Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about the question of nature vs nurture.
What we’ve always yearned for
The “nature” idea states that we humans think and behave in the same ways we have always done, since our hunter/gatherer days. It’s the notion that “nothing ever changes” when it comes to human behavior and that we are still driven by the same set of basic human needs.
In today’s world the “nature” idea means that the internet, mobile technology, social media, etc. haven’t really lead to, or enabled, new human behaviors, but are just the latest way we end up responding to, and dealing with, our innate human needs and drives.
What we especially need today
On the other hand, the “nurture” idea that posits that our thinking and behavior is very much driven by the immediate world in which we live today. It’s the idea that “culture shapes us”. It is believing that changing societies, economies, politics, media, technologies, etc. do cause us to adopt new behaviors.
Not one extreme or the other, but a middle way.
I see a “third way” between these two extremes. I believe today we are very much struggling to satisfy our age-old and innate human need and drives (our “nature”), in a culture which is very different (fast paced, information ridden and short in personal meaning) from anything ever experienced before (our “nurturing”).
So, while we may continue to act, react and interact according to ingrained codes, we’re doing it at warp speed and amidst a growing number of often-conflicting ideas, messages and alarms. As we interact with the world around us, we find it hard to latch onto ideas, people, institutions and products which truly matter to us; too much is superficial in nature or clearly designed to exploit our baser instincts.
As such, I would argue that while this may not be new behavior, it does seem to force our behavior to mutate in order to survive in our highly dynamic, yet essentially meaningless environment.
The same fears, experienced in a new context
I think its fair to say that brands today need to acknowledge human “nature”, with a special focus on the need for security. I interpret security as “the feeling that one is in the right place”; that is, one feels secure when one is in a state of mind prompted by being away from harm, and in a place where one can be healthy and prosper…in other words, the “right place”
The “harm” we seek refuge from today is different from what we faced in the past. Most of us do not have to fear man-eating animals, marauding warriors, or extreme weather conditions. We are, nonetheless, still innately fearful and in need of reassurance. These fears (and the ways we seek reassurance) manifest themselves in many different ways.
When thinking about brands, I believe that there is one significant way in which our fears manifest themselves today that, once recognized and addressed, can positively transform brand relationships, both within and outside an enterprise.
It is the feeling that our lives are meaningless.
The struggle for personal meaning
It’s easy for us today to feel that, in this big, confused world inhabited by 6 billion others, our lives are insignificant. We sometimes feel that what we do with our money can be indulgent, wasteful, and harmful to the environment (e.g. wasting natural resources, adding pollution, increasing garbage). We often feel that our work has no meaningful point or purpose. The question “why” looms large in our minds. An empty feeling fills our hearts. Our lives seem soulless.
I’m not suggesting we’re all walking around aimlessly and depressed. But I do think many are haunted during moments of reflection about the true meaning of their lives.
Brands can have a role in helping people deal with this identity crisis. Of course, it is naive to think a brand can “solve” such crises, but brands can take on a role in reducing the fear and anxiety people experience. And brands don’t need to have products or services directly related to addressing these worries (though, those that do will be increasingly valued).
How brands can help people feel in the “right place”.
They can do this by identifying with the needs, interests, desires and aspirations of people. They can reposition themselves in light of this human insight by turning from a focus on what they do, to why they do it.
As people connect to brands on this level, they feel reassured and comforted. They see how affiliating with such brands helps them validate their “rightful place” in this world. They gain a new set of bearings for a life that matters. The net effect of all this change is that they do more (buy more, work harder, etc.) for the brands that help them along.
Can brands really matter?
Again, this all may sound very profound, idealistic, and, perhaps, well beyond the scope of a commercial relationship. But I don’t think so. So called “commercial relationships” have become increasingly valued in our society, and many brands have demonstrated that a human approach to these relationships pays big dividends.
Indeed, I think that by making subtle shifts in its intent, attitude and behavior, a brand can help link to people in truly meaningful ways. If a brand’s “intent” goes beyond simply generating profits, if its “attitude” is more empathetic, and its “behavior” is more sensitive, caring and respectful (both in what it says and what it does), people will respond on a very basic level.
The bond that is created may not be overly conscious (e.g. people won’t readily speak of it, or have words to describe it), and be based on feelings rather than logic, but it will nonetheless be highly valued and appreciated by people. These feelings, neuroscientists tell us, will surround, inform and drive future decisions vis a vis the brand.
Traditional ways of creating appeal and differentiation have become commoditized and cheapened by people who have used them cynically to “manipulate” people. Meaningful brands change this paradigm. They raise the ante by creating appeal and different ion through meaning. They succeed by having good intentions about the relationships they depend upon.
Somewhere between the ideas of “nature” and “nurture” is a way for your brand to stand out in a unique way, connect meaningfully with people, and leave competitors in the dust.
Identifying where that unique point lies for your brand is my goal when developing a creative branding strategy.