Why there’s no ‘i’ in brand

We live in an era of social media-inspired showing off, says Theresa Clifford. So should brands be encouraging it, or fighting against it?

A recent interview given by the fashion mogul Tom Ford in which he cited the ‘narcissism on Instagram’ as a pet hate, prompted content strategist Will Sansom to address the question of whether we have become a narcissistic and self-obsessed society.

Writing in Contagious magazine, Sansom notes the explosion of social media and our ‘selfie culture’ and asks whether there is a creeping tendency towards narcissism and self-obsession in our society and, more importantly, whether brands play a part in all this. Apple, for example, has been very adept at playing upon and developing contemporary narcissism and has understood that the key connector in this ‘youniverse’ is you.

As such, the ‘i’ in Apple’s iPad/iPhone/iPod is much more than just savvy marketing. There is little doubt that social media has become an outlet for a new breed of narcissism.

In an illuminating article entitled, ‘I’m 17 and it’s all about Brand Me’, college student Carmin Chappell, explains the importance of social media to her ‘brand’. She says, “In less than 140 characters, I provide a selective glimpse into my thoughts, only revealing those that made the best impression….

For Chappell, each social media provides a distinct niche for her to showcase different aspects of her personality, enhancing others’ preconceived notions about her. She continues, “Teens have become experts in online branding; instead of pushing a product, we’re selling ourselves. Everything we do online is subconsciously executed to affect others’ perceptions.”

It seems that even charitable activity is prone to this same narcissism. Often fundraising is seen as a means of advertising one’s own thoughtfulness, social consciousness and all-round goodness. Movember is perhaps the most blatant example of this narcissistic trend where participants are continually encouraged to upload ‘selfies’ to their social networks.

It would appear that an increasingly compulsive need for public self-expression and the need for constant affirmation have led to a situation where we cannot live without an admiring audience. Via a myriad of social channels, we are constantly encouraged to boast and brag about our achievements. If this bragging was to happen in person we’d be able to gauge the impact of our boastfulness, but conducted remotely over social networks, we lose all such sensitivity or empathy.

As Sansom rightly points out, you wouldn’t walk into someone’s house and think it normal for them to have hundreds of photos of their own pouting face strewn about the place, so why are we OK with this happening in social media? Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at MIT, makes some insightful points about this in her book, Alone Together.

Based on interviews with hundreds of children and adults, she describes our new, unsettling relationships between friends, lovers, parents and children, and the new ways we understand privacy and community, intimacy and solitude.

We now fear the private sphere and the space it allows us for self-reflection and self-exploration, preferring to ‘share’ everything in the public sphere. Turkle’s central point is that this new connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. But social media will not be truly ‘social’ if it is a crutch that we use in place of properly communicating with each other.

The irony is that the narcissism and self-obsession displayed on social media can lead to feelings of disappointment and unhappiness. Not getting those re-tweets or ‘likes’ on your ‘selfie’ can elicit feelings of rejection. So should brands be encouraging this ‘Brand Me’ culture or instead focus on social media activity that amplifies empathy and generosity?

Recent studies on young people show that Gen Zs (aged 17 and under) are more inspired than Gen Y’s and X’s to want to change the world for the better. In addition, the 2013 Cone Communications/ Echo Global CSR Opportunity Study found that the majority of consumers believe that brands should align with greater social needs by donating products, services, money and volunteering.

According to Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of the Art in the UK, brands that avoid this self-absorbed culture and combine a strategy for competitive success with a commitment to ‘social good’ do tend to stand out in a crowded market. Some brands are tapping into our desire to be altruistic and benevolent without the need for self-promotion. Chase Bank is one example of this.

The American bank recently took top honours in the Social Media Power 100. Back in 2009, Chase Bank became one of the first financial institutions in the world to use social media channels to give away millions of dollars to charities.

Four years later, the bank’s “Community Giving” campaign has become one of the most celebrated social media success stories in the financial industry. Chase has 3.7m fans on Facebook – not bad for a bank – and also has high levels of engagement. The bank’s social media strategy is firmly rooted in promoting charitable activities and civic organisations that make the world a better place.

Chase also lets its Facebook fans decide themselves which charities receive grants from Chase, so they can make their communities even stronger. By helping foster a climate where altruistic behaviour is accepted and affirmed, today’s brands could avoid fuelling the evident narcissism that exists in contemporary society today and encourage people to look beyond themselves and the prevailing ‘Brand Me’ mentality.

Through appealing to a sense of solidarity and community, brands could promote a sense of civic duty, not because it makes them look good, but because it is the right thing to do in and of itself.

Theresa Clifford is a Digital Director at PHDIQ and a tutor in Digital Marketing with the Marketing Association, New Zealand

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