Friday, November 27, 2015

Social Media and Social Posturing

I’ve read a few articles in various sources about the distortion and perversion of social media and the way in which people use social media as a means of creating a false impression of themselves.   It’s an interesting behavior, both psychologically and sociologically, but it also has significant implications for online marketing, particularly to the validity of information harvested from social media and its reliability as a basis for strategic decisions.

Everyday Narcissism

The core theses of these articles is that social media encourages antisocial behavior, which seems a bit melodramatic and alarmist, but is to some degree true: people choose what they share about themselves of social media, and attempt to portray themselves in the best possible way.   I don’t see this as being any different than what is done in everyday life.  On a first date or a job interview, we present our best selves, and this has been done long before social media.

However, the practice becomes questionable when people feel that their “best selves” are not good enough, and they begin to embellish their personalities with false information – they lie to make a positive impression.   I would say that this, too, is normal – consider the way in which children show up on “picture day” at school dressed and groomed much better than they are on any other day of the year.

But normal people are also more conservative about the falsehoods they present in real life: they may reinterpret the facts to conceal the negative and accentuate the positive, but they remain largely genuine in what they present. The difference is similar to that between using make-up and garments to conceal blemishes and accentuate attractive features as opposed to wearing a disguise that completely alters and conceals one’s real self. The latter is clearly crossing the line, and it’s much easier to do in social media, where the “friends” one has are people that will likely never be met in real life and the disguise is much easier to maintain.

So while primping up and presenting one’s best side is perfectly normal, it crosses the line into dysfunction when it becomes an act of falsification.   While it seems like conceitedness, it is really an expression of self-loathing: a person presents a fake self because they feel their genuine self is not “good enough” to be liked by other people.   And the result is that they become more detached and withdrawn from others because they are in constant fear that their trickery will be discovered, called out, and they will be shamed for it. 

For that reason, such people have thousands of online “friends” but fewer social acquaintances in real life than an average person who presents an accurate (albeit groomed) version of themselves.  It’s been suggested that the average person has less than a dozen close friends, fifty or so casual friends, and up to 200 people with whom they have compartmentalized friendships (such as co-workers who are congenial at the office but do not associate after hours).   If these estimates are accurate, then the average person would have less than 300 “friends” in real life.  So the person with thousands is faking it, or enabling others to fake it.

Ultiamtely, the person who fakes themselves in order to gain popularity becomes more withdrawn and less likely to form actual social relationships.    In that sense, it’s a vicious cycle of anti-social behavior.   People fake their personality because they feel their real selves are inferior, but they do not associate with the “friends” they make online because they fear being discovered, and as a consequence they are just as isolated and detached as they originally were, perhaps more so, but they feel it more poignantly and maintaining the deception means avoiding meaningful contact in real life – because anyone who gets close to the real person is going to discover they are quite different than they claim to be.

Falsified Attitudes and Behaviors

The method by which a person fakes their personality is in the expression of attitudes and the allegation of behaviors that are not merely embellishments of the truth, but complete falsehoods.

People claim to believe things they do not believe, but are merely expressing opinions that they believe others will admire (as evidenced by the number of people who claim to support social causes and “like” them online, but do not give a minute of their time or a cent of their income to actually support) and claim to behave in ways that they actually do not (they have cool hobbies and interests in which they have no involvement and very little knowledge).

This crosses into the commercial realm when they falsify attitudes and behaviors about brands – they “like” and claim to use brands that they do not purchase or use, because associating with these brands creates an impression on other people.   It is most obvious when young people who do not have sufficient income to consume luxury brands wish to associate with them online by “liking” them – and in the offline world, it often happens when a person purchases brand merchandise for brands they do not own (a keychain, t-shirt, or other cheap item bearing the marque of a luxury brand).

In essence, this is conspicuous consumption, but without any genuine consumption.

Issues for Marketers

The issue for marketers is in the reliability of social media research, which again is not a new phenomenon.  It’s generally accepted that when surveys or laboratory experiments are conducted, that people engage in some degree of posturing, responding in a manner that presents their best selves rather than their real selves, and that this causes the findings to be biased and dilutes the effectiveness of any decisions made based on those findings.   If social media behavior is further removed from real-world behavior, the dilution is more severe.

If a brand assumes that everyone who “likes” the brand is a customer or strong prospect, then it may be mislead.  Particularly for products that are conspicuously consumed, there will be many online fans who do not, and never will, actually purchase and use the brand.   Arguably, the distortion will be less severe for brands that are not conspicuously consumed, but even these will have fewer fans to draw from – fakers are less prone to “like” a brand of detergent than a designer fashion label, but then so are real people.

