This post is by Ben Essen, head of planning at iris.

Question. What percentage of Volvo drivers are regular cyclists?

What fraction of Always $3.4 billion worldwide sales are made by 13 year-old girls? How many of Burger King's customers are gay?

Mainstream brands constantly seek Big Ideas powered by Universal Insights. As Byron Sharp tells us, brand penetration requires advertising at scale – and an ability to appeal to as many people as possible. The accepted wisdom is therefore that we must create inclusive ideas that alienate as few people as possible. Research is used to overcome objections and find the common ground acceptable to the average consumer. When our target is everyone and our media is the globe there's no time to pander to the long-tail of niche interests and demographics.

It's interesting, then, to look at some of the big Cannes winners.

Volvo's Life Paint, a multiple Grand Prix winner, broke new ground for the brand by extending their 'safety' purpose into a whole new category of vehicle. The end benefit to a Volvo driver is obvious, but the business plan less so. How does a cycling accessory, given away free in Hoxton, help sell family cars in the suburbs? It's easy to imagine the kinds of challenge this concept would have faced in making it to market and it's safe to say most car brands would have rejected the idea in favour of a concept built more squarely for the people who buy their cars. But it was only by jumping the tracks of their category into a lateral niche that the idea captured the imagination of the public at large (including a lot of suburban families).

Meanwhile Magnum's new 'Be true to your pleasure' campaign, which features an array of models of non-conforming gender was celebrated at Cannes by Unilever's CMO Keith Weed as the best recent example of his company's drive for creative brilliance. Burger King's Proud Whopper picked up a Gold Lions. The LGBT community remain a minority and are not the core target audience for these brands – hence why they have been noticeable by their advertising absence for so many years. But it is precisely their 'nicheness' that makes it feel so compelling and credible to hero them: the more nuanced the idea, the closer to multifaceted modern life it feels. 

That's why the truly cut-through brands are those fracking for insights in unchartered and untapped parts of culture. They are deliberately avoiding the conceptual middle ground and embracing the 'outliers' at the edges. Their ideas are still underpinned by big, universal human truths – a desire to belong, a need for safety, a love of pleasure – but those truths are brought to life in ways that feels decidedly un-average.

Always' #LikeaGirl, another of the festival's big winners, is an idea born from nuance. Their 'big' idea: the misappropriation of a single turn of phrase. 60 million views and counting all for the debate about the meaning of a phrase – who knew etymology could prove so popular? It turns out there's nothing more powerful than a spot of subtlety.

The same is true for media. The two most media-driven success stories at Cannes – Domino's Emoji ordering and Geico's Unskippable pre-rolls both find their strength in a laser focus on the niche media context (mobile Twitter and YouTube respectively). These ideas succeeded, and caught people's imaginations, by picking up on the little nuances of how people feel when using the channels. They deliver a sense of knowingness ("we know you want to skip this") that is lost in your typical '360' campaign plan.

Why is nuance winning big? Modern marketing audiences have seen it all before, and understand it all better than ever. Tired of the same old stories they are willing and able to explore cultural ideas outside the obvious – and increasingly gravitate towards challenging thoughts that help them connect new synapses and feel new feelings.

Ironically the one country who mastered nuanced, subtle advertising 20 years before everyone else was the UK. But at a time when countries around the world are tapping into more nuance than ever, much British advertising seems to be going in the other direction: a populist race to the lowest common denominator. Perhaps as our research infrastructure has matured we have become too good at finding the common ground.

So what's the lesson? Marc Matthieu, incoming CMO of Samsung North America spoke at the Admap prize event about the need to 'de-average' marketing. This shouldn't be taken as a message simply about media and its increasing personalisation, but about culture and the kinds of ideas that capture modern imaginations. In a globalised world where everything starts to look the same, people are crying out for ideas that take them somewhere new.

So let's let go of the middle ground, step away from the common denominator. Unchartered cultural niches are waiting to be explored, with Lions living in them…