Consumer Archetypes: Beliefs (2/8)

By Phumulani Mngomezulu

Phumulani Mngomezulu is a Brand Strategist and an award-winning business author whose thought leadership work has been highly  recommended by business, marketing, brand and psychology experts across Africa and successful brands in Africa. Phumulani’s strategy and thought leadership work focuses on sustainable brand building and branding for purpose-led/impact entrepreneurial development.  

In this Article Series, Phumulani explores a framework for creating consumer archetypes/profiles for consumer segmentation and building the case for a purpose-driven entrepreneurial brand story.

In a previous article, Is this a hero’s journey?, I spoke of how the consumer journey may be similar to the archetypal hero’s journey, by discerning the philosophy around the three crucial parts of story, and exploring how that may inspire new perspective for purpose-led brands on strategy for consumer segmentation  and journey mapping.

This article draws upon focus on the one common factor that is the nucleus for character development in stories and how that may be an implication and a guiding path for purpose-led brands, as a lateral approach to further glean more insights in the consumer journey.

In the popular psychological thriller, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, for Amy Dunne it was her parent’s popular children’s book ‘Amazing Amy’ that made her believe that; people only loved her when she appeared perfect and amazing. When she met her husband that cheated on her, her high self-esteem created by this belief of being “perfect and amazing” started to crumble and resulted in her framing her husband for murder. She did not necessarily frame her husband out of anger of the affair, but because of what his affair was going to do to her perceived reputation. She believed that she was perfect and did everything right, so the infidelity of her husband came as her unexpected Crisis. Her struggle against this crisis led her to create what she called ‘the better story’ where she framed that man for murder because for her it was better to be the Dead Girl than the girl that was left for a younger woman. By the end of the story we discover that Amazing Amy ends up being Amy the psychopath.

Suits, a series by Aaron Korsch gave us Harvey Specter, a lawyer who, because of her parents’ infidelities believed that there was no such thing as loyalty and caring for people made you weak. He believed that showing vulnerability was a sign of weakness until he met a young man that he mentored, Mike Ross, who later on in the story went to jail for him as a show of loyalty. Mike Ross was not the only one to show him loyalty but also his other in their working relationships. By the end of the story, Harvey Specter learnt the lesson that his beliefs were wrong and he started to embrace vulnerability and loyalty as his cardinal virtues, where because of them, he even ends up getting married.

We can explore several other examples, but the point is that how we measure the success of a character driven story – their development or change, is through the character’s core beliefs about reality.

When we meet our hero in act one, we meet their beliefs about how the world works and how those beliefs have formed their identity – their truths, values, virtues, principles and so on. During that short space of time we see how these beliefs have helped them create a life for themselves that they in some way, embrace and know to be true until an unexpected event occurs that challenges their belief. The significance of the unexpected event is there to show them that they are wrong, there’s another truth to life that they do not know and this event is a representation of that opposing truth.

It’s not just about an unexpected event that happens, it is about this unexpected affecting the right person. Another character wouldn’t see it as big of a crisis as our hero in act one.  

The Psychological Make-up of a Tragedy Story  

Tragedy stories happen when the character refuses to change their beliefs and stubbornly pursues them further. Gone Girl is an example of a tragedy story. Amy Dunne dealt with her crisis by refusing to renege on the Amazing Amy narrative. She believed she was Amazing Amy and Amazing Amy was always perfect and did nothing wrong. As a result of this belief, she cooked up a strategy where she wanted to have the last win. She saw her husband’s infidelity as a stain on her perfect reputation and she did something to retaliate so the world can see her as a hero and love her again. The belief was the precursor to why she dealt with her problem that way. Amy believed that infidelity does not happen to people like her so her unwillingness to change this belief led her to be mentally ill. She became ostracized and in the end, the truth was made evident about the murder and we saw how those series of events revealed her as Amy the psychopath.  As such, a tragedy occurs when the character develops in their belief and refuse to respond to the call of the unexpected event that is there to show them that their belief is flawed.

The Psychological Make-up of a Happy Story

Happy stories happen when the character chooses to question and readjust their beliefs about reality and who they are. Suits is an example of that happy ending story. Harvey Specter, through the series of events that unfolded in the plot, met people who showed him loyalty, love and care at a time when he believed that these things are were a sign of weakness. That realization to a different side of life was his crisis moment.  He dealt with his crisis by seeking for help, even though it took him a really long time. At some point in the story he started seeing a therapist and underwent his process of healing.

His willingness to change and reframe his beliefs had him coming out on the other side a better person and victorious. He responded positively to the call of the unexpected event.

Character Development

Both our characters develop in the story in different ways. One develops by deepening her faulty beliefs and the other develops by readjusting his faulty beliefs. At the end of the story the way we know and think about them has changed to when we met them. They have arrived at different destinations because of what they believed they needed when they faced their crisis. The struggle in the plot is there to test the character’s beliefs. We want to figure out if our character will remain in their beliefs, or will they change?

This change depends on what they envision for themselves, their goals and aspirations. So, when they come across this unexpected event, what will they achieve by defeating it? The answer to that question will guide the answer to whether they’ll change their beliefs or not. 

Implications for the Consumer Journey

Similarly to archetypal characters, we as human beings also tend to adopt core beliefs about reality that are often faulty or flawed but we do not realize this until we face an unexpected crisis in our lives that compels to us question these beliefs.

