There are times when mood and circumstance render us more impressionable than others. On a recent late-night trip to the supermarket after a long stint at the office, as I was searching for something fast for dinner, I quickly became frustrated by the abundance of choices. After making my way through the product-laden maze of shelves, I vividly remember staring, disoriented, at the magazine rack in the checkout line, with its cacophonic arrangement of ever-louder, indistinguishable titles shouting their contents at the world. In my fluorescent-light illuminated state of exhaustion, I felt despair — a feeling I’m certain that none of the brands on the shelf were aiming for.
I’m probably not alone in being overwhelmed by too many options when I go shopping, but I wonder how companies are dealing with this dilemma. The constant over-stimulus of brand options too often turns marketing and advertising efforts into fruitless exercises. To wit, when everything around us is highlighted, nothing truly stands out — as if we had any remaining reservoirs of attention to begin with.
What, then, can a brand do to persuade us to choose it? Two things: First, it needs to try to understand the human condition — literally, what drives us. Second, it needs to understand the historical and cultural context into which the brand is projecting. Understanding what makes us tick, and molding that impulse with historical and cultural specifics, will increase the effectiveness of any brand message.
The human condition is essentially this: People’s motivations drive their actions. According to the early Greek philosophers, a person’s drives can be found in self-preservation, procreation, and the search for pleasure, relationships, truth, and, most important, power. In fact, power is what enables us to achieve our vision of happiness, because without it we don’t have control, and without control we feel miserable.
Unfortunately, we’re stuck in a culture of consumption. As psychologist Barry Schwartz explained in his book The Paradox of Choice, our culture has blinded us with choices that obscure the fact that people are capable of manufacturing their own happiness (and thereby taking control of it). Most of us don’t know this because we’ve been trained to understand happiness as something attained externally. Also, our culture teaches us to seek escapist experiences. As the late David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay “Laughing With Kafka,” “Our present culture is, both developmentally and historically, ‘adolescent.’” According to him, “It’s not difficult to see why … we are so susceptible to art and entertainment whose primary function is to ‘escape.’”
So, given that we need to feel powerful to be happy, while also living in an escapist culture, how does one go about effectively selling stuff to perennial adolescents who can’t figure out the true source of their eventual satisfaction? Shrewd marketers must create distractions that prevent us from thinking too hard (they don’t want us to discover that we have more control over our emotions than we understand). Otherwise, we might find our own latent capacities for subverting the very economic system that supports us.
Marketers must also subtly craft their creative output. A forceful approach to advertising messages is not effective in a world of strong stimuli and adolescent ennui. When it comes to branding, the quality of the communication is more important than the quantity of impressions.
Finally, brands have to adapt to specific historical contexts. In a time of crisis, when the illusion of personal control is taken away, companies must push a sense of security. During good times, when people feel that the sky is the limit, sell the ability to fly. To a culture obsessed with the idea of progress, sell the power to improve. And, indeed, to a culture whose collective narrative has been eroded, sell meaning. No matter how many choices a consumer is faced with, a product that’s relevant, safe, and personally fulfilling will always stand out.