Staring Narcissism In The Face

by Bruce Tait

In this social-networked world, we’re observing an unprescedented shift in the way individuals view themselves and those around them. It’s all about me. All the time.

At Tait Subler, we spend a lot of time trying to understand the values people hold. It’s important to understand the values of people within an organization so that the Strategic POV we recommend can act as a source of inspiration and pride internally.  And it’s important to understand the values of the target group(s) so we can craft a brand idea that forges a connection on a values level.  Values have become more important to us than functional needs or even emotions because there is so much evidence coming from brain science that a values connection creates greater loyalty and trust than a Brand based on anything else.

The brands people love and use to express their own self-identity share their values and demonstrate them in everything they do. Apple makes a values connection around the idea of creativity. Ever wonder why people put the Apple logo in their car windows? The same reason they put stickers regarding their political views on their car bumpers. They want to connect with others who share their values and they want the world to know who they are.

So we have developed different techniques to dig into what people hold as their personal values. What are they passionate about? What matters in their lives? In what kind of world do they want to live? One tried and true qualitative research technique is to ask a respondent to talk about the people in their lives that they admire. Usually this leads to a discussion about why they admire that person and the values that person demonstrates through the way he or she lives. This is an excellent way to understand the respondent’s own values. Or, at least it was.

In the last year we’ve worked on two completely different kinds of projects. One was a B2B global project and the other was for a casino-resort. In both these projects we experienced a new phenomenon that revealed America’s growing narcissism – an issue that was discussed in the book, The Narcissism Epidemic, by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.

Here’s what happened. In both projects we trotted out our well-tested interviewing technique:

Interviewer – “So tell me about someone you know personally that you admire. Someone you think is really living his or her life right.”

Respondent – Long silence… “Well, there isn’t really anyone I admire as much as myself.”

Another way narcissism was manifested in these highly disparate projects was with this response:

Respondent – “I really admire my aunt. She has always seen how great I am, even when others didn’t.”

Believe it or not, we’ve been using this technique for over 10 years and we’ve never had these kinds of responses before. And it was striking that in the global project we heard these types of responses primarily in America (and a couple of times in Germany).

Maybe people always felt this way but it wasn’t considered proper to state it. Maybe the social-networked culture we live in today actually fans the fires of narcissism. Think about all the time people spend curating their Facebook pages or tweeting about things that are too mundane to mention. It’s “all about me.” All the time.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went out to a trendy dinner spot and watched as people took pictures of themselves and then proceeded to work, head-down, for some time as they posted on Facebook that they were at this special place. Rather than actually being in the moment at the place and enjoying it, they were using it as a set for their pictures and a bit of spice for their Facebook pages. Meanwhile, it seemed they were missing out on the experience the place offered.

As brand strategists, this new self-infatuation provides challenges but it also brings new opportunities. We may need to re-frame some of the old research techniques. But a better understanding of the values inherent in “me-ness” is also interesting and it could lead to new strategies that differentiate in new ways.

Posted in Ideas & Insights, Original Points of View, Quick Bits.