The problem is further compounded because those who falsify their association to a brand are also likely to falsify their attitudes and behaviors, so research of that nature is also highly corrupted.  And further, since fakers tend to have the most “friends” online, they are often mistaken for being influential people (which may be their aim), such that the brand’s association is drawn away from the individuals who are genuine customers and are genuinely influential with other customers.

Ultimately, real behavior is driven by real causes and is associated to real attitudes and behaviors.   Any strategy that is based on falsified information is likely to have little genuine effect.


In the end, what’s suggested here is not the complete abandonment of social media research, but a careful consideration of the degree to which it will be corrupted by false claims on the part of those who wish to associate with the brand for narcissistic reasons.   I expect this will pose a serious problem to luxury brands that have high esteem and are conspicuously consumed, and a less serious one to humdrum brands that are consumed in private, and for which little esteem is afforded to the consumer.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Brand, Identity, and Belonging

I read an interesting bit about the (poor) state of individual and cultural identity in the present age.   The author asserted that the mass media, and particularly the Internet, creates a disjointed sense o culture that causes people to be “virtually connected but emotionally detached” from the rest of the world.

The premise is that individuals identify themselves in reference to a common culture to which they conform in some ways and deviate in others, but a culture is created by the isolation of one group of people from another: because rivers and mountains separate two tribes from one another, they develop independent cultures – and because these barriers have been overcome by technology, there is no way for a people to be isolated enough to form a distinctive set of beliefs.

Moreover, culture is intentionally cultivated.  In pre-modern societies, there was always a group of people (the ruling class and the clergy, generally) who made cultural decisions for all their people – they encouraged conformity and punished transgression against a set of cultural norms.   And while this notion is objectionable to the modern individualist mentality, it served its purpose: without a guide, people do not know where to go, culturally speaking, and fail to develop a common core of cultural standards.

It is not that no-one is attempting to control culture – politicians and religious figures are still attempting to tell people how they ought to live and using carrots and sticks to cajole and threaten them.  But there is no longer unity – an individual is assaulted by several ideologies that pull him in different directions.   He must make a choice, but is ill-equipped to make that choice.

The author then turned on the commercial sector, suggesting that advertising and marketing is a relatively new voice that attempts to tell people how to live their lives.  While their intent is to sell a good or a service, the consumption of that product is dependent on the consumer’s lifestyle, which is to say their culture.  So in an indirect way, brands attempt to control culture.

But if there are a few dozen political and religious ideologies attempting to control and direct our lives, there are tens of thousands of brands attempting to do the same.   And the result is again that those who attempt to control culture have no control at all: people must choose which brands they adopt, in the same way they choose their political and religious beliefs.  There is no ability to “force” a person to accept one rather than another.

So the result is a cultural chaos in which, rather than being constrained by an individual or collective that determines what choices people make, we are left instead with many that suggest what choices we might make, but are left without clear guidance as to which choices we ought to make.   Each person makes his own decisions about what to believe, and what culture to adopt for himself, creating a cultural chaos.   

The dystopians got it wrong: the horror of the present age is not invasion of private life by centralized control and constraint, but an abandonment of control that results in an overwhelming and directionless freedom of choice.

The plethora of choices of products that have the ability to solve our functional and psychological needs is mind-boggling.   And once a product decision has been made, tenuously and with great anxiety, there is then the choice of brand.   Naturally, every brand wants us to believe that it is the right choice, but has mercenary motives and is unreliable and lacks credibility.   And those who would help sort out the mess are often guided by their own agendas, and are no less trustworthy.

Neither are the independent voices particularly authentic.   We hail social media as the democratization of opinion, and suggest that people trust their peers more than those who claim to have authority.  But it’s been found that most participants in social media have nothing original to say, and are merely parroting what they have heard in the mass media.

Now more than ever, culture requires an individual to think carefully and to make choices.   And now more than ever, individuals show a stunning inability and unwillingness to do so.   And this is the tragedy of the modern age, for consumers and brands alike.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Unstacking Maslow's Hierarchy

In a brainstorming session in which I was attempting to explore the needs that drove a customer to purchase a specific product, I was abruptly interrupted by someone who declared, "Maslow was a communist."  My sense is that, given the source, it was simply a derailler but it seemed entirely inappropriate.  To suggest that someone's theories should be dismissed wholesale because of their political affiliation is as inappropriate as suggesting they should be dismissed because of their gender or their race.   But the more I think about it, the more I sense that there may be some substance to that remark - so this post is my way of mulling it over.

