Enticed by a free Beauty Insider birthday gift, Janice set out to give herself a 55th birthday makeup splurge at sephora.com. She ended that shopping session vowing to never shop Sephora again. “I spend more on skin care and makeup in a month than the twentysomethings they think are so precious spend in a year,” Janice told me. “Oh, and those gift cards I usually get my daughters for stocking stuffers? Never again, it’ll be Ulta this year.” Janice’s wrath was caused by what she perceived to be ageist search results on Sephora’s web site. Looking for inspiration, she had searched “value and gift sets” then filtered by her 50-plus age. The search produced only three of nearly 400 products in that category.
Another shopper in another era might have been momentarily irritated by the inconvenience. But Janice took it personally and then took action. When I spoke with her weeks after the event, she was still enraged and eager to share her story. Something she already had done with several of her friends, both in person and on social media.
In psychological terms we might call Janice’s reaction narcissistic rage — the white-hot emotional reaction to feeling unseen and unappreciated. It’s part of the evolving psychology of today’s consumer, who is more emotional, more self-centered and self-righteous, and quicker to anger. In other words, more narcissistic. Any psychological shift in shopper behavior is important to marketers, but this one becomes an even more essential issue when we note that she’s also more empowered and emotion fuels action.
Understanding the psychological foundation of narcissism gives marketers the insight they need to create more resonant strategies. There are underutilized opportunities to connect more fully with shoppers. Plus, putting out fires is a time suck and jeopardizes employee morale, and narcissism — and its accompanying demands and reactive anger — is not going away.
One of many indicators of rising narcissism is a survey published last month by Gallup. It asked U.S. respondents if they experienced anger (narcissism’s common companion) “a lot of the day yesterday.” Nearly 25 percent said they had, up from 16 percent in 2008. The common denominator of most reactive emotions, especially anger, is stress. The same survey found that stress is pervasive and also on the rise. More than half of Americans, 55 percent, said they experienced stress “a lot of the day yesterday.” That’s a 10 percent increase from a decade ago. These numbers are likely to further increase because younger Americans are the age group most likely to say they experience high levels of stress and anger. More than two-thirds of Americans aged 15 to 29 endorsed feeling a lot of stress and nearly one-third feeling a lot of anger the day before.
Everyone has some level of narcissism — it’s the juice that inspires healthy competition, achievement and vanity. Some people have consistently higher, problematic levels because of their upbringing. But no matter the starting point, socio-cultural changes have increased narcissism for most. And that creates a more complex dynamic in the consumer-marketer relationship.
We’ve experienced a cultural shift, from an emphasis on community to an emphasis on the self. And that shift is exacerbated by our online lives — a place where we carefully manage how we look, and where superficiality and inauthenticity often replace a deeper understanding of others and our world. It’s also turned our focus from experiencing events and moments directly, to wondering and staging how they will look to others. All this is compounded by the stress of getting an overwhelming amount of news and information in the shallowest form — via sound bites and quick visuals. Even bad news is less stressful when it’s accompanied by context and understanding, which is not how we become informed today.
Those cultural shifts toward shallowness, superficiality and self-absorption fuel narcissism. They also inhibit the inoculation and the antidote to narcissism, which is to be genuinely seen and loved. We increasingly go about getting that love in the worst possible way: by perfecting our superficial characteristics, such as how we look or how what we do appears to others, rather than by genuinely connecting with and caring about other people. The “likes” we get are not nourishing when they’re based on a crafted and curated persona. We have to let others see our deeper more genuine selves — including imperfections, insecurities — and then if they still love us, it’s meaningful. It’s easy to see why narcissism is so strongly associated with anger: all that effort and not much payoff. Contempt is another common theme to the narcissistically inclined, but deep down it’s the cry of the wounded. “See? I AM lovable, I’m better than that loser.” And narcissistic selfishness is a misguided effort to be seen.
It’s ironic that narcissistic behavior looks grand and confident, when really the backstory is one of insecurity and longing. To know this is to know that what consumers want today is to be seen, appreciated and connected to others.
Consumers have always wanted retail experiences, products and services that make them feel special. But today, a marketer’s ability to deliver on that desire can make or break a company. Consumers also want unique products and experiences that aren’t available to everyone. And when there is a problem, they expect an immediate, personalized fix. Marketers that can help their customer feel part of something they admire and connected to others — be it the brand or other like-minded shoppers — are winning. And with today’s more narcissistic shopper, there is no such thing as aspirational marketing — it’s all about admirational marketing. Just talking about product benefits will get you ignored. Engagement (today’s holy grail of marketing) starts with consumer empathy. Exploring every aspect of the consumer experience is crucial. From my interviews, the quickest route to anger is waiting, rudeness and, like Janice’s experience, a sense of being unappreciated. Consumers want to connect with brands — but it’s a two-way street today. They don’t want to just love brands, they want to feel that brands love them, too — that their needs are honored and their purchases are appreciated.
Kathy, for example, is more in love with Allbirds shoes than ever because of their cross-promotion with the Audubon Society. “Get it? Birds, Allbirds? They are donating all of their profits to Audubon Society and they’re making shoes that use bird colorings. It’s so cute. It’s so me,” Kathy gushed in a recent interview. When I asked her how it was “so me” she said, “It’s nature and it’s real and it’s making the world a better place. I can relate. I’m proud to buy from them.” In the entire interview, except for color, the shoes themselves were never mentioned. Kathy’s (enthusiastic) motivation to buy was a reflection of her need to belong and feel part of something.
When Janice set out to tarnish Sephora she was also getting psychological rewards: emotion, a feeling of superiority, connection to others through commiseration and a feeling of power to counteract the invisibility she felt while on Sephora’s web site.
One way or another, today’s shoppers will see products and retailers through a more narcissistic lens and register their satisfaction through both purchasing and social media commentary. Marketers today should remember these four things: 1) Today’s consumers are not yesterday’s consumers. They are motivated by different things. 2) Empathically understanding your consumer’s psychology allows you to predict, with confidence, what will resonate and what needs to be fixed. They won’t love a brand unless they feel loved, too. 3) Consumers want brands that connect them with others and give them a sense of belonging. 4) Shoppers are activists and quicker to anger. The best strategy is to deeply understand the consumer journey and remove all hassles and hiccups before they happen.