Be what your customers are not

Occasionally I’ve seen it noted that the more normal, safe, and suburban someone’s life, the more gruesome and unpleasant the novels they like to read.

There’s a great line in the sitcom Peep Show where socially awkward Mark thinks to himself:

“Look at me; I’ve got a girlfriend. A proper girlfriend reading a best-seller about child-abuse. I go out and have a croissant. I’m just a normal functioning member of the human race and there’s no way anyone can prove otherwise.”

I love the fact that he conflates reading about horrible subjects with normalcy here, as there’s an interesting insight there. In short, we are engaged in a constant struggle to balance our lives, and we use art and culture to fill in the gaps that fall outside our own experience.

To use another quote, this time from Alain de Botton:

“The art we love is frequently something we’re drawn to because it compensates us for what we lack.  It counterbalances us.  When we’re moved by a work of art, it may be because it contains concentrated doses of qualities we need more of in our lives.”

Now OK, nobody needs more child abuse in their lives – or serial killers, or vampires, or whatever else makes up the bulk of popular page turners – but we do need drama.  We do need the dark, the dangerous, and the bleak.  To touch the abyss, however slightly.  And, so if you lead a live far removed from these things, then they will need “topping up” one way or another; rebalancing the beige security of your day to day existence.

As such, Mark was quite right – reading books like this is, in some way, the ultimate signal of normalcy.  Your life is so blandly pleasant that you actively need to seek out the unpleasant to level things up.  (And though I don’t have the stats I’d wager that such books aren’t top of the charts in, say, war zones).

For another example, think back to the late 1990s.  This was a time when the prevailing sentiment was one of crushing stability and prosperity.  Only a couple of years earlier Francis Fukuyama had made his unfortunate comment about “the end of history”, “that is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.  It was an era when, for many in the West, it did indeed feel we had “arrived”.  And frankly, looking back on it, this was pretty nice.  I certainly feel deep nostalgia for the 90s, and I’m sure many of you do too.

Considering this context however, what do you think the prevailing theme of the movies of this period was?  Comfort, peace, and celebration?

On the contrary, it was boredom.

Both Fight Club and The Matrix – probably the two films that defined the era more than any other – railed against mankind’s “domestication”.  They pushed back against the cushy consumerist life of the “cubicle drone”.  They both explicitly demanded freedom and meaning, even (or perhaps especially) if that meant discomfort.  The wild animal lives a shorter, more brutish life than his caged cousin.  But, these movies claimed, such a price is well worth it.

The lesson here then, is that if you want to create a culturally meaningful artefact, it must cut against the grain of the zeitgeist.  It must rebalance people’s lives.

Clearly, this applies to brands too.  They are just as much cultural creations as movies and novels.  They too are things which people consume in order to rebalance themselves – not only functionally, but emotionally too.

Founders, marketing directors, brand managers in particular – they don’t seem to get this anymore.  They have come to believe that the only way to appeal to consumers is to act as a mirror; to reflect their lives right back at them.  This, in part, is why there is such contemporary focus on concepts such as inclusivity. It’s not benevolence per se that drives this: it’s a belief that people “buy what they are” – and if you believe that, then naturally you will be concerned with accurately reflecting the diversity of society (which is of course extremely hard to do other than with the blandest of generalities).

But the thing is, people don’t “buy what they are”.  They buy what they aren’t.

The proverbial bored housewife is not a serial killer – she is the opposite. The 90s cubicle drone isn’t a member of an underground boxing ring – he is the opposite.  And that is why these concepts speak to them.

So perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about what your customers are and to start thinking a little more about what they aren’t.  In the context of brand positioning for your category, there are probably only one or two answers to the first question – and they’re probably rather dull.  But answers to the second question are unlimited.  This is where true representation and inclusion can be found, because although there may not be much we have in common, there is loads that we don’t have in common.

And ironically these things have just as much capacity to bind us.

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