Strength-Based Marketing: Positive Psychology Meets Brand Building

What is positive psychology?

The term positive psychology was coined by Martin Seligman during his 1998 presidential address to the American Psychological Association. In his speech, Seligman asserted that psychology had become too narrowly focused.

Clinical psychologists had gotten very good at dealing with mental illness in the wake of WWII, but the entire discipline had begun to revolve around a healing ideology. Seligman argued that in the process of fixing weakness, psychologists had forgotten about building strength.

The same can be said of marketers.

The economic boom that occurred after WWII provided Americans with a wider range of consumption choices than ever before, ushering in the marketing department era. It was no longer enough simply to manufacture and sell products; companies needed to figure out how to satisfy their customers.

Since that time, the focus of most marketers has been on offering solutions to negative problems: "Our product will help you lose weight (or quit smoking, or prevent hair loss, etc.) and thus make you less miserable".

Others have promised an inauthentic kind of happiness that hinges on and reinforces insecurity: "If you buy this beer (or car, or watch, etc.), women will swoon and then you will be whole".

Just like psychologists, marketers have been trying to "heal" people. We have emphasized what makes our customers weak and then presented our products or services as the cure. In the process, we have overlooked what makes our customers strong and how we can enhance those strengths.

There has already been a clear trend away from mass marketing and towards relationship marketing. This is a good first step. Yet today's marketing remains largely weakness-based, as most marketers are still trying to identify and exploit customer points of pain.

Of course, this strategy can be extremely effective when used in the right situation. Negative emotions are almost always more salient - they create a sense of urgency, which helps make the first sale.

But what about the next sale? If your most profitable customers are the ones that you already have, how do you get them to come back?

Photo credit: svenwerk via cc

Photo credit: svenwerk via cc

Well, think about your own life: You probably wouldn't build a relationship with someone who, every time you hung out with them, reminded you of everything that was wrong in your life.

And so it is with brands. If you want people to stick around, you must help them cultivate what is best within themselves.

Smart companies are already doing this. Take Spartan Race, an obstacle racing challenge designed to push participants to their physical and mental limits. Joe DeSena, the founder of Spartan Race, has been quoted as saying, "If you want to get rich in this world, invent things that make it easier for people to be lazy".

So far, DeSena has succeeded by ignoring his own advice: Spartan Race is committed to getting people off the couch not just once, but for the rest of their lives. As a result, the company has attracted an incredibly loyal following - around 5,000-10,000 people show up to each race.

When you fix someone's problem, you get a good review. But when you make someone's life better, they come back. And they bring their friends. Strength-based marketing works by enabling what is right in us.

Now, I understand that if we start thinking about marketing as a way to help people become fulfilled, it changes everything. Some of you might be thinking: "But Greg, the less complete our customers feel, the more they consume...if we make people whole, won't they consume less?"

Of course they will.

But when they do buy things, it will be from the company that made them happy in the first place.

When Patagonia's CEO urged customers to buy fewer jackets, they proceeded to buy more. At least, they bought more from Patagonia. It was a counterintuitive move, but it built trust. Here is a clothing company that is so committed to sustainability that they are actually pushing people away. That kind of alignment with a mission statement sets Patagonia apart from its competitors.

Most brands have a very small chance of winning over the masses. In Seth Godin's book We Are All Weird, he notes the that bell curve is expanding and writes that we are "addicted to mass and there’s no mass available". If you want to stand out from the crowd, it helps to have a loyal following.

But brand loyalty is hard to come by these days; only about 25% of Americans now say that it impacts their buying behavior. This is in part because most people have the ability to choose. Even in a recession, GDP per capita continues to increase in the US and in many other countries. And millennials are more discerning than ever - they are jaded by big business, they want to craft a unique identity through consumption, and they have evaluative information readily available in the palm of their hands.

With great customer choice comes great marketer responsibility. And so, just like it did after WWII, marketing must enter a new era.

And in this new era, it is no longer enough just to have a solution; businesses must make an impact. One way to do this is to help your customers invest in themselves (e.g. Spartan Race). Another is to help them invest in something bigger (e.g. Patagonia). This is not just about mission statements and cause marketing. It is about harnessing positive psychology findings in areas such as gratitude, resilience, and optimism in order to increase the value of what you offer and communicate that value effectively.

Each year, the Center for Positive Marketing at Fordham University puts out their V Positive Report, which measures the positive impact on societal well-being of major brands. This year, Facebook topped the list. As strong social ties are thought by positive psychologists to be a necessary component of happiness, it's no wonder why Facebook is one of the most popular websites in the world. Google also scored highly (and their advertising shows why).

When Seligman founded positive psychology, he didn't throw out the other half. Likewise, I'm not saying that we should stop trying to solve urgent problems. Or that strength-based marketing is right for every product or service. But we do need to stop making false promises and start helping our customers actually address their higher needs.

I believe that most people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. If the goal of marketing is to satisfy the customer (and it should be), then let's help connect our customers to products and services that will allow them to flourish.

If we do that, the rest will take care of itself.

(Photo credit: Bokeh & Travel via cc)

Greg Faxon

Greg Faxon, 2829 Connecticut Avenue NW (Apt 513), Washington, DC 20008, United States