It’s time for marketing to stop promising false notions of individuality.
Individuality is overrated. In fact it’s become a distressing, destructive and depressive idea. Earnest psychologists such as Oliver James, author of the Selfish Capitalist, propose and provide evidence, that it actually causes a variety of mental illnesses from anxiety, to isolation to depression. In short it can make you mad. Alain de Botton, this time a philosopher, eloquently described our society as one that champions impossible ideals and puts people in perpetual anxiety over whether they are ‘occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall into a lower one’. Even hard nosed economists have woken up to the fact that the overly simplistic Adam Smith’ principals of the ‘invisible hand’ in business have led to a collective failure of financial systems commonly known now as the ‘the recession’. The ambitions of the few are the cause of the suffering of the many. Regardless of which pet discipline you like: psychology, philosophy or economics it is clear that this business of individuality has gone too far.
Naturally, these problems are due to a number of factors; politics, schools, t.v. media etc, however I will discuss how marketing contributes to this mess. Marketing and advertising still continue to play a significant role in the psychological, social and economical implications of selfish capitalism. I believe that it is a particular, type of marketing that is responsible. It probably began with a strategy that eventually became the archetype for many others. It promised individuality, granted permission for humans, who are normally social animals, to become selfish capitalists. It declared that you should: ‘Have it your way’.
Individuality often built on insecurity has been drummed into consumers minds, sunk into their hearts and shoved down their throats for decades … here is a small collection from Wikipedia:
“Have it your way” – Burger King
“You. First” – Banglalink GSM
“Expect great things” – Lucent Technologies
“Expect the world” – New York Times
“Express yourself” – Lavazza Coffee
“How many bars do you have?” – AT&T
“If you don’t get it you don’t get it” Wash. Post
“It’s for you” – BT
“See what you can do” – O2
“Broadcast yourself” – YouTube
“Yours is here” – Dell
“Where do you want to go today” – Microsoft
“Be extraordinary” – E-Trade
“What’s in your wallete” – Capital One
“Accelerate your life” – US Navy
“It could be you” – National Lottery
“Be the first to know” – CNN
“So where the bloody hell are you?” – Tourism Australia
“Thousands of possibilities. Get yours.” Best Buy
“The power to be your best” – Apple
“Live your life” – American Eagle
“Entertainment your way” – SKY
“Hear what you like when you like” Rex Records
“Drive your way” – Hyundai
“Your Airline” – Air India
“Make yourself heard” – Ericsson
“Because you are worth it” – L’Oreal
“Your Fragrance, Your Rules” – Hugo Boss
“You Gotta Have it” – Lisa Frank
“You are the one who’s number one” – Pathmark
“It’s time for U” – UPN
Marketers have often built this promise of individuality loosely on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. ‘Self-Actualization’ that appears right at the top of this hierarchy is a result of individuals fulfilling their potential. Fine in theory, but has horrible implications when practiced in marketing. The idea that consumers should engage in a relentless race to own and consume products & services that promise selfish individuality have created what I will call Generation I.
Generation I is the ‘Insecure’ generation. For decades marketing has largely used Maslow and other theories of individuality as the basis for setting aspirations and expectations that are generally impossible to match in reality. It has in fact created a viscous circle that played on and fed people’s insecurities as Chuck Palahniuk explained once:
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”
My contention is that Generation I is – in reality – far from the self-satisfied, self-proclaimed individual, independent and influential rulers of their cocooned universes. It is an insecure generation that is caught in a perpetual race of trying to keep up with the Joneses and engage in mindless materialism. Of-course some materialism is necessary such as homes, clothing etc but the kind of materialism discussed here is insecurity based. It’s the type that is a response to the enormous pressure in western and developed societies to be an individual. To stand out. To equate one’s progress with their possessions.
A couple of documentary Czech film makers launched a campaign around a spoof new mega mall in Prague. They’ve literally built an ad campaign promoting the non existent store. The film charted the journey from the ads to thousands of people who’ve come to the store on the launch day. After the collapse of the soviet system and years of lack of western style materialism there was an insatiable appetite. The filmmakers were essentially firing a warning shot, asking the question do we really want this? Should we jump head on into mindless capitalism? On the opening day of the fake store thousands turned up all hoping to buy a new t.v. set or perhaps to fill a deeply set insecurity.
Plato stated the obvious eons ago, hinting at the dark side of individuality:
“Winners stand alone”
The irony is that even at it’s moment of supposed triumph, individuality becomes isolation. Standing out, is by definition, breaking away from the group and the community. This is even more worrying. Multiplied by millions of marketing messages, un-supervised financial institutions and disappointing politicians, societies become a fragmented collage of highly macho and individualistic dreams. A collection of individual-group-thinkers. The so called triumph of selfish individualistic capitalism becomes society’s collective failure.
