

Hit reply, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If you enjoyed this edition, please forward it to a friend who’s looking to level-up their social and Gen Z game - they’ll love you for it (and I will too) ⏭️ 💌

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Each week I'm here to answer any question you might have in the space of marketing, strategy, leadership, digital and everything in between.

Just hit 'reply' and let me know what's on your mind, and I'll share my answer with the community the very next week, including a special shout out (if you're into that, otherwise we can keep it anon) 🥸 

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