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Narcissism nightmare: how brands can reach the selfie consumer


By Erik Saelens, Founder

February 12, 2020 | 11 min read

Narcissism appears to be on the rise in modern societies. It is present on all levels, leading some scientific researchers to refer to it as “socially toxic”. An ongoing study of narcissism by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast has found that narcissists are likely to “engage in risky behaviour, hold an unrealistic, superior view of themselves, are overconfident, show little empathy for others, and have little shame or guilt”.


/ Photo by Maxim Potkin on Unsplash

Try selling something to people who think everything is all about them. Nothing in the world, not a single product, service or experience is ever totally perfect, so how can you ever hope to please them? And should you accidentally succeed in doing so, how can you ever hope to keep them happy enough to continue as loyal customers?

Brands struggle to follow them, mentally if not physically. Where traditional consumers could at least be handled as a sort of homogenous mass, today’s consumers are like strands of quicksilver, slithering this way and that. The moment you think you understand them, the moment you start a campaign that you think will hit the spot – well, the day your campaign is launched you’re likely to miss the mark because they are already obsessed with something else entirely. All it takes is a single new influencer blogger-vlogger type to swing people against a brand en masse, or convince them to go for a product that promises to make them shine more than anything on earth.

Unbelievable? Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle platform Goop recently launched a candle called This Candle Smells Like My Vagina. The candle retails for $75 and sold out within an hour; there is currently a waiting list for new orders. Now there is a product that sums up what is happening inside people’s heads around the world. A candle that reflects the smell of Ms Paltrow’s vagina: how narcissistic can a product be?

Everyone’s a narcissist sometimes

What makes matters much, much worse is it’s not a “us vs them” story here. There is a narcissist in all of us. The way we have become accustomed to our current high standard of living – at least in the west – has spoiled us all to some extent. People have developed a huge sense of entitlement as a matter of course: to be treated like a royal in a shop, or to have the doctor in ER drop everything to have a look at that throbbing finger.

We have all come to think that everything is possible right now, or should be possible in the shortest possible time if not right away (“What, we’ve landed on Mars but you’re telling me you can’t deliver this washing machine tonight, mate?”). There are tens of millions of us behaving as if we were unique, and we feel the need to be treated accordingly. Yet the level of narcissism that informs so many consumer choices seems to have escaped the notice of many brands. They are still at the stage of “engaging,” trying to find a bridge between their brand and products and their target audience.

The irony here is that this form of narcissism is also known as marketing narcissism. Which is the old-fashioned kind of marketing we all know so well: “talking about yourself.” Self-centred positioning and propositions are still taking centre stage in many marketing communication endeavours, resulting in something that still radiates a “buy, buy, buy” attitude. Too many brands are still in love with themselves; not surprisingly, they run up against a wall of people who happen to love themselves even more.

Uniqueness is the word

The true narcissist is still something of a rarity. In general, typical narcissists think themselves better than others, want to impress and be the centre of attention. Using this broader definition of narcissism, around 20% of western consumers are considered narcissists, say Swiss researchers. Consumers in some Eastern cultures (eg urban China or Singapore), however, are rapidly catching up, according to Emanuel de Bellis and Andreas Herrmann from the University of St Gallen’s Institute of Consumer Insights. In particular, they have been looking at how narcissism intersects with the expanding field of mass customisation.

Mass customisation is seen as one way to comply with the heightened feeling of “wanting to be unique” that is showing up in consumer behaviour. Buying something that is (sort of) unique or seen as unique by those around the buyer makes the narcissistic consumer feel good; it offers the opportunity to show off his uniqueness on social media, keeping intact his status as an interesting person or even expanding it.

Customisation is something businesses and brands will have to focus on even more in the near future. They will have to work hard on R&D to come up with products and services that are highly individualised and customised. There is a win-win in that: businesses will satisfy people’s narcissistic urges while charging more for these products and services. In this way they will also build a reputation for being a business or brand that really and truly understands today’s consumer.

