Alan Mitchell: Narcissism is no basis for a good relationship

Big global brands such as Coca-Cola can become so obsessed with their own image that they fail to spot what the consumer wants

Pride comes before a fall, as Coke chief executive Douglas Daft now seems to be admitting. Speaking late last year, Daft conceded that the past few years had “hardly been our most glorious time”. The company now faces a “litany of issues”, including the need to, as Daft put it, “tend and mend relationships with governments and important constituencies around the globe”.

Then he moved on to make a remark that strikes at the heart of what is becoming marketing’s biggest dilemma. “When you are the world’s greatest brand,” he said, “you must guard against not only complacency, but also narcissism – the temptation to stare into the mirror, when you should be looking out of the window.”

“Our business”, he continued, “Is not about understanding our brand, it’s about understanding people.”

Narcissus, of course, was the young man in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and fell so in love with it that he fell in the pool and drowned. Psychologists now regard being “narcissistically wounded” as a distinct form of personality disorder.

The shrink’s reference bible, DSM IV, describes the attributes of the narcissistically wounded in the following terms: “A grandiose sense of self-importance; fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance; a belief that one is superior, special and unique; a constant seeking for attention and admiration; a preoccupation with how well a person is doing and how favourably that person is regarded by others.”

Notice the similarity with modern brand management? Branding nowadays is increasingly touted as a panacea for business problems: a means of trumping the challenge of product and service parity; the secret to customer loyalty and superior margins; a source of meaning and identity for consumers – even a co-creator of modern culture; a set of values that employees are supposed to live by; something whose soul or DNA must be investigated by marketers to the nth degree.

But look afresh at the modern brand’s relationship with the consumer: it is Me, Me, Me all the way. Never has a more ego-centric entity existed. My brand is a carefully constructed package of information designed by me, about me and embodying the special attributes of my product, service or company.

My marketing strategies are designed to influence your behaviour to my benefit, by buying more of me or paying more for me. My marketing communications are designed to grab your attention so that you lend your concentration to what I want to say to you.

When I do things to build my brand I do them because I want you to become my customer. When I talk about loyalty, it is your loyalty to me I’m interested in, not vice versa. My narcissistic nirvana happens when you love me so much that you become my brand ambassador, spreading the good word about me.

And I do all these things to further my own purposes, not yours. I invest in my brand because I want it to maximise the returns it generates for me. When I measure “brand value”, I measure the value of my brand to me, not to you.

And when I talk about marketing or advertising effectiveness, my concern is how well it achieves my objectives cost effectively, not yours.

Of course, as DSM IV stresses, a certain degree of egotism is always healthy. The opposite attributes – a complete lack of self-esteem or sense of unique identity – are signs of different and equally damaging personality disorders.

It’s all a matter of balance.

Some will undoubtedly say marketers have got that balance right. Not necessarily so. Just look at the crescendo of exhortations to get closer to, focus on, understand and build relationships with customers. But like politicians calling for unity (they only do so when their party is divided), such exhortations are merely symptomatic of an enduring failure to actually practise what is preached.

The narcissistic marketer passionately believes in customer relationships, but his narcissism unfailingly subverts them. He only focuses on and understands consumers so that he can channel their functional and emotional needs -‘and custom – to the glorification of his brand.

My market research is preoccupied with what you think about me – and what I can do to make you think I’m wonderful. Likewise, when I do advertising, I delve deep into your attitudes and emotions, but only to further my own ends. The real purpose of my brand communications is not for me to understand you, but for you to listen to, understand and admire me.

It’s easy for brand management to descend into sophisticated navel gazing of this form, and not “look out the window”, as Daft put it. Not surprisingly, attempts to build relationships with consumers are often counterproductive.

As Michael Lanning, former Procter & Gamble brand manager turned consultant, says: “Thoroughly self-absorbed egotists who can only understand relationships in terms of themselves fail in these relationships and can’t understand why”.

Business strategist John Kay put it differently when he remarked: “If we treat others in an instrumental and calculating way, they are likely to respond in an instrumental and calculating way.”

But hang on a minute. Isn’t marketing ultimately all about brand glorification: achieving more sales, higher margins, greater brand loyalty, a bigger market share?

The answer has to be no. Not in isolation, anyway. For two reasons. First, thanks to the information age, the pressures on marketing as an entirely seller-centric activity – done by sellers, for sellers, to help sellers sell – are mounting inexorably. We are moving into a new era of buyer-centric marketing, where marketing skills, resources and processes are also deployed to help buyers buy better products at lower prices.

Second, brands are vehicles of win-win exchange, or they are nothing. To flourish in the long term, brands have to exist and act for buyers as well as sellers. Successful brand management is about forging the richest possible win-win business models and relationships. And, invariably, those people who forget this are punished.

Alan Mitchell

Alan Mitchell’s book: “Right Side Up: Building Brands in the Age of the Organized Consumer” will be published by HarperCollins next month


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