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Competitive Narcissism: A Marketing Lesson

Getting and keeping the attention of the social media generation means making your brand all about them.

Recently, I read (again) that marketers are abandoning their efforts on social media. Despite desperately trying to be “liked,” businesses have seen little financial gain from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and similar social media platforms. This is nothing new; five years ago, businesses complained that people rarely clicked the ads they posted on Facebook. 

The challenge of advertising on social media now reminds me of the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus. Echo was a nymph who had been cursed with an affliction: She couldn’t speak except to repeat what others said to her. One day, she fell in love with Narcissus and hid in the woods waiting for him to notice her. When he called out to some friends, she called back, and he asked her to show herself. Unfortunately for Echo, he rejected her immediately upon seeing her (at which point she ran off, gradually wasting away until only her voice remained—the mountain’s echo). Narcissus continued to attract other wood nymphs, all of whom he briefly entertained before scorning and rejecting them too. Nobody matched his beauty, and so he though no one was worthy of his affection. Eventually, though, Narcissus did fall in love—with his own reflection in a pool of water.

What is social media, really, if not a modern-day equivalent of the reflecting pool where Narcissus saw himself? When people share on social media, aren’t their posts specifically designed to demonstrate to others how wonderful they are and how much fun they are having—to show that they matter? Selfies are perhaps the most obvious example of this trend. As Echo mistook the call from Narcissus to be an indication of interest, marketers mistake “likes” as indications of meaningful interest. But they’ve found themselves similarly rejected as the “likes” fail to translate to more profits.

One of the ironies of the Internet is that it made the world smaller, but destroyed the small ponds where people could be big fish. Nothing makes this clearer than the billions of Facebook users. Thus, it seems the only way for someone to matter is to continually remind others how special he or she is.

So what can you do as a marketer to be relevant in this land of competitive narcissism? The answer lies in Narcissus himself. As the myth goes, the only thing that kept Narcissus entranced was his own reflection in the pool of water. He would continually reach out to the beautiful water nymph he thought he saw, but with every attempt to reach out and grasp her, she would disappear into the ripples. His nymph would return only when the waters calmed, and Narcissus lay by the pool completely enchanted. 

The successful marketer will become like the pool, reflecting the social media consumer’s need for validation and the feeling that he or she is special. A great example that accomplished this feat was a promotion that Coca-Cola created in China. The company offered bottles customized with names or sentiments that customers wished to express. They jointly promoted these bottles with Sina Weibo, one of China’s social media sites. On Day One of the promotion, Chinese consumers ordered 300 bottles per hour; by Day Four, they were ordering 300 bottles per minute. 

Instead of seeking to be “liked,” Coca-Cola reflected what the consumers were seeking: validation.  They recognized that the strongest brand message they could send was the reflection of the customers themselves. And therein lies the key to successful social marketing: Seek to reflect and respond to your targets.

Instead of seeking to be “liked,” Coca-Cola reflected what the consumers were seeking: validation. 

Another successful campaign that took advantage of the need to be recognized was “Mad Men Yourself,” which American Movie Channel (AMC) originally created for the TV show’s third season. The promotion invited fans to create and customize 1960s-style digital avatars of themselves that reflected the look of Mad Men's iconic characters. More than 700,000 avatars were created and downloaded by the time the season began three weeks later. And most importantly for advertisers, the premiere attracted 4 million viewers, a 273 percent increase over the prior year and the highest ever for an original episode on AMC.

Validate. Encourage. Reflect people’s specialness. Your brand message is irrelevant; what matters is what you reflect back to Narcissus. And before long, Narcissus will sit by your pool, see himself or herself in you, and become a loyal customer.

Catherine Palmieri

Catherine Palmieri is an award-winning digital veteran, launching online and mobile business platforms for various corporations, and now speaks and writes on innovation and marketing in the digital world.

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