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There were two aspects of human life that Freud found difficult to understand, inasmuch as whether they were driven by the Id or the Superego. These are religion and politics.

What drives us to choose our religious beliefs, assuming that we aren’t already born with these firmly entrenched? And our political affiliations?

Consider patriotism.

There is recurring evidence that successful military recruitment depends more on inner motivations of patriotism and self-actualisation, rather than any offers of wealth. This is the crux of jihadist recruitment as well. We find great individual satisfaction in adhering to the ideals of our nation. We find the Id very much in play.

On the other hand, we also find our sense of being through adhering to a larger group. The cause of the group is our cause. We are only too happy to conform to the dictates of what the group demands. An order has to be maintained. Be it a religious edict, or a political whip. The Superego is not challenged.

There is enough proof that almost all religions or nation-states hawk similar ideals. And even the most fanatical adherent is not likely to have studied the texts on the basis of which he will lay down his life, much less question their logic or relevance. The logical Ego is seldom, if at all, called into question. Which, perhaps reinforces the fact that religion and politics live truly at the extremes, making a constant switch between the Id and the Superego.

Switch the elements in the context of brands and marketing, and we’re not far from talking about what every brand manager dreams about – working on a “cult” brand, if not creating one during his lifetime.

While there are many explanations about cult brands and how to create them, could we build them on the basis of the same Id-Superego compulsions that mark religious or political adherence? We know, in any case, that they too owe their success in large part to unquestioning followers!

This then would be their logical construct, on the basis of Freud’s ego-states:

  1. Cult brands offer an ideal that attracts the believer at an individual level, and
  2. Cult brands have a distinct culture (that even non-users can see).

It is important to stress that both conditions have to be fulfilled by the brand to achieve that “cult” status. The choice of words here is deliberate, too.

Cult brands are not just about products, but about higher values (hence the word “ideal”), and the greater that ideal, the stronger the adherence to the cause.

Hence, Apple does not sell computers, it sells the chance to be exceptionally creative. Harley-Davidson does not sell motorbikes, but the chance to be exceptionally individualistic. Marlboro is not about the taste of a cigarette, but that of the great outdoors.

It might be argued that this is the basics of brand-building, i.e. selling benefits instead of features, but cult brands take this to the extreme. And the values, once established, are not lost track of: It must take courage to not talk of processor speeds, or horsepower, or tobacco blends when the competition is talking about them. But cult brands keep such information elsewhere for the seeker, not in their public face. Ideals are paramount, and the focus of any promise.

(A good test for this need to preserve ideals would be to ask if brand extensions or new launches retain the values of the original cult brand.

(An ad for the new Beetle stated, “The engine is in the front, but its heart is in the right place.” Is the heart of the new Beetle in the same place as that of the original? Or is the new product a victim of the same pretentiousness that the original was fighting against?

(Or the relaunch of the Nokia 3310. It has been decided that the new phone will come only with those games that it had when it exited the market.

(Which of the two do you think will regain its cult status?)

If the Id is satisfied through values, then the Superego needs “a distinct culture that even non-users can see”. Part of the user’s need is to belong, and his Superego can be satisfied best when he adheres to a cult that even non-users recognise. This is what we could call the brand’s culture.

So whether we know them intimately or not, whether we see them perform the rituals of their cult or not, we do know how Apple users behave before the launch of a new product, or how Harley-Davidson bikers dress, or what kind of brand extensions are to be found for Marlboro cigarettes.

The existence of a strong user culture around a cult brand is a must, whether or not it is to everyone’s liking. More often than not such cultures are born out of accident (the sixties’ generation making the Beetle an icon, or films like Easy Rider doing it for the Harley-Davidson), but, like religious cultures, brand cultures, too, can be manipulated – through rituals, symbols, heroes and more.

If the Id and Superego are reinforced by well-defined values and distinct cultures, then what role does the logical Ego have to play in the building of cult brands?