The Core Theory 

Maslow's hierarchy has always been a bit problematic, which his likely the reason so many people have attempted to tinker with it - reordering the layers and adding one or two new ones of their own.   As a quick refresher, consider the original theory: human beings have multiple concurrent needs but can only do one thing at a time, so in deciding what they do, they prioritize their needs according to a hierarchy, which according to Maslow is:

  1. Physiological (Survival) - Addressing immediate threats to life and health 
  2. Safety (Maintenance) - Securing what is needed for the future
  3. Social (Belonging) - Establishing and maintaining relationships
  4. Esteem (Prestige) - Being regarded as important/worthwhile
  5. Self-Actualization (Growth) - Defining and fulfilling one's individual purpose

In essence, this hierarchy tells us that a person who is being chased by a bear has very little interest in mulling over what is his purpose in life and if he is achieving it.   And in general it makes good sense.   While there's the counter-argument that people aren't always calculated and rational, it's found that in a majority of everyday normal-life situations there is a sense of order and logic in choosing our pursuits.

Common Objections/Revisions

There is generally little argument over the first two levels of Maslow's original hierarchy: a person is generally most concerned with immediate threats to their survival and if they are not endangered at the moment they generally turn to ensuring their long-term survival by amassing the things they need to survive in the near-term. Regarding the original criticism, it's also worth noting that this concept is decidedly anti-communist, as the collectivist agenda is based on the sacrifice of the individual (even his life) for the welfare of the group.

But the top three levels of the hierarchy are less objective and universal.   In introverted person prioritizes personal growth over achieving prestige in the eyes of other people, and an extraverted person will often damage his relationships with others in order to gain personal esteem.   So it does seem that this section of Maslow's hierarchy reflects the political agenda of communism, or at least collectivism, and I can understand who some would find it objectionable.

It's also suggested that the top three levels are merely subcategories of the second level: that a person seeks personal growth or connectedness to others as a means of increasing his ability to secure what he needs to maintain his existence.  Self-actualization increases man's ability to provide for his own needs and social connections do the same by enabling him to count upon the cooperation and assistance of others to provide for him.  That is, they are means to serve a need, but not a need in themselves.   And this is an entirely valid criticism.

It is also the reason that one might label Maslow a communist or collectivist and suggest that his ideas have no validity in a capitalist-individualist society.  Unfortunately, that is binary thinking and an extremist oversimplification of the theories - collectivists acknowledge the importance of the individual and individualists recognize the value of the collective.   My sense is that it's necessary to consider the character and values of an individual to determine how he prioritizes his needs in the context of a specific situation.

Unstacking the Hierarchy

I don't favor completely dismissing Maslow, as his core theory explains much of human behavior under normal circumstances - which is at the same time to concede that it does not explain all of human behavior under all circumstances.   No theory does, but if we abandon theory altogether, we're left paralyzed.   The priorities of some people correspond very neatly to the hierarchy, but for others it simply needs to be adjusted.

It is entirely sensible and commonplace for an introverted individualist to be indifferent to what others think of him and thus pursue self-actualization over esteem whereas an extravert would value earning prestige in the eyes of others over achieving his personal objectives (or more aptly, prestige is his objective) - and both may at times show indifference to maintaining social relationships in pursuit of their primary goal, while at other times setting aside their primary goal for the sake of maintaining social relationships.

The shuffled hierarchy does mean that we cannot treat people all the same in all situations, which lacks the neatness and precision that we often seek in theories, but if it is to be of any practical use, it's necessary to abandon cleanliness for applicability.  We must consider the individual and his context to determine which of the third-tier needs he is likely to prioritize in the context of a given situation - and in so doing avoid the prejudice and bias that comes with the assumption that there is a default order.

Room for Improvement

In this exercise, I've simply unstacked Maslow's hierarchy of needs, preserving them in the same way that Maslow defined them.  My sense is that this is not quite enough due to the conflict between individual and collective orientations.   Both the introvert and the extravert may prioritize their personal agenda (to gain prestige or personal growth) over their interest in establishing and maintaining social connections.

I have noticed that the binary characterization of introversion and extraversion is being challenged more often these days: there are social introverts and sociopathic extraverts, and it may be necessary for that topic to be hashed out in more detail before returning to the hierarchy of needs and motivations.   But my sense is that for practical application, brainstorming the needs that a given product addresses, would include a more specific consideration of prospect and context and will sort this out rather neatly in a given selling situation.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Neuroplasticity and Brand-Switching

Lately, I’ve been considering the topic of brand loyalty and the way in which consumers tend to default to certain habitual choices – which is of great interest to the firm that seeks to retain customers, but something of a daunting prospect to those who wish to win customers away from existing providers.   A marketer charged with attracting customers to a new brand faces a difficult, but not impossible task or breaking the mind’s programming and then substituting a new routine.

