If they made a movie about your consumer, what role would your brand play? Hero? Trusted sidekick? Mentor? Villain? Would your brand even have a speaking part? Or would it be an extra? You know, “Man in crowd #3 played by your brand.”
We all have life stories that we create and tell ourselves to give meaning to our life experiences. By weaving together our past, present and future identities – who we were, who we are now, and who we want to be – into a coherent story, we give our lives purpose to help us make sense of our personal journey. We use these stories to construct our sense of self. In short, we are all creators of our own myths — myths that give meaning to who we are in the world.
Psychologists call this narrative identity. And the most meaningful brands are those that play a role in this story.
Brands can help us create our aspirational self… the person we want to become.
There are brands that help us create a favorable story of who we once were… brands that trigger a sense of nostalgia; that represent our core values and beliefs; that we use to demonstrate to ourselves and others where we came from.
And there are brands that we use every day to tell the story of who we are now.
Maker’s Mark® bourbon is such a brand for me. It is a character actor in the story of my life. When I was a young man, Maker’s – a premium bourbon – symbolized my maturity and aspirations. Today, the brand is a symbol of my roots as a Kentuckian. And, through its loyalty program, Maker’s makes me feel like I have a special, insider relationship with the brand. Part of my identity is being a Maker’s Mark drinker.
Brands don’t always play such positive roles in our stories. There are brands that represent who we are not…brands that represent values and beliefs that are the antithesis of our narrative identity. These are the antagonists in our story…the villains. We use them to sharpen the edges around who we are and who we are not.
So, ask yourself, what role does your brand play? Does it even have a role?
One thing is certain. If you don’t know what your consumer’s life story is all about, there’s little chance your brand will play a meaningful role in it. There are psychology-based market research techniques that will help you become more attuned to your consumer’s narrative identity and what role, if any, your brand plays in it.
The Roles Brands Play
Just like a movie, our stories consist of characters, props and settings. And we incorporate brands into our stories in one of these three ways.
Characters: Brands can be characters, playing the role of supporting actors in our narratives.
In marketing research, we often ask consumers to “personify” brands, that is describe them as if they are people. Usually, consumers find this easy to do. This is because we intuitively think of brands as characters in our life stories.
Over the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of sticking a CLIF® Bar into my pocket when I ski. I’m not a back country skier by any stretch. There’s little chance that I’m going to ski anywhere far from a mid-mountain restaurant.
But that CLIF Bar is always in my pocket. Why? It’s because the CLIF Bar is a character in my story. It represents my backcountry skiing partner. He is rugged, adventurous, skilled and serious about being in the mountains. I’d love to ski with someone like that. And with my CLIF Bar, I can.
Props: They can be props that we use to move our personal plotlines along.
Brands also can be props that we use to move our personal plotlines along. The best brand-props are transformative in some way. They allow us to access a different part of ourselves and play a slightly different role in our stories.
In the movies, the kinds of props I’m talking about are like Harry Potter’s wand, Katniss’s bow and Luke’s lightsaber. But for us everyday folks, brands are our transformative tools.
One of my brand props is my Gibson Les Paul guitar.
Settings: They can be settings, stages or backdrops against which we act out the stories that shape our identities.
Brands also serve as settings, scenes or contexts in our stories that make it easier for us to play out certain roles.
I have some status on Delta Airlines, which means I get to board early, and I get upgraded now and then. While I may not like to admit it, I like the feeling of boarding early and sitting in first class. Not just because it’s convenient and more comfortable, but because it reaffirms something important about my identity — that I’m important in my world, that I have status and that I’m successful.
I may try to write the same storyline when I fly Southwest Airlines — but it’s a little harder to do. The Southwest setting doesn’t fit the story I’m trying to tell myself. I have to do a little mental editing to make my identity as “Successful Entrepreneur” fit the facts when I board a Southwest flight.
So, ask yourself… what role can your brand play in the life story of your consumers? Is your brand a Character, Prop or Setting? If you don’t know that answer, you should consider including techniques in your market research plan that will give you a deeper sense of how your customers use your brand to write the story of their lives
Thanks for reading. What are your thoughts?