The premise of this Freudian analysis is that consumer choices are like other decisions that we make – a resolution of the demands of the Id with those of the Superego, with the guidance of the Ego. It is logical, then, to assume that most of our choices would lie between the two extreme ego-states.

However, when the nature of the product is such that it borders on near reverence – either out of absolute adoration or subjugation, as with cults or cult brands – and there be no middle ground in our choices, then we can state that the Ego has little role to play, if at all.

Let us not forget that cult brands get differentiated also because they do not follow the logic of others. Apple never tells us just how much faster or slower any Mac is compared to other computers, we just get to know what chip it uses (and users will tell you that it works at the “right” speed!). And the more other manufacturers focus on what chip is powering their products, the more Apple stands out from the crowd.

The myths surrounding cult brands emerge from their idiosyncrasies as well. Harley users know that the bike is not known for its brakes, but that is part of the Harley-Davidson experience. As with Apple, we do not know the horsepower of any bike – only torque is specified.

Of course, this does not mean that brands should be allowed to float, and that we should just hope that someday they shall have a cult status. We can help the process along. This could be done through simple tweaks to existing practices.

As mentioned, brand promises should be articulated as goals for self-actualisation, and organisational efforts should be to help buyers achieve those goals. Even I-Phone advertising is about creative expression. (The odd-ball in the portfolio, to this writer’s mind, is the Apple Watch, but it finds its legitimacy in delivering other functions through its handy format.)

Brand culture needs to be identified, defined and built upon. This cannot be dictated, but has to be nurtured. Meta-data should help, as would a willing ear to the ground.

And, of course, brand managers need to have the courage to ensure that their brands get enough time to gain the traction to get cult status. After all, most religions that have stayed have been around for at least a thousand years or more!

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How deliberate it was, one doesn’t know. But if the new look adopted by LinkedIn is inspired by Facebook’s UI, then it’s time to doff our hats to the team that took the decision.

There is good reason to congratulate them: There is only that much individuality that products can hope for, before their differentiation becomes a burden on ease of use.

Take the typewriter keyboard, for one. Back when your QWERTY (or AZERTY) keyboard was designed, the guiding principle was to avoid the keys bunching up together when typing. So, frequently-occurring letters were placed as far apart as possible (at least in the entrails of the machine), and generations upon generations have since learnt how to type with the strict placement that is followed to this day – be it on your smartphone, or your PC, on the Mac OS or on Windows.

In fact, so rigid is this placement that you dare not change your keyboard even when working with the same language – the US International keyboard is not the same as that of the UK standard, just as the French is different from the Belgian.

The keyboard is an example of a UI, adopted for the benefit of all. It is a norm imposed on the user, and such impositions are more common than we might think – be it maritime codes (that are also used in aviation, and now in road transport), or even the idea of licensing software, rather than creating new ones for each organisation.

Very recently, we also saw how a major online retailer chose to use the ‘Pinterest format’ for his mobile UI. Just smoothens the usage. At worst, doesn’t turn away the user.

To come back to the new LI interface (maybe I am being exposed to it late in the day), it can only mean more ease of access for the non-habitual user (the one LI would possibly like to attract, even if the regulars could be monetised!). All told, nice and clean and inviting.

But here’s the question to you: How many instances can you think of where external binds are imposed on your consumer? How many are forced (laws of nature, or laws of habit), and how many could you impose to make your product or offering more user-friendly or more cost effective, and hence more attractive?

In other words, what is the Superego, or that external constraint, that impacts your product, and your consumer’s choices? And how are you cashing-in on it?

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The role of the ego-states becomes a factor to consider by the marketer. Just as the consumer wants to satisfy the demands of each of his egos, so does the marketer need to assure that satisfaction; i.e. successful sales depend on addressing the needs of the Id and the Superego while providing the Ego enough reasons to choose between these extremities.

We gave the example in the previous post of how you might zero-in on your new Ferrari: The Id might want to choose the emotive (brand/heritage) and the sensorial (upholstery and color), while the Superego would come into play in choosing the factors that are beyond our control – the after-sales service, the condition of the roads where it will be driven, and others. In short – the Id would choose the irrational or the self-satisfying, while the Superego would choose through logic and on the basis of extraneous factors. Here, again, the Ego would come into play in weighing the pros and cons of the demands posed by either of the other two.