Habits are often casually spoken of as being “hard-wired” into the mind – but this is a misstatement that breeds further misconceptions.  Primarily, the idea of hard-wiring assumes that habits cannot be broken, whereas experience has shown that they are breakable with some effort.   It’s likewise misrepresented that behavior literally reshapes the mind – which is entirely untrue.  There is no neurological proof that one human brain is different from another (except in cases of birth defects, injuries, or diseases that affect the organ) – behavior is the result of psychological programming, not physical wiring, and while it is difficult to change this programming, it is not impossible.

How the Mind is Programmed

First, consider how the brain becomes programmed in the first place: it is a process of trial and error.  A person faced with a problem does what seems sensible to address it.   If their attempt fails, they try something else.   If their attempt succeeds, their problem is solved and the procedure is flagged as “successful” in memory, to be referenced the next time the same problem is encountered.

There can be some argument that learning is gained from the external world – that a young child is taught to do certain things, or at least imitates what it sees without considering the way in which it functions.   This is true, but these external signals are merely inspiration for an attempt – nothing is really learned or believed until it is attempted and the outcome is seen.    As the mind develops, it begins to grasp things theoretically, and believes its own theories rather than accepting whatever is suggested or observed.   Even then, one does not learn from observation, but our observations encourage or discourage us from attempting certain actions.

In terms of consumer loyalty, consumers attempt to use a product to solve a problem.  It may be a product they have found for themselves or one that has been observed or suggested – this is incidental.  Whatever the source of inspiration, they attempt to use the product and are aware of whether it “worked” to solve their problem.  And if it worked, then they flag it in memory as “successful” and return to it the next time the same problem is encountered.

And this is the manner in which loyalty to a brand is formed: at some moment the brand provided a successful solution to a problem, and so the “success” switch was set and the brand was remembered.   And when this occurs an individual tends to cease exploring alternative methods to their problem – even if the solution they have found is less efficient or effective than other methods that have not been attempted, it satisfies the binary “succeed/fail” criterion.   And so they stick with it, it becomes habit, and they become loyal to both product and brand.

How the Mind is Reprogrammed

The reprograming of the mind works much the same way as its initial programming: an attempt is made, it fails, so some other action is attempted.   Only in this case, the first attempt is the habitual behavior: people do what they usually do until it doesn’t work, at which point they try something else – and if that works, it challenges the habit.

The concept of “challenging” a habit, rather than replacing it, is significant: people tend to defend habitual behaviors, even when their habit has failed and something else has worked, they see the second behavior as an alternative.  It is something that worked “this time” or something to be tried when the habitual behavior fails or when certain conditions exist – but for the most part they will go back to their original habit.   It may require several iterations for the original habit to be replaced by the new.

More often, however, both the new brand and the habitual brand pass the succeed/fail criterion – both brands succeed at solving the customer’s problem – and it then turns to more granular criteria.  Which of the two is better in terms of effectiveness and efficiency?   It is not sufficient for the new action to work, but it must work better than the habitual one.

Of course, there are individuals who are exceedingly pig-headed.  They will refuse to try anything else and will simple accept defeat when their original habit fails.   This comes from the psychological need for consistency and the need to be “right” in decisions that causes people to ignore alternatives to what they believe, even when it is obvious that their beliefs are wrong and the alternative is a better way.   This resistance to change exists to some degree in all individuals.  Because of this tendency, replacing a habitual brand with a new one is difficult.  

Eliciting a Change in Behavior

A brand change in the market can be entirely passive and require no effort on the part of the producer.   People are struggling with their existing solutions and “somehow” manage to learn about the new brand, try it on their own, and notice that there is a marked improvement in the outcome.   This is a slow process, but it is also highly effective in that people put the greatest faith in things that they discover for themselves.

But to be active in eliciting a brand change, a challenging brand must promote itself.  It must make people aware that it exists and convince them that it is worth trying because it is better (more effective or efficient) than their current brand preference.   This is difficult to do because an individual’s personal experience of using their existing brand is more credible than anyone else’s claims that the new brand will be better.

But even that is only the beginning – the new brand may become an alternative that the prospect is willing to try, but it will not replace the existing brand unless the claims hold true when they give it a trial.  And this is where many new brands fail, particularly in commoditized markets: they are in reality no better than the currently preferred brand, and when customers discover this they return to their habit.

