As we travel around Asia working with clients and communities we continually hear about the changing face of self-expression. That is, the way we project what we feel, what we represent and believe in. It’s that mode of behaviour constructed by the way we interact with people and within culture.
We listen to mothers lament that, as Asia becomes more economically successful, collectivism is being overtaken by the rise of the self-promoting, displaying, expressing and disrespectful individual. As we talk with teenagers we also realize that the ways in which they express themselves are becoming as complex as the person inside.
Now, none of this is completely new, but the question is: how do brands fit into all of this?
Brands used to be the easiest way to show the world what type of person you were. Spraying on Axe meant you became the guy that got the girls, using Pantene meant you were a glamour puss, pouring Omo showed what a loving mum you were or wearing the Polo horse said ‘American class act’.
Basically, that conspicuous consumption was one of the key drivers of self-expression. All we needed to do as strategists was get under the skin of the desired self-image that people wanted to reflect, and then project it onto the brand—creating a mutually reciprocal love affair that they would divorce the competitor brand for.
But now brands have another competitor.
How do they compete with social networking sites where the individual can create elaborate identities or escape into new identities lived through online relationships? This is a space where people can curate a holistic, evolving and complex expression of themselves; adding dimensions of their tastes, beliefs, politics, education, worldliness, personality, experiences, humour and intellect—anything that they want, any time of day they want.
Now, clearly most brands cannot compete with this daily, evolving, self-curating self-expression kaleidoscope. But perhaps they can become one of the things that people turn to as they go beyond their desire to change, to finding what makes them really happy.
Yes, exploit that happiness thing.
Brands have the potential to align themselves with what really motivates people deep down: that sticky stuff that makes us stay with friends, watch the same movies time and time again. That is, to be with people and places where they are accepted and safely valued for who they truly, authentically are.
Play to the long term and create the deeper relationship of having an aligned purpose and set of values. Create trusted connections where people’s lives and goals intersect. When people go beyond the surface to finding an ally, as Carl Rogers says, they “become his or her potentialities”.
Basically, as strategists, instead, or as well as, playing the seduction game, we need to understand what makes people existentially happy and content. Speak to the deeper meaning of the person and culture, connecting them to brands intuitively and instinctually.
Harder work but in the end, longer lasting.
Jackie Hughes is group strategy director with Flamingo