By Jim White, PhD., Founding Partner at RealityCheck Consulting
If they a 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. We use these stories to construct our sense of self.
Psychologists call this Narrative Identity.
In short, Narrative Identity is the life story we tell ourselves to give our lives a sense of coherence and purpose. We are all creators of our own myths — myths that give meaning to who we are in the world.
Every day, we strive to weave together our experiences and actions into a life story that makes sense in some way.
The Roles Brands Play
The most meaningful brands play important roles in the construction of our Narrative Identity. We use them to smooth over the inconsistencies and contradictions in our stories. We write them into our personal narratives to help us become the characters we want to become in the stories of our lives.
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.
- Props: They can be props that we use to move our personal plotlines along.
- Settings: They can be settings, stages or backdrops against which we act out the stories that shape our identities.
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.
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, Catness’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.
I think all of us in one way or another have a personal myth that we are at least somewhat cool. This is particularly true as we age. (This is definitely more myth than reality for me)!
My laptop background is actually a picture of my Gibson. Why did I choose that for my background? I’m usually the only one who sees that screen. I think it’s because I like to incorporate that guitar into my daily narrative. It allows me to tell myself each day that I’m a little younger, a little cooler than I might appear.
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.
Is your brand a Character, Prop or Setting in your consumers’ life story? If the answer is “no,” begin to think how it could be. Think of the role your brand could play and put your brand on a path to becoming an indispensable part of your consumers’ Narrative Identity.