Thursday 13th April 2017

Back to the Future: Is the force with you?

There are few things worse than when the person you're sitting next to at dinner talks incessantly about themselves. Psychologists call this narcissism. Actually, there is something worse than narcissism: solipsism. Solipsism - from the Latin solus meaning 'alone' and ipse meaning 'self' - is an extreme preoccupation with one's own ideas and feelings and an inability to see any situation from another person's point of view. While all solipsists are narcissists, not all narcissists are solipsists. Narcissists are marginally more outward-looking than solipsists, if only because they seek out other people to confirm their superiority and brilliance. So, it's even worse to be sitting next to a solipsist than it is to be sitting next to a narcissist.

All brands, however, need to be narcissistic to a degree that would be unhealthy in the average person. After all, brands and their owners must believe in themselves, and incessantly communicate their notable, valuable and desirable qualities. Brands need to love themselves.

On the other hand, solipsism is to brands what Kryptonite is to Superman: it can make them fatally vulnerable. I often see the deleterious effects of solipsism in client briefs. There are far too many brands out there whose solipsism has precluded them from making a proper assessment of why the product or service they offer is different to and better than the competition.

Solipsistic brands are preoccupied with reflecting on their strengths, like someone who can't stop looking at themselves in a mirror. Too often, these brands haven't taken a long hard look out of the window at what's really going on out there - which would have helped them assess weaknesses, threats, and opportunities.

I remember a recently launched online brand who came to us with lots of funding but also a failure to appreciate that its proposition would only work if there was significant dissatisfaction with the existing offerings in their marketplace. There wasn't, and so, unfortunately, that brand withered and then died.

I'm going to stick my neck out, court controversy, and predict that electronic book reading and storage brands, such as Kindle, will ultimately fail as a mass-market alternative to the book, because they have been slowly but surely poisoned by their own solipsism. The e-reader brands are so taken with their own worldview that they haven't noticed there is hardly any dissatisfaction with the perfectly serviceable alternative available to readers: the humble book. The last time I weighed a reasonably large hardback book, it came in at a manageable half a kilogram, and I know hardly anyone who reads enough books for the much-vaunted storage capacity of e-readers to be much of a benefit.

Putting predictions aside, there's a powerful antidote that neutralises solipsism and is guaranteed to prevent brands from slipping into this parlous state. It's freely available to any brand and comes in the form of a simple process developed over fifty years ago by a sociologist called Kurt Lewin and which he named 'force field analysis'. The usefulness of Lewin's model is that it describes the current situation (of a person, organisation or a brand) as the consequence of the interplay of forces in their favour, and forces against them. Lewin's model is reminiscent of an astonishing classic text entitled On Growth and Form (1917) by the Scottish mathematical biologist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, which critiqued Darwinism and advocated that the form of an object in nature, including the nature of a species, is a 'diagram of forces' and therefore follows inevitably from physics and, to a degree, also from chemistry.

So, to avoid solipsism, I'd recommend that all brands should urgently draw a diagram of the forces that are affecting them, both good and bad. The great benefit of doing this is that it forces even the most solipsistic brands to look outwards into the world, and into their market. The result of this analysis could be confirmation of a brand's peerless position, understanding of unhelpful 'currents' that might need to be carefully navigated, or a sobering recognition that the forces against are so strong that radical rethinking, or withdrawal, is required.

Whether the solipsistic brand will listen to these force-field findings is a different question altogether, because sometimes, of course, the force won't be with them.