Branding self- development: purpose gets personal

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has long been the not-so-secret weapon of marketers and brand strategists, but can businesses convincingly make a play to help people achieve its upper tiers of esteem and self-actualisation? Rebecca Coleman examines the power of branding for the consumer self.
We’re all used to the advertising promise of “buy this to be happier, get more friends, have more sex, be more successful”, but rarely does this association with emotional benefits match  up to reality.

Savvy brands that have long made connections between their products and emotional positivity are coming to terms with the idea that this approach doesn’t align with the modern consumer’s desire for authenticity at all costs. For example, Coca-Cola seems to have realised that its ‘Open happiness’ message is somewhat at odds with the manufacture and retail of a soft drink.

“It feels like, oh my god, is that [what] I’m promising on the opening of every Coca-Cola?” This question, asked by Rodolfo Echeverria, the company’s global vice-president of creative, connections and digital, was the catalyst for changing the brand’s strategic vision. It went from ‘Open happiness’ to ‘Taste the
feeling’; a far more ambiguous statement of emotional benefits.

Philosopher and consultant Alain de Botton believes that this is a step in the right direction for brands such as Coca-Cola, which continues to come under pressure from the health lobby. “If [marketers] try to tack on a beautiful message about wellbeing and goodness and truth to a load of nonsense, it’ll discredit them and ultimately shame capitalism,” he says. “So we need to learn to make money by appealing to our higher impulses, rather than by selling bullshit and then clothing it in ‘higher’ values.”

But, if the message of higher values is only as good as the product, which brands and organisations can convincingly play in the space of self-development?

Self-optimisation one, perfection nil

Reebok has made a bid for this territory with its ‘Be more human’ campaign, launched in 2015, which seeks to reposition fitness as a pursuit beyond the physical. By focusing on the psychological and social benefits of exercise, the interactive, multimedia campaign puts Reebok at the centre of consumers’ personal missions to become better human beings.

While this may sound like a lofty ambition, it is one that has worked well for the brand, differentiating Reebok from the ‘fitness for fitness’ sake’ strategies of its competitors.

“We feel that the biggest benefit of embracing a fitness lifestyle is to be more human in every aspect,” explains Yan Martin, vice-president of global brand communications at Reebok. “What the other brands promote is ‘run faster’ or ‘lift heavier’ or ‘score more goals’. That’s nice, but we feel there is a more powerful purpose behind fitness, which is to be better people in the holistic sense – better mothers, fathers, friends.”

A big part of this is communicating a message of self-optimisation, rather than perfection. This was the idea behind Reebok’s #BreakYourSelfie social campaign, which went against the trend for posting images of the perfect life on social media by asking consumers to upload photos of themselves post-exercise.

“It’s not about presenting your best possible self,” says Martin. “Instead, we want people to post pictures when they’ve pushed themselves to their limits through fitness, when they feel exhilarated and tired, and totally in touch with their physicality. They may not look their best, but they feel awesome.”

Tackling attitude problems

Reebok is trying to change people’s perceptions of themselves and each other through the potential power of exercise. This idea of using marketing to shift attitudes is something in which Sport England director of business partnerships Tanya Joseph is well versed. With its ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, the public body has motivated 2.8m women between the ages of 14 and 40 to become more active. This was largely down to its message of embracing flaws, rather than endlessly striving for the perfect body.

Joseph is a firm believer in marketers’ power to help improve attitudes and imbue consumers with greater self-esteem. “We can all play a role in helping people develop themselves, if they want it, particularly feeling more positive about themselves.”

She thinks that a big part of the success of ‘This Girl Can’ was its more realistic approach to imagery, helping to spread a more inclusive wellbeing message. “We rejected the stylised and airbrushed images of women we’re used to seeing,” she explains.

This move toward a more raw realism is something that seems to be gaining traction with brands and consumers alike. For example, there has been a marked move from labelling low-fat/calorie/carb foods as ‘diet’ to ‘health foods’, with Nestlé’s US president of prepared foods, Jeff Hamilton, saying its Lean Cuisine ready meals and snacks will now be sold under the banner of ‘healthy food, healthy lifestyle’, rather than ‘weight loss’.

People are increasingly turned off by the idea of dieting and deprivation, at the same time becoming more interested in the ingredients and true nutritional content of their food. They want a more realistic focus on attaining their goals.

Motivational realism

Beyond the health and fitness sector, other brands are capitalising on their abilities to make people feel better about themselves and lead more fulfilling lives. This is a key mission for LinkedIn, for example, which, according to the professional social network’s director of consumer marketing EMEA, Peter Maxmin, aims to help members become more productive and successful. “The core of what we do is very socially positive in terms of people’s development,” he says.

Much like Joseph, Maxmin believes the key to communicating the emotional and practical benefits of LinkedIn is through realism, but for his brand it’s about getting members to tell their stories and act as brand advocates.

“Much of our audience is very peer-driven. Something happens to someone else, or someone tells them ‘I got a job through LinkedIn or read a fantastic article’, and they look into it; hence the focus on having members tell our story. That’s really important in what we’re doing,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Aviva’s group brand director, Jan Gooding, says that this use of authenticity is a solid means of building (or, perhaps, rebuilding, in the case of finance) trust among increasingly suspicious consumers. For the insurance-provider’s latest campaign, ‘Better thinking’, Aviva plans to feature real
customers telling personal stories.

“People will relate to them and it shows that there are many different kinds of people and voices,” says Gooding. “The things that we want to speak to people about are big important topics: life insurance, health insurance, retirement planning, saving and investments. There are lots of stories out there and we just want people to be more engaged with these topics and do something about it.”

ROA (return on altruism)

Aviva’s Drive app is intended to assist users in developing their driving skills. This may not be about the brand helping people to create self-fulfilment in quite the same way as holistic well-being or total job satisfaction; it does, however, have a mission for self-improvement.

“I think we’ve struck a chord with this idea,” adds Gooding. “If we genuinely help people, even if they don’t end up buying from us, we’ve done a good thing from a brand perspective in building these relationships with people.”

Because pure altruism won’t impress the finance department, marketers also need to think about the returns of a strategy targeting consumer self-development. Gooding, for one, believes it pays off. “We’ve had double the app downloads we were expecting. People are absolutely engaging with this and, even at a commercial level, we’re well ahead of plan,” she says.

“By pursuing this social purpose, we’re not only getting people engaged and encouraging the behaviour, but we’re getting rewards commercially, which is what a brand is always looking for. It’s not always about being a good citizen and getting consumers to change their behaviour – it’s also that there is some kind of payback.”

There are three ways to think about the consumer appetite for brands that help them on their journey to become more well-rounded, confident and fulfilled human beings. First, it could be about a search for deeper meaning without rejecting the capitalist system.

Secondly, it could be pure narcissism. As Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg reportedly told colleagues, when discussing relevance: “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” While this is a pretty damning indictment of humanity, it’s undeniable that there is nothing more relevant to people than themselves.

The third reflects the theory of ‘self-actualisation’, in that sometimes a person has to get into a ‘good place’ themselves before they can help others.

Whether people want brands to help them on that path is up for debate, but it could be argued that it certainly does no harm, and, in fact, could do some real good.

Article Written By: Rebecca Coleman