What if, instead of taking us shopping as the answer to our aspirations, brands took us on real journeys of becoming?
By Anna Simpson
This is the third part in a series about how brands can help people find what they want, rather than manipulate our desires to sell us their wares. In my book, The Brand Strategist's Guide to Desire, each of the five chapters explores what we look for in life from a different angle: Community, Adventure, Aesthetics, Vitality and Purpose.
How Brands Respond to Our Desire to Learn and Grow
In my last post, I discussed the role of brands in our social lives by creating contexts, which help people build trust. Today, I ask what brands can bring to our adventures: how can they respond to our desire to learn and grow?
Every brand tells a story, mostly traditional narratives, which trace a neat line from A to B – very often from rags to riches, or from outsider to socially acceptable consumer.
Of course, no one aspires to be a "socially acceptable consumer," so the happy ending is dressed up in mythic terms. The average man becomes a sex god thanks to a deodorant. The overworked woman becomes a domestic goddess thanks to a detergent. The teenage misfit becomes the high school idol, not for their courage or kindness or intellect, but because they own some must-have accessory.
The Disney Story
This is the Disney story; the one we know is a fairy tale—by its nature untrue to life. Yet we buy it, and countless goods off the back of it.
Little wonder: it's a story that many of today’s consumers grew up with. As the American cultural critic Henry A. Giroux writes,
“As an icon of American culture and middle-class family values, Disney actively appeals to both conscientious parents and youthful fantasies as it works hard to transform every child into a lifetime consumer of Disney products and ideas.”
Disney’s primary tool is the adventure story. Its primary audience is the child, because the earlier a brand can begin to engage with an individual’s ideals, the more potential it will have to shape their future choices. Just as Pinocchio and Cinderella journey from the peripheries of society to the mainstream, so will these young consumers. First they’ll go after the clothes and the looks, later the kingdom.
Can Brands Help Us on Our Path?
But what if brands were to broaden their narrative? What if, instead of taking us shopping as the answer to our aspirations, they took us on real journeys of becoming?
In The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire, I argue that brands could play much more valuable roles in our adventures than many aspire to. Rather than conjure up a glorious mirage that could never materialize through a purchase, brands could play the guide and facilitator on journeys we actually want to take.
Why might people welcome such an offer?
Because around the world, individuals now experience more choice and flexibility in forging their future than ever before. Factors include the growth of digital communications, and in particular the expansion of smartphones, reaching 65 percent of the population of Africa in 2013, health improvements, including extended quality of life as people age; and wider access to formal education among men and women.
Opportunities for Personal Growth through Life-Logging
As opportunities to learn and grow proliferate, people are looking for support to decide how best to use their time. Brands can help them to navigate the opportunities, and track their progress.
App-builders are thriving in this space. The likes of Tictrac helps you monitor almost any aspect of your personal progress, from fitness to productivity. With Nike+, the sports clothing supplier has shifted to the role of coach. Its sub-brand is much more than a device for self-quantification: it’s a community of people pursuing goals, identifying new horizons, and—perhaps most importantly—sharing their own tales of adventure. The website prompts people to “Stay motivated, challenged and connected.”
But to add value to our adventures, brands need to earn our trust.
Life-logging is arguably even more revealing than publishing a journal: the data may reveal things you didn’t even know about yourself. That is a huge opportunity for brands with the integrity to work with people toward their own aspirations – rather than against them, manipulating their desire to learn and grow for the sake of turning a profit.
Opportunities for Connection
Tracking isn’t the only service brands can offer in response to our desire for adventure though. We also need support to find our way. The exclusive travel club ASMALLWORLD (ASW) offers members the opportunity to travel like insiders, by connecting them with “culturally influential people” the world over.
As CEO Sabine Heller explains in Harper’s Bazaar, “Walking around with a guidebook doesn’t seem like a modern way to travel… Our members are able to tap into local communities wherever they go.”
ASW builds trust through a ‘handpicked’ approach to membership and a highly personalized service. But unlike a fairy tale, there’s no single happy ending: as a promotional video for the brand puts it:
“The farther we go, the more the world opens up to us, and possibilities become endless.”
If you’d like to win a copy of The Brand Strategist's Guide to Desire (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), write to us on Twitter @CSRwire or on Facebook describing how a brand has helped you find something you desire. Make sure to include #BrandDesire in your tweets or Facebook post.