Vanity Makes Us Buy: The Dynamic Between Self-Image and Consumer Behaviour
By associating with certain brands, consumers curate their own self-image and assimilate the brand's showcased qualities. These suggested qualities of brands hold more power than what they do - customers are drawn to the why, not so much the what of the brands.
During my latest TED Talk binge, a truly thought-provoking topic was brought to my attention. Dan Lok’s talk about the powerful influence of self-image came to a climax with the following words: "The strongest need in human personality is the need to remain consistent with how we perceive ourselves."
This statement aligned with a passive thought I had on the tube one morning after seeing Royal Museums Greenwich’s ad that featured the faux-inspiring copy: “Don’t be a tourist, be an explorer!” I thought, of course everyone would rather identify themselves with an adventurous explorer rather than one of many tourists in London.
The reason why this kind of messaging works is because it tugs at our core: who we are proud to beand who we want to become. I’d love to do things that would strengthen my self-image of being an explorer - so I’d be tempted to associate myself with the brand that claims to give me that validation. (Also, my self-perception of being an Londoner makes me viscerally reject touristy things - explorer is more like it!)
This is true for most brand associations. I’ll buy an Wholefoods lunch rather than a Tesco Meal Deal because I am so health conscious, I’ll get a designer bag rather than a H&M one because my style is so classy and timeless, I’ll have an artisan coffee rather than Starbucks because I am so knowledgeable about great coffee - you get the gist. We all do this - and that’s why it works.
The brands we associate with aid us in the careful construction of our identity as we choose to present it to others.
Simply put, smart brands advertise themselves by showcasing qualities we want. They know what they are really selling us - it’s not trivial things such as clothes, makeup or food. They are allowing us to curate our aesthetic, our personal brand, our self-image, by associating with them.
Advertising messaging and brand positioning play a crucial role in crafting this image. Let’s take the specific and ever-intriguing example of high-end fashion brands. There are countless campaigns which feature models that look like those mean girls that scarred you in high school, in black and white of course (to suggest being unattainable - a neuromarketing technique) and featuring the most blank yet seductive facial expression fathomable.
When I, a mere mortal, look at these demi-goddesses, I subconsciously (and very much against my rational thought processes) feel two things:
- Despair at my decision to ever think that the gym is optional
- That buying that trench coat will make me look aloof, cool and goddess-like as well. Gently tugging at our insecurities, the fashion and beauty industries give us the possibility of creating a self-image that aligns with the standards that they themselves impose
The game within the game for marketers is to craft beautiful messaging and brand identities that inspire potential customers to either strengthen their self-image or try to perfect it. And dare I say, this can also be achieved in an ethical way, by offering them the opportunity to become more of who they already are or build upon their pre-existing qualities.
Another one of my Saturday night TED Talk binges gave me this golden nugget: “It’s not the what, it’s the why.” People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it; define the why of your brand and those who align with your ethos will follow you.