Expression of self

Going after narcissist consumers is not easy, and that’s an understatement. Supposedly, the obvious way to find them and reach out to them is through social media, or by tempting/engaging them with online content that somehow reflects their interests and lifestyle. It has led brands to spend trillions of dollars worldwide in the hunt for likes. The rationale behind online content development, online advertising and social media communication has generally been little more than that: the more likes we score, the more popular we become; the more traffic to our site, the more people visit our outlets; the more we sell, the more loyal those clients will become.

Sounds great, but as it happens, it hasn’t worked out that way. Brand likeability takes more than just a superficial click on a thumb icon. The narcissist will not be touched by flattery alone. Today’s narcissistic consumers know the difference between outright flattery and genuine interest in their precious egos and all that feeds them. Even knowing, as a brand, that the choices of your target audience are influenced by this narcissism in some way doesn’t make it easier to develop communication that gets the job done.

As a brand you have to delve deeper inside the people you want to touch, otherwise how can you convince them to like, love or buy your brand? Those with a strong narcissistic streak are extremely susceptible to validation, so chances are the moment you help them embrace your brand message as a reflection of what they believe in, you will touch a nerve. Sharing it on social media will show they are indeed the special person they are (or feel themselves to be) and there’s nothing they like better than that.

Coca-Cola created something exactly like this in China. The company offered bottles customised with the names or sentiments that customers wished to express. It worked with Sina Weibo, one of China’s social media sites, to promote the bottles. The first day they came out with the promotion, Chinese consumers ordered 300 bottles per hour. Four days later, they were ordering 300 bottles per minute. Coca-Cola had succeeded in helping them express their unique feelings and convictions, which hit the spot more than anything designed merely to accumulate likes. The campaign reflected people’s uniqueness and played to their feelings of being someone special.

Strong feelings to explore

Playing to the narcissistic traits of today’s consumers requires you to take a good, hard look at the emotional content of, well, your content. It is about finding something that shows what your brand is about instead of telling what your brand is about. Starbucks once printed a poem about loneliness and connection by Augustus Burroughs on its cups. It struck a chord with a lot of Starbucks’ customers and forged a deeper emotional connection with the brand. They could have just printed something on the order of “We are Starbucks” or some other derivative of the Starbucks mission. But that would never have had as much impact with people as “walking their talk.” This was not about promoting the brand, it was about confirming the customer’s choice to come into Starbucks and keep coming back to Starbucks.

“Right,” I hear you saying, “but if a brand isn’t allowed to talk about itself to build its name and image, how can it realise effective marketing strategies? Somehow, surely, you will have to inform people about what you have to offer, right? At some point, you will have to sell what you sell just to stay in business, won’t you? Aren’t we going overboard with all this touchy-feely stuff just because consumers are turning out to be narcissistic?”

No, you won’t be going overboard by looking for ways to touch the narcissistic nerve in consumers. It also doesn’t mean you’ll have to sit down with a small army of psychologists to develop a creative marketing communication strategy. In fact, the way to go is not that much different from the intuitive way advertising creatives have always tried to appeal to people’s egos. That our ego has started suffering from gigantism after the last decade of self-promotion is certain, but ego is still ego. It comes down to the question: How can we make people feel as special as they think they are? How can we help them, through our brand message or our products and experiences, express themselves to the outside world as the special people they want to be?

Invite them to become more influential by sharing their wisdom on a brand platform – this would play to their feeling of being smarter than others. Develop queue-jumping apps like Starbucks did, or Prime Priority Delivery like Amazon, or any other form of VIP service – this would play to their feeling of being superior to or more important than others. Or find a way to improve the pictures, videos or selfies they share on social media – this would play to their vanity and their need to stand out in a crowd.

It’s about them, not you

Perhaps we have entered the most difficult age we have ever encountered in branding and advertising. As brand marketers, business leaders and communication professionals, it is ingrained in the very fibre of our being that brand advertising is about the brand being seen and heard. It informs people about itself, presents itself, shows itself, sends out messages about itself into the wide world in the most enticing way we can devise.

That stage is not yet completely behind us, but any brand marketer with common sense will have to acknowledge that here is a ballgame that will have to be played differently. The battle for attention has shifted inward, to the interior monologue of our audiences. It is no longer about making our brands look special in the world; it is about making our customers feel special in the world.

Erik Saelens is the founder and executive strategic director of Brandhome


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