A lot of this satisfaction depends, of course, on the nature of the product. Staying with our given example, we do find that Ferraris come in colors that you wouldn’t find on a sedan – red, yellow and orange are part of the Id satisfaction in a Ferrari, black and mint-green aren’t! Even when delivered to the client, Ferrari, like most cars in that price range, makes a ceremony around the event – the Id is satisfied all the way through. Of course, in the event of a breakdown, here too the issues related to the Superego (after-sales service) are conducted in a manner that adds to the Id-satisfying Ferrari experience: the repair team comes to your house, and leaves you a replacement.

At another, more everyday level, we spoke earlier of how choosing between chocolates would depend on whether we want to consume it ourselves in the next 10 minutes (Id-satisfaction) or offer it to our in-laws-to-be (Superego satisfaction – extraneous needs coming first). The marketer would provide you with both options, and this would reflect in all aspects of the product – right down to whether or not you find it in the exiting aisles of the store, or in the interior, perhaps next to other gifts.

These are the questions to ask: In how many ways can my product serve as an Id-, Ego-, or Superego-satisfier? What aspects can we change, modify or promote to push it in a particular direction?

Necessarily, the responses to the questions will have implications on the many P’s of marketing.

Which brings us to the question: How are the 3 ego-states related to the pricing of a product?

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Product categories can be categorized as Id-, Ego- and/or Superego-satisfiers. Within categories, it is natural that the same categorization differentiates one product from another. The same logic of the 3 ego-states comes into play when choosing between any short-listed set of products.

Consider having to choose between 3 high-performance sports cars. While the Ferrari and the Lamborghini and the Lotus would make up one set, offerings from the Porsche, the Audi and the BMW could make up another. While both sets are Id-satisfiers vis-à-vis most other cars, even these two sets would be differentiated on the basis of their rational factors (e.g. state of roads where used, or Ego-satisfaction) and their economic criteria (e.g. cost, ease of maintenance, fuel consumption, or Superego-satisfaction).

Again, within a Ferrari, Lamborghini and a Lotus, you might have different reasons to want one over the other – product heritage, or brand associations would be the Id-satisfiers at play, while other, more rational factors would bring in the Superego in the process of decision making.

And should you have made your choice, how are you going to choose which Ferrari it will be? While you might want to focus on the particular engine and its performance parameters, you might want to leave the lesser choices, like the colour and the finish of the interiors to your wife or girl-friend. Again, you’d be making the Superego decisions, while she would choose the Id-satisfiers!

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Consider this: Why is hotel linen always white (or thereabouts)? What is the one feature that both the PC and the Mac borrowed from elsewhere, and will stay with both forever? In cars, what is the colour for indicators and what is it for brake lights?

In making many purchase decisions, we are forced by the constraints of external circumstances. These external forces can be either or both, societal or economic. Planning a product that defies this is the surest recipe for disaster as a marketer or product designer. These external forces define “Superego-satisfiers”.

So, the PC and the Mac had to borrow from the typewriter keyboard – it would be unthinkable to try to reinvent it! Ditto for car indicators and brake lamps. Hotel linen has to be white (and even these whites are separated in the laundry, depending on the nuances) – it tells customers, at a glance, that the sheets are clean, and also because white is the only colour that fades into itself.

We tend to refer to the former as institutional purchases, but in fact these are decisions that have to be made keeping in mind other people – hence, the Superego. Here the mindset shifts from the Id’s “I, me, myself” to issues related to others, and the role the product has to play for another, bigger function (often economic needs).

This mindset is also seen when a parent is buying shoes for a child. Here the parent is driven less by the child’s fancies, but more by the practical aspects of the purchase: What kind of use will they be subject to? How long will they last? How soon before they are outgrown? How easy are they to put on, by the child himself? Hence, the Superego can be found even if it be a case of gifting. We saw that chocolates are impulse purchases, but what happens when you need to carry a box of these on your first visit to your potential in-laws?

