The New Light Is The Old Heavy: How Delusions About Your Brand Can Lead To Bad Decisions

cat lionHow do you see yourself in your personal life? How about at work? What are your personal perceptions of the company you work for or the brand to which you’re assigned?

Chances are, you’re not seeing things clearly. Few of us ever do.

As I always like to say, we may think we are in the marketing business, but we are really in the mental health business. Deciphering human emotion and understanding what consumers want is obviously part of this, but equally important, and often ignored, are our self-perceptions and relationships with our business colleagues.

And in the marketing (mental health) game, personal agendas, politics, egos and the rest of our emotional needs are always projected onto our work.

We may aspire to see things with objective clarity, but perceptions of the “truth” can vary greatly depending on one’s circumstances, mindset or agenda. The state of denial is an easy one to occupy, and it’s a place where facts seldom matter.

I never thought these rules applied to me. How could they? I am a dedicated, curious, enthusiastic student of human nature. I uncover amazing insights for a living. I am introspective, learn from my life experiences and many mistakes, and for all my bravado, I am easily humbled and always contrite. I see a psychotherapist regularly, in part, to maintain some semblance of objectivity. I am evolved!

Yet for all this enlightenment, discrepancies in my self-perceptions and the way I appear to the world inevitably become apparent and burst my self-satisfied bubble.

For example, people are always telling me that I look 10 or more years younger than I actually am. I credit my parents for great genes and my lifelong commitment to exercise for these compliments, which I believe to be sincere. However, rather than simply taking this feedback for what it is – that I look good for a man my age – I twist it to fuel a personal myth, telling myself that I look exactly the same as I did 25 years ago.

Photographs taken over the past few years provide objective evidence to the contrary, leaving me consistently stunned. Who is that old, chubby guy in the photo that kind of looks like me? As the facts don’t jive with my self-perception, I explain them away (just a “bad photo”) and then enter a state of denial, completely blocking the images from my mind.

A few months ago, I managed to see the light. I was feeling heavy, sluggish and tired. It was affecting my workouts and my work. I also seemed to catch a cold every time I get on a plane – which is at least once a month – so I decided to step up my efforts to stay healthy. An important part of this was to lose some weight.

I dropped over ten pounds in about six weeks, and was ecstatic when the three digit reading on the scale started with a “1” and not a “2” for the first time in four years. I’m young and thin again! Bring on the cameras and let’s go shopping for skinny jeans.

Not so fast. It dawned on me that the new light is the old heavy.

Sure, people were spontaneously commenting on my weight loss and telling me how good I looked. But everything is relative, right? Of course I looked better than I had a few months ago, but needing to perpetuate my personal myth, I translated these compliments to mean, “You look just like you used to when you were 25.”

But I didn’t. Had I weighed in at 198 when I was 25 people would have been all over me for being so overweight. The fact is, that while I am in great shape – especially for “someone my age” (I hate that phrase!), I’m not the 25 year old of my imagination. Though I am committed to getting down to ideal weight – 15 very tough pounds to go – there’s a lot of work to be done. And when I get there, I’m still not going to look like I’m 25.

We create extraordinary rationalizations to erase dissonance from our lives.

I made significant, hopefully permanent, changes in my diet to get on the right track. No fad diets, just eating better food and less of it. Which reminds me of another myth that once existed in my mind: “I eat healthy.” An important tenet of my formerly “healthy” diet, for example, was absolutely no junk food like chips or French fries. Except for that special occasion, or when I really needed a treat, or when I was craving comfort food. In reality, “never” meant fries two or three times a week and as many chips as I could scarf down every time I went for Mexican food. Which was often.

In a similar vein, I used to love smoking cigars but gave them up over two years ago when I realized that my stated “one good cigar a week” indulgence was in reality a four to five time a week habit that was making me feel like crap.

Addicts are especially crafty when it comes to explaining away their vices. My favorite: “I’m not a smoker. I just smoke when I drink.” Which always seems to be every night for these people.

We all “drink the Kool-Aid” in our personal lives to some extent to rationalize our behavior. Some of us have this self-awareness, fleeting as it may be, others dwell in a constant state of denial.

Yet in our work lives, where we are trained to make smart, objective, data-based decisions (i.e., “the facts”), we see the same addictive patterns of behavior. Companies all talk innovation, but most crave comfort. Brands believe they are transforming themselves, but they’re often like the fat man who simply buys bigger clothes to provide the illusion he’s lost weight. Nothing real or meaningful has changed.

Examples of addiction and rationalization abound in marketing.

Packaged goods companies are addicted to calling their processed foods, some of which are devoid of nutrition and others that are just plain bad for you, “wholesome” or using words like “goodness” to describe them. Apparently, they haven’t noticed that the world has changed and their products – many of which are still very tasty – are not the All American “heroes” they were a few generations ago. The habit of making “rational,” health-oriented claims, even in the face of mounting evidence that these foods are simply empty calories and cannot be considered “healthy” by any stretch of the imagination – is a very hard one to break.

My son and I always got a good laugh at the movie theater when seeing the huge, sugar-laden packages of Raisinets with the health claim “high in antioxidants.” Better yet, the Raisinets website goes on to say that “RAISINETS® are a better-for-you option for on-the-go snacking or an at-home indulgence. NESTLÉ® RAISINETS® have 30% less fat than leading chocolate brands and provide ½ serving of real fruit in every ¼ cup.”

Better for you? Than what? And isn’t “30% less fat” just what we’re looking for when we make the highly rational decision to eat a box of chocolate candy?

Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, proudly called “Sugar Frosted Flakes” when I was a kid, probably wasn’t considered a “wholesome” breakfast option even back in the 1960’s. Despite the fact that we all know better now, the brand advertising features the always robust Tony The Tiger playing football with fathers and sons, beach volleyball with ultra-fit adults and other athletic pursuits before sitting down to a “Grrrrrreat” breakfast. The older, beach volleyball, spot states, “Winners practice hard and eat smart.” Smart? You have to give it up to Frosted Flakes for being tasty, but I’d love to see the research that led to the insight of “smart.” To be fair, the tagline now is “share what you love with who you love.”

As I mentioned, I used to love smoking cigars. And I love my kids. But I never thought about sharing a cigar with them.

Some companies get it right. They understand exactly who they are and make no apologies. Taco Bell flirted with “healthy” back in the 90’s but learned its lesson from the “Border Light” debacle. People weren’t looking to Taco Bell for diet food back then, and they aren’t driving through Taco Bell at 1:00AM these days to ensure that they’re getting enough protein in their diets. They’re certainly not stopping by for lunch looking for a quinoa taco to get in touch with their inner-vegan.

Taco Bell reads the same trends that General Mills, Kellogg’s and everyone else reads. But they know exactly who they are and make no apologies. They have no illusions about their appealing to foodies, vegans or other health conscious people. While not politically correct or “on trend,” Taco Bell understands that its brand is all about portion size, heat, taste and texture, all at a good price.

Understanding and accepting who you are is a critical first step in any marketing effort. Show me a brand that is struggling, McDonalds, for example, and I’ll show you a brand that’s out of touch with who they are and how they fit into the marketplace.

Marketing is more than a mechanical exploration of white space. A high degree of Emotional Intelligence is critical. The “new healthy” is not the “old junk.” Raisinets, Chocolate Cheerios or Frosted Flakes have as much chance of being accepted as health foods as I have of appearing on the cover of GQ. Despite the fact that I’m looking pretty good these days.

  • Mary Dean
    Posted at 08:46h, 07 May Reply

    I loved this article, Jeff. You really nailed the denial-is-more-than-a-river-in-Egypt syndrome