So the pathway to success is to provide a solution that is actually better, promote its superiority to prospects, and then deliver on those promises.    It can also be helpful to reduce the cost of acquisition (being cheaper or easier to obtain), but again, this is only effective in creating a brand-switch if the new product passes the success/fail test and is evaluated to be better than the existing brand.

Further Considerations

My sense is that this consideration of habituation and neuroplasticity is a bit too high-level to be of practical use – but should at least point marketers in the right direction for finding a solution to the problem of customer loyalty to other brands, as well as creating loyalty to the new brand once the prospect has been convinced to attempt it as a solution to their problem.

The fundamental process of habituation and breaking habituation are the same, and there are a number of significant questions that are useful in discovering a method to win and retain customers:
  • What problem is the customer trying to solve?
  • Does a given brand (yours or another) actually solve it?
  • Is the solution effective in solving the problem?
  • Is the solution efficient in the effort required to use it?
  • Does the customer recognize and value the ways in which it is more effective or efficient?
  • Is the customer convinced it is better in all cases, or just as a situational substitute?

This seems terribly simplistic, but at the same time I have a high degree of confidence that the majority of reasons a customer fails to consider an alternative to their existing solution are likely covered in that short list.

Friday, November 6, 2015


I listened to a presentation about cultural marketing that focused on the ways in which marketing in an individualistic culture differed from marketing in a collectivistic culture – it was a bit of a meander that ended in a shrug, and I do think the presenter got a lot of things wrong, but it gave me some food for thought.

Primarily, the classification of cultures as either individualistic or collectivistic is completely wrong-headed.   It sets up a black-or-white fallacy that leads binary thinkers to assume that a culture, or even a person, is 100% one way or the other when in reality there is a spectrum: a person, and an entire culture, has elements of both.  

That is, a consumer makes some product or brand choices according to his own standards, but in other choices he is highly concerned about being acceptable to others.   Particularly when a product is conspicuously consumed, the impression others will have is often more influential than the value it provides to the consumer himself.   I could elaborate further, but the case is very well made by Kapferer and Bastien.

But the greatest flaw of the argument is in characterizing individualistic cultures as concerned with personal status – this is, in fact, a quality of collectivist cultures, because status is a social phenomenon.   One only has status relative to the status of other people in a group (collective), so the desire to be as good as others, or better than others, or similar to others, or distinguished from others – all of these desires use “others” rather than “self” as the measurement.

An individualist pursues his own interest, indifferent to what others may think.  A collectivist is highly concerned about what others think, and makes his choices accordingly.   The desire to have possessions that provide comfort and pleasure is individualistic, whereas the desire to have possessions that impress others is collectivistic because the primary motivation for the consumer is what others think of him for consuming them, not any direct personal benefit of consumption.

This is because a collectivist is concerned with his status within the collective: keeping up with the Joneses does not serve any individualistic motive, but instead considers a person’s position in a collective and seeks to preserve personal status in the context of a collective: the consumer isn’t concerned with his individual needs, merely in conforming to the standards of the social group to which he belongs (or aspires to belong).  The desire to make an impression is primarily focused on what others think, not on what one truly is.

Even in western culture, true individualists are very rare – not many people think for themselves, have formulated a set of personal standards and act in ways that pursue them.   I would argue that what we have is instead a form of multi-collectivism in which a person seeks to gain and preserve their personal status in the context of multiple collectives.  

In monochromatic cultures, where all people are of the same ethnicity, religion, and so on there is a single set of rules and it is easy to see how people conform to them or consciously break the rules to obtain increased status.  In multicultural environments, such as western culture is today, a person’s choices consider not one set of rules, but many sets of rules that are often in conflict.   To be in good standing with one’s neighbors, with one’s colleagues, with one’s religion, with one’s class, with one’s ethnic group, and so on means compromising among many sets of conflicting standards.

As such a person may appear to be an individual because they assemble a highly idiosyncratic rule-book that works out compromises between the conflicting rules of the various collectives to which he considers himself to belong.   But his primary motivation is still extrinsic: when he chooses not to follow a rule, it is not because he has a personal standard, but because he has chosen to obey a conflicting rule imposed on him (albeit voluntarily) by a different collective.   This is not at all the same as individualism, which ignores all the rule-books entirely.

As such, one cannot state that people in western cultures are highly individualistic – they are highly confused, perhaps, but their primary motivation is to conform to the standards of multiple collectives.   As such, collectivistic marketing tactics will still work, but it is much more difficult to accurately identify the collectives to which an individual seeks to belong, and determine which rule of which collective takes precedence in his buying decisions.