This is classic Superego thinking, and in referring to such purchases as “Superego-satisfiers” we are able to capture more accurately the mindset of the buyer at the time of purchase, and even design products accordingly.

In sum: Think rules of the road and maritime conventions, long-term financial investments, weights and measures (US or Imperial gallons; or the mks system?). Think education, reverse engineered vehicles (tractors without shock-absorbers or differentials, trucks with steering wheels that force the driver to be attentive), aircraft cock-pits (all manufacturers retain similarities between one model and the next, to make it easier for pilots to upgrade – within the brand, of course!) and more.

And ask yourself, what changes could you make to your product so it meets the needs of the Superego, assuming, of course, that it is not an Id satisfier? But then again, could your Id-satisfier also have Superego applications?

 

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If the Id, Ego and Superego influence all human volition (including the will to purchase), then they should be reflected in marketing terms as well. As we see, they do, to confirm the first part of our hypothesis: All products (categories) are necessarily Id-, Ego- and/or Superego satisfiers.

Given that the 3 ego-states are closer to human behavior, they should also offer better definitions – be less ambiguous, encompass products and behaviors that otherwise cannot be described, and more – when defining products.

 Impulse purchases

The Id is about impulsive, self-satisfying behavior. It is not rational or deliberate behavior – it is about doing what pleases the individual the most. It flies in the face of logic, and by definition, is contrary to social norms.

Much as we might grow into rational adults, we cannot ignore the fact that we often make purchases that might be absolutely irrational in nature. The Id (or the Child in us) represents our impulses towards self gratification, and “impulse purchases” are nothing more than the Id manifesting itself in the purchase process.

But while the term “impulse purchase” lends itself to certain products (and often those that are of low value), there are many more purchases that are marked by all the characteristics of the Id – the need for self gratification, with lack of reason – and few of these have any real classification in present-day advertising.

Purchases like cigarettes, alcohol, perfumes, cosmetics, fashion, cinema, restaurants, and other such product categories, cannot be “rationalized” as necessary purchases, and enough argument can also be provided in favor of cheaper or more generic alternatives.

(Some practitioners call them “emotional purchases”, and this is also true – the Id is about emotion, after all! But defining these as Id-satisfiers provides us a link with both – the nature of the consumer and the product as well. It is no longer a yuppie nail polish bought by a working-class woman; it is now an Id-satisfier that is satisfying the buyers Id, no matter who the buyer is. This, we shall see, is important in the process of planning and positioning products.

(If one were to rationalize, and say that within one’s social circle, it is impossible to be seen with less than a particular brand of whiskey, or a particular brand of jeans, then we can also say that Id purchases are also a function of peer pressure – an irrational pressure again!)

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If the Id, Ego and Superego come into play in every aspect of our lives, there is every reason to believe that they should influence our behavior as consumers as well!

Conventional psychoanalysis states that we suppress the impulses of the Id to conform to the demands of the society (the Superego). Our behavior as consumers follows more or less the same pattern.

We might want to sing out loud in the street (satisfy the Id), but convention (the Superego) dictates that we behave correctly. Speeding down the road (Id satisfaction) but having to respect speed limits (the control of the societal Superego) is more or less the same.

We might want to live off a diet of chocolate, but we also have doctor’s orders. Chocolates are not likely to take precedence on our shopping list, and supermarkets will not place them, either, so that they take precedence over our staples.

Society wants us to dress according to occasion and convention; we buy our clothes depending on whether they are for work or leisure.

The list of controls (Superego) and the list of desires (the demands of the Id) can be built endlessly, but what we will always find is that as consumers our choices are limited by our willingness to conform or not – ergo, the Id and the Superego determine to what extent we will make our choices, with the rational Ego being the faculty that helps us make a decision towards one extreme or another.

But what products are more likely to belong to which category? This, we shall see, is not difficult to define!

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