Experiential Advertising is Dead, Try Existential Advertising


This Article First Appeared in Adnews 

Anyone read Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom? Okay, anyone watched Groundhog Day with Bill Murray? Same thing, and both will help you with brand management. Let me explain. 

If you read Existential Psychotherapy please be careful. I read this book in 1996 and was so moved by it I went to the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages the next day and officially changed my name to Max. According to the registrar it still is. 

The book outlines the four major conflicts we must resolve in order to come to terms with our existence and live a fulfilled life: 

  • Death. Coming to grips with the reality that one day we will die, or as Freud put it, ‘the meaning of life is death’.
  • Isolation. Realising that we are alone. No one can ever truly know what it’s like being you. 
  • Meaninglessness. Accepting that none of this has any meaning at all.
  • Freedom. We have the freedom to make our own choices and hence are responsible for the life we lead.

Interestingly (but not as highbrow), Groundhog Day was voted the most existential film of all time. 

You can see Bill come to grips with each of these existential issues as one day is repeated over and over from the start. Bill can’t accept this predicament and goes through many stages of conflict: nihilism, disbelief, shock and social detachment. He becomes hedonistic and cruel, then depressed and suicidal until he eventually accepts his situation and starts to act constructively. It is only this acceptance that frees him from the repetitive turmoil. 

I pointed out this existential stuff recently to some people from the life insurance industry who had asked me to talk to them. What struck me was that life insurance is a category that is incredibly close to one of the four pillars of life’s great conflicts – death. It’s incredibly rich and meaningful. Yet I see life insurance ads on TV a fair bit, and some are pretty ropey. I’m convinced they could be much more powerful. Getting life insurance should be something that is treated as a high-involvement category, not something with a ‘call now and get a free set of steak knives’ mentality. 

It’s the same with financial services. Their category is money. Most banks treat money as if it were the most boring, droll category on earth. But money is closely associated with freedom (and can also probably help reconcile meaninglessness if spent wisely). Banks and other financial institutions are in one of the most high-interest categories there is, yet you wouldn’t know it by the communications they produce (with one or two obvious exceptions). 

But it doesn’t stop there. 

Toothpaste can help reconcile isolation. Wine can help reconcile freedom. Breakfast cereal? You figure it out. Point is,
there are no brands in low-involvement categories, only marketers who have a low involvement with their brands. All brands can have a clear purpose and help people reconcile life’s big questions, even if it’s in a spectacularly small way. 

I make this point in a time when marketers are still being convinced by agencies that tone, values and personality are so important to get right (they sort of are but they’re the easy bit). Brands with too much focus on values and personality are doughnut brands – they look sweet and desirable, but there is a hole in the centre. There is no reason for being. The more difficult part of marketing is to be clear about the purpose of your brand and how it helps people in both a practical and meaningful way. 

So with this I suggest you grab a glass of red wine, purchase a copy of Existential Psychotherapy or any other good book with real ‘meaning of life’ type questions (all the stuff you skipped over at university as you were too busy trying to get laid) and establish where your brand fits in the purpose of life. Failing that, watch Groundhog Day again. It’s still pretty funny.

P.S. Image taken from Wanderstan, interesting post