Is the wave of selfies filling every social media feed the result of a hopelessly vain generation? Or is it a language of self-expression and personal awareness that could provide marketers and brands with a wealth of information?
In truth, the selfie trend is not the result of a sudden change in humanity’s degree of self-love but is caused by the ready availability of the technology that enables this form of self-expression. What are the portraits that hang on the walls of the Louvre after all but a ‘selfie’ commissioned by the rich and wealthy with the technology and know-how of the times?
“Today’s rich visual language is anything but new, in fact, it parallels medieval culture,” observes Paul Foster, senior director of creative content at Getty Images. “As literacy rates were low, established religions would communicate with stained glass windows. What this indicates is that imagery is the language of perception it’s the way people choose to communicate even when they have access to language.”
It has also started to influence professional imagery. Last year it was one of the quickest rising key-word searches on Getty Images. According to the stock photo agency, in Q2 of 2012, only one search term included the word ‘selfie’. In the second quarter of this year, it was the 20th most searched term, only slightly less searched than ‘couple’ and slightly more searched than ‘party’. Today, Getty has around 4,000 creative stills tagged ‘selfie’, about 30 per cent of which have been added to the collection this year alone.
So what does the selfie say about the young consumer? According to [email protected]’s new managing director for Asia-Pacific, Fergus Hay, it’s become reflexive for Millennials to take what was once mundane and private and turn it into a public and highly controlled personal brand image. “They put forward the image they want the world to believe of them at any given moment.”
The presence of an arm in the image implies unstudied spontaneity and authenticity, notes Foster. “Even though we know the person sharing the image has likely taken many different versions of the photo, the lack of staging equipment or another person in the shot still gives that touch of authenticity and voyeurism society seems to crave.”
This perhaps helps explain why even when given the alternative of a volunteer photographer many of today’s younger tourists prefer to stick to selfies.
In the Philippines, arguably one of Asia’s strongest selfie-driven cultures, consumers have evolved from using selfies to document their daily lives to creating and pursuing events in life that result in selfie-fodder. For example, dining out at the International House of Pancakes (iHop) has become a “thing” now thanks to the trend of taking a “me-with-cute-pancakes” selfie, says Havas Media Ortega’s resident anthropologist, Gayia Beyer. “It’s all about sharing, attention and likes and community bonding.”
Brands looking to capitalise on the type of free publicity socially-shared selfies generate should first create the circumstances that make photo sharing and taking favourable and, if they wish to be more direct, can go so far as to directly reward social media shares. “I am more likely to take a selfie of an outfit I’m thinking of buying and share with my friends if there’s free wifi,” says Jessica Foreman, a 13-year-old living in Hong Kong who has been taking selfies since age 10 when she received her first smartphone. “There are also lots of companies, especially fast-food places like McDonald’s or Starbucks, that encourage you to take selfies of the product or drink you have with vouchers. It’s kind of cool that you get something for it.”
For Foreman and her friends, taking a selfie and posting it to Instagram is a completely natural act, free from the affectation older generations may attribute to the action. “I use it for expressing what I’m doing. If I’m doing something with my friends and I want people to know, I’ll take one and write a caption,” she explains.
Marketers capable of creating circumstances or items that people naturally want to share potentially get a stab at generating a wave of social media and being the cool kids on the block. ‘Share a Coke’ is probably one of the best ongoing examples of this idea anywhere in the world. Another cunning example is Kirin Ichiban’s ‘photogenic’ frozen beer which was aimed at reviving a thirst for beer among younger consumers. While most might think of the frozen alcoholic slushy as an icy treat for summer, Kirin and its agency Hakuhodo claim that the beer’s frozen head was designed for “visual sizzle” to make it more likely to be photographed and shared. As a result of the publicity received, sales of the beer were 5 per cent higher in 2013 than the previous year.
“It really is best when you can create an experience where consumers automatically want a selfie,” says Jon Yongfook Cockle, chief executive and founder of social media management software Beatrix and self-confessed regular selfie-taker. Cockle’s Instagram feed, which has more than 9,000 followers, is filled mostly with pictures of food and travel interspersed with selfies. “Visually when I look at my feed I don’t want to see it’s all pictures of the same thing, so I take a selfie at least once in every 20 photos.”
Cockle views his Instagram as an ongoing personal photo journalism piece and his presence is what gives the feed its identity and personality. As a social media personality and a lifestyle freelance writer, Cockle carefully guards his personal brand and admits to being “quite picky” about the brands he chooses to show in his photos. “Brands do make a difference. For example, I have two watches, one is a brand that no one knows but which I’m really fond of and the other is a Rolex. I posted pictures, equally well shot, of both these watches. The Rolex received tons and tons of likes and the less well known brand only about a hundred or so.”
This recognition of brands as part of one’s personal image could be one of the factors contributing to the growing consumer awareness of CSR and sustainable practices, observes Beyer. “Also, I’ve noticed that it really isn’t enough for this consumer group to have a brand just tell them about itself. A brand has to engage consumers and have their peers talking about them to be part of their personal brand story.”