Let’s consider how consumers today are claiming back their rights to be the social animals that they are. The astronomical explosion of social media online in many ways is consumers’ way of claiming their rights to simply connect and belong. To co-create and collaborate, meet and organise themselves and others around them. Technology have not only made them more inter-connected but also inter-dependent.
On an another level research from the Future Foundation has shown that at least in western societies where women have been making great progress into public and professional lives this has resulted in a move towards the more feminine values in culture of sharing, socialising and collaboration.
Meanwhile in ad land, brands are still peddling archaic macho strategies and toxic notions of individuality. Desperately failing to grasp the full implications of what consumers are doing online and where culture is going. They are being autistic in choosing not to hear what consumers are saying which is: ‘thanks we actually want to hang out with our friends if you don’t mind’. Or as a respondent in a group recently told us more aptly:
“I want to be independent like all my friends”
Individuality in a way is only a route to what people need – that’s belonging. Belonging is perhaps the more ‘human’ way of building brands.
From the environment, to poverty, from medicine to technology, social systems that are designed to bring people together, brains together and above all collective actions are exactly what we should champion and build in marketing. The reality is that in the wake of the recession the business world needs to look into more co-operative and collaborative forms of progress that go beyond the selfish capitalism of the few to the greater good of the many. The far more interesting model for a better form of capitalism is to think of ways where contribution not mere consumption is the objective. Brands that selfishly existed to make the customers consume more without a further contribution beyond their product are at a grave risk of becoming nothing more than a cost without a care. Some of this thinking is captured in co-opportunity – a new a book by John Grant. In it, he discusses the nature of new types of models where it isn’t communication anymore once you add the social dimension – it is actually a social innovation. The co-operative mentality I am proposing and the actions described by Grant are all indications of what social could mean to brands, it’s not individuality that they promise anymore it’s the genuine actions that demonstrate true commitment to their consumers and society at large. The basis of this commitment is not a fake promise of ‘if you buy this you will be individual’ it is the higher healthier delivery of what people really want and that’s not individuality but rather interdependence.
Is it possible to create collective identities where the objective is not the selfish, lonely and impossible illusion of individuality? The answer is yes:
Firstly, the fundamental shift that marketers need to make is that a brand is not an image that could be managed simply by changing the ad campaign. It is an experience. An experience in it’s widest sense of the word. A brand like IKEA is not managed by simply changing the ads it’s a brand that is fundamentally an experience in every aspect from the product to the packaging to what you could do with the product eventually. At it’s core is a social idea – democracy of design – this is translated into every aspect of that brand. It is an ethos, a commitment and an intention to improve the lives of the many people. (for more on my thinking on brand as an experience read this article).
Secondly, brands that build their marketing around bringing people together instead of pushing them apart by encouraging, facilitating a sense of belonging between it’s customers will be better placed to survive in the hyper connected world of today. See box.
Thirdly, it is fundamentally about ‘doing’ not ‘saying’. Delivering the ethos of interdependence has to be something that the brand ‘does’ in order to show that it cares enough about its’ public to do something about it. Brands should be living up to commitments not producing campaigns.
T-Mobile: Life’s for sharing Campaign UK.
In a really competitive telecoms market T-Mobile needed to differentiate beyond price and offers. A strategy was established built on how life is lived live and broadcasted instantly to friends, family and strangers using mobile and web. Telephony was changing how people related to one another. Everything was lived now and shared now.
With this as the backdrop the idea was to create iconic and spontaneous experiences that gel together friends and strangers. The events were designed to be amazing enough to compell audiences to share. DANCE was the first out. An outbreak of spontaneous dance in Liverpool street captured the imagination of those present with random people joining and broadcasting the event on multiple digital media live and as it was happening. This campaign and it’s sibling SING in Trafalger Square were hugely successful for the brand on all metrics. But most importantly it delivered on the brand idea, the consumer reality and the commercial objectives. Above all it was a genuine brand experience that was worth sharing. A good example of the ethos that brands should do not say.
Life’s for Sharing.
What if we didn’t sell stuff based on a fake sense of individuality and ultimately isolation?
What if we didn’t give consumers the poor substitute of a mental experience instead of a real life one?
What if we didn’t aim to make consumer run towards goals that they can’t achieve and consumerism that feeds nothing except insecurity?
What if we stopped playing on people’s insecurities and started working on building their confidence and self esteem?
What if we stopped telling people have it your way when what really matters is a way for everybody to succeed co-operatively?
This is ultimately not a question of which advertising strategy we should pick, it is a question of can we take our responsibilities seriously enough to ditch toxic notions of individuality and start delivering on inter-dependence.