Let’s begin with a couple of "So What?" questions: A brand has 20 million Facebook likes. So what? A brand’s tweet "breaks the Internet." So what? What’s achieved, other than an honorable mention at Cannes?
A paradigm shift is needed: from conversation to narrative.
Yes, what technology has wrought is truly amazing. With one big huff and a puff, time and space have been blown away. And in a couple of gasps, marketing has gone from the need to consider person-as-viewer, to person-as-participant, to person-as-content-creator, to person as channel.
But one last transformation is still needed for marketing success. Marketers need to evolve from considering products as brands to considering "person-as-brand." Nowadays every person wants to be its own brand—to perform, and to be liked, looked at, followed, and bought into.
Now, with "me-as-brand," the secret to success in social media is not simply entering a conversation, but entering people’s narrative.
A narrative has a plot, has non-stereotypical characters with a point of view, has a mise-en-scene, has obstacles and meaningful conflict, has surprises (non-linearity), and has a sense of an ending (that intimates a new beginning). In contrast, social media, as currently conceived of and practiced by most marketers, is a by-the-numbers transfer of information about a product or a brand, in the hope of attracting the maximum number of consumer eyeballs perusing such a presentation.
The difference between conversation and narrative is representative of the difference between people's interests and identities.
When people identify with some "thing"—when they feel something is part of them—the brain's medial prefrontal cortex is activated, a brain region involved with self-definition. In the case of product marketing, the product is felt to fit into the picture a person has of herself or himself. A reverie about self is provoked in which a self-referring narrative envelops the product.
In contrast, when a person simply feels interested in the attributes of a product presented, the brain region known as the putamen lights up. This experience is rewarding, but not self-involving. The object remains external. We humans crave the satisfaction that comes when our identities are understood
The quest for success in social media marketing—including content development, influencer strategies, real-time tweeting newsrooms, etc.—will continue to be inefficient, unpredictable, or just downright ineffective, until it shifts its focus from being in a conversation with consumers to entering people's narratives of self.
The task now is not so much how a brand or product tells its story, but how it enters an ongoing self-narrative a person embodies already. This task is complex and a bit paradoxical: the marketer needs to be surprising and familiar; be accessible and show the way, much like a collaborative leader. Being just informative and entertaining is not enough. The base coin of success in social media is empathy.
People are more human than the category "consumer" permits. Attachment, not likeability, is the goal. Believing, not thinking, is the mechanism. Metaphor-making, not information-transfer, is the medium. Marketing’s knowledge base should reanimate the processes that are responsible for the mind’s subjectivity—how a person creates models of the world and then translates that into "my world."
Objectivity and rationality are puny in the face of the emotionally based associative capabilities of real people, living real life, real time. People are not wholly rational, objective, or linear machines. People are makers and gatherers of meaning.
Brand is often erroneously described as a marketing invention, but brand is more than that. Brand is nothing short of the engine of history—the how and why of people attaching to certain ideas, people, or things. In the context of marketing, attachment can best be defined as a metaphoric merging of a person’s underlying narrative of "self" with that person’s story of "you" (the product or brand).
Attachments are realized from what a person feels, not from what a person knows.
Attachments are generated from the simultaneous activation of three feelings:
Familiarity: a person must perceive there is something about you that is instantly recognizable as like her or him [It’s Like Me]. A personal identification is conjured up such that a feeling of relief is felt from the assumption, "I don’t have to start over again from scratch."
Appeasement: A person must perceive that you understand some things about them, and must feel their point of view is considered and appreciated [It Likes Me]; a sense of trust develops from this.
Familiarity and appeasement are ways to confirm and affirm an audience, respectively. This is important, but a deep and rock-solid emotional attachment requires a marketer to do one thing more that is quite unfamiliar: challenge the audience’s narrative about themselves.
This third dimension is:
Power: A person must perceive your product or brand as different from them and sense that in that difference you can help them be more; with you as venue, a person feels that you can help them make manifest something that is already in them (in their self-story), but latent. Your product or brand become a vehicle for a person’s felt sense of self-expansion, their familiar is reconfigured.
This is the underlying structure of narrative longing, and of social media marketing success.
For example, listen to an iPhone user: "The iPhone, like Apple, is a circle, it’s smooth and it glides. It’s easy and feels good. All other phones and providers are a box; they have corners and squares, are highly structured, have many rules, and are too technical and linear. They are too corporate. The iPhone is fun and natural and let’s me do my own thing, create new things, and become a bigger me."
Listen to Nobu Matsuhisa, chef and restaurateur: "For me, cooking is about giving my customers little surprises that lead them to make discoveries about their own latent desires."
Whatever the offering—dinner entrée, smartphone, a piece of clothing, or what have you—to be successful a product or brand story must feed people's appetite for self-expansion. Self-expansion isn’t just a business driver, it’s a life driver.
That’s an answer to the "So What?" question that can be responded to with a strident "That’s What!" Self-expansion moves everything forward.
Bob Deutsch is a cognitive anthropologist and founder of the marketing consultancy Brain Sells. He has worked in the primeval forests of New Guinea and the Amazon, on Pennsylvania Avenue, and on Madison Avenue. He lives in New York City.