Freud, PR & Branding Psychology

A century ago, Sigmund Freud revolutionised our understanding of individuality and ‘the Self’. He realised that our personalities and individualism are born out of the interactions between three systems:

  • the primal and often irrational ‘id’
  • the logical, real-world interfacing ‘ego’
  • the inwardly critical conscience of the ‘superego’

Little did Freud know that his American nephew, Edward Bernays, (who is incidentally also the great-uncle of Netflix co-founder, Marc Randolph) would take that framework and use it to influence public opinion in rather morally dubious ways, often as a means of marketing products. Bernays felt that an intellectual elite should control society, for economic benefit, manipulating opinions to compensate for the irrational, id-driven logic of the general public.

He realised that society could be managed and moulded by motivating the id, ego and superego in just the right ways, leveraging the ideas of crowd psychology as described by Wilfred Trotter and Gustave Le Bon. Enter the age of propaganda – or ‘public relations’ as we call it now.

It seems hard to imagine, but there was a time (before Bernays) when our individualism was not a commodity to be bought, sold and traded. For better or worse, today, our sense of self and our ego-driven personalities are the crux upon which nearly all successful branding is hinged. Understanding those mechanics is therefore crucial for any modern competitive brand.

How did it all start?

Let’s be absolutely clear. Bernays wasn’t a good man. In 1929, he engineered the New York Easter Parade so he could capture images of female models smoking Lucky Strikes, resulting in the infamous “Torches of Freedom” campaign. All over America, images of models smoking cigarettes were used in the press to convince women that smoking was an act of liberation.

He coined ominously dark phrases like ‘the engineering of consent’. For example, he misquoted 4,500 physicians as saying that bacon was a staple part of a healthy breakfast when all they said was that a ‘more substantial’ breakfast was healthier. Before this campaign, the idea of eating bacon for breakfast was laughable. After the campaign, his client’s sales of bacon went through the roof.

Despite his dubious ideas about ‘enlightened despotism’ and ‘pseudo democracy’ (his words), the public relations campaigns he created had a huge impact. They were a game-changer.

Modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse.

— Edward Bernays

Big businesses quickly realised that simple advertising was only one half of the equation. The psychology behind communications campaigns was the real driver of success. Modern branding was born.

Culture, ego and motivation

We can all talk quite confidently about what we do and how we do it. It’s much harder to succinctly define ‘why’ we do what we do.

Our ego is always creating justifications for the desires of our id. We want to look good, feel good, be happy, enjoy life… and our egos give us the necessary rationalisations to do the things that deep down our id knows will achieve those goals. So, if Freud and Bernays are to be believed, we are blissfully unaware of our internal motivations, even if they are sometimes painfully obvious to those around us.

People are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions

— Edward Bernays

Our superego tries to keep our actions in check by pushing us to be moral, to be ethical and to generally live up to our highest standards (perhaps not so much with Bernays). Bernays simply realised that the culture we live in increasingly defines our ideals and sets those standards – a fact never truer than in today’s society, unfortunately culminating in many unrealistic ideals and standards being set for consumers, ranging from beauty standards to lifestyle standards.

The fact remains that by ‘creating culture’, brands can impact our sub- conscious decision making and our internal motivations. By steering our id and our super-ego and creating expectations that we must live up to as a cultural society, brands can build a platform of introspect from which they can sell to us.

Super-ego and powerful branding

As consumers we are forever chasing an ideal of individualism, driven by our super-ego and our idea of a perfect self. All too often, this desire drives us to communicate our individualism by aligning ourselves with the wholesale perceived value that brands serve up on a platter.

‘Think Different’ – ‘Believe in Better’ – ‘MINI Adventures’ – ‘Impossible is Nothing’

It would have been easy for these brands (I’m sure I don’t need to name them) to focus on what they do and how they do it. Instead, these successful slogans are focused on why they do what they do… to challenge the status quo, to encourage our dreams, to enable us to explore and to help us achieve the impossible. They do what we as individuals find so hard, yet so often crave. They answer the ‘why’.

ADIDAS Branding

We measure the individuality we chase so fervently by the way people perceive us.  As a result, we feel the need to associate ourselves with like-minded communities. These brand slogans act as invitations for us to live up to our highest expectations of ourselves.

Fancy yourself as an adventurer? Buy a MINI.

Think you’re creative? Buy Apple.

Putting it all into practice

So you’ve spent time carefully crafting your products or services into competitive offerings. You’re proud of the way you’ve tailored your features and benefits to target the ideal customer. In other words, you’ve defined the what and the how… but not necessarily the ‘why’.

Your brand value should transcend features and benefits. Truly powerful brand propositions will likely include some combination of the following:

  • Social status
  • Social inclusion
  • Lifestyle synergy
  • Achievement of goals

The fact that your product is made of material X, has a battery life of Y or is cheaper than product Z  is not the point. Products will age and competitors will innovate. A brand proposition, however, should be timeless. While products may fulfil an immediate need, a brand should focus on grander aspirations.

McDonald’s sell cheap fast-food, fulfilling a purely physiological need for a full belly. But their brand slogan is “I’m Lovin’ It”, their recent TV campaigns state that “we all have McDonald’s in common” and their in-store advertising is heavily centred on their commitment to ethical farming (whether or not we believe it is another question). Those three propositions appeal to the notions of passion, social acceptance and social conscience, stimulating a response from the ego and super-ego.

What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualisation.
We may define therapy as a search for value.
Abraham Maslow

ADIDAS tell us that ‘Impossible is Nothing’. They sell clothing by playing on the idea that a person can achieve anything they want to achieve – grandiose indeed. However, their latest products will someday look dated, out of fashion and technologically redundant…

Apple’s ‘Think Different’ slogan resonates with our desire to be intellectual and unique, even though their products are consistently rivalled by innovative competitor brands and, let’s face it, there’s nothing ‘unique’ about owning an iPhone.

… But, none of this matters. Apple and ADIDAS’s products will inevitably become dated, but their brand promises will always remain relevant.

A solid understanding of these principles can go a long way. Hopefully you’ll use this knowledge to educate your customers properly rather than to manipulate them. In early public relations Bernays created a morally void monster, but I’d like to think that we can tame that monster in the 21st century, using our knowledge for good as well as profits!

Posted by Paul

Paul is our Head of Marketing and digital strategy specialist. A Google certified SEO expert and Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, he has worked on award-winning campaigns since 2003.

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