When we meet our consumer the first thing we should consider is that we are really meeting is that consumer’s core beliefs about reality or mindsets. These consumers have adopted certain beliefs about how the world works and what they have coined as their values, standards or principles. These are the things they hold in high regard and consider as sacred and instrumental to their identity.

As they call us to provide a product or service solution to a problem they face, it would be wise to consider that the only reason that they call that event or situation as a crisis/problem/ pain is because it does not calculate in their reality. It’s something they have never thought would be real or happen to them so they are at a crossroads between two opposing beliefs about what is real:

  1. The reality in their head created by belief and mind-set
  2. The one that the universe is showing to them through their unexpected crisis

Consumers have to decide which road to take.

How can a purpose-led brand intervene?

In brand building, this implicates the kinds of products and to a large extent, the kind of brands that the consumer will be attracted to based on their interpretation of their pain and what they think would be best for them. This can help you understand why brands are such contextual solutions beyond economic reasons for people. For example, people do not just want a t-shirt, they want a Nike t-shirt. WHY? People do not just want fried chicken, they want KFC. WHY?

The role of the consumer’s favourite brand is to tell the story or offer a solution in their context and in their reality, mind-set, thinking, understanding and so on. The consumer isn’t necessarily buying fried chicken, they are buying that KFC spice. They are not buying a t-shirt, they are buying the belief that Nike offers them. The brand is not a commodity, it is the Struggle story of the consumer.

It is one thing to wake up one morning and be confronted by an incident that proves you wrong about today’s date but knowing that you are wrong about something that has made you who you are today is a very painful realization. That’s the lesson of all story – Change. Through tragedy stories, what we learn is that, it is not that people refuse to change, it is that they realize how difficult that process is and they become unwilling to undergo all of that. They would rather move with their beliefs even when certain events keep showing up to hold a mirror up for them. In Happy Stories of healing, we learn that the ones who decide to reframe their beliefs do it with many questions and hardship.

Identifying and accepting our faulty beliefs and then changing who we are means breaking down the structure of our reality before attempting to rebuild it in new and improved ways. It is not easy. The insights we learn from neuroscience and psychology show us exactly why this is hard – these character-forming beliefs constitute a person’s wiring. They form part of their perception which is their experience of reality. This makes them largely invisible to the beholder, and highly visible to others. To the beholder these beliefs are their virtues, values or principles. They consider them sacred and hold them in high regard.

Example: the coronavirus pandemic is only a crisis or a problem because our belief is that it wasn’t supposed to happen. It is here to show us that our beliefs about how the world must work are in fact wrong, and that we must decide whether we:

  • Accept this and readjust our lives for this new reality or;
  • Reject it and still live our lives as before (no social distancing, no masks and we we still go to the office to do work and go to school for class)

The one option presents an opportunity for us to be better for this and the other is more of a tragic option because if you choose the latter option, you risk being a coronavirus case and essentially risk death.

Self-Mastery Brands

Products that put consumers through a process of healing their flawed beliefs I refer to as Self-Mastery Products. These products and the brands that make them are focused on helping their consumer to clearly identity their flawed beliefs that precipitates their reality of the crisis. They should support the consumer on a journey to change and master this belief (hard as it may be) and eventually support their development to come out on the other side and find healing.  If we look at Nedbank for example, through their Secrets Campaign, they are showing the consumer that their beliefs around money-spending are leading them to debt and the Financial Archetype tool gives them the keys to master this flaw, and through a self-mastery process, lead them to Financial Wellness. Nike believes that if you have a body you’re an athlete, and they create products that help the consumer negotiate those obscure regions of the psyche that institute laziness and doubt, amongst other psychological barriers, which become the difference between an average and elite athlete.

Tragedy Brands

Brands that put consumers through a process of developing in their flawed beliefs, I refer to them as Tragedy Brands. These brands assist their consumers in justifying their beliefs and they support the consumer on a journey that may be fulfilling in the short term, as is the comfort of not accepting change, but which will eventually lead to consumers having a kind of post-coital tristesse after engagement with that brand. For example, loan sharks and debt agencies; medicinal drugs and their side effects; and cigarettes that literally tell the consumer that the tobacco product might kill them.

So, what?

The key difference between self-mastery brands and tragedy brands is that a self-mastery brand’s purpose is about mirroring reality back to the consumer and letting them know that they are part of the problem. The solution only works with if they are involved. Self-mastery brands provide organic solutions to consumers.  A Tragedy brand’s purpose is about convincing the consumer that their problem does not have anything to do with them and that they are not part of this problem. The solution comes as an artificial, exterior response that leaves the consumer dependent on the product (not themselves) to survive their ordeal.

Both brands are purposeful, just in different ways.

I look at any brand as a storyteller of human realities and how people deal with the human condition, because I am a firm believer that brands can and do help people cope with the hardships of life. No one simply decides to go and buy a pack of cigarettes, there’s a purposeful human story behind that choice.

Which one are you building? What human story of pain are you telling your community or the world? Are you the brand that helps the consumer do the hard work and change their situation towards a healthier mind-set and lifestyle, or are you the enabler that tells the consumer that it’s okay and justifies their unhealthy mind-sets and lifestyles?

Your answer to these questions can tell you something about the real value that your brand is playing in the consumer’s life and the true purpose that your brand is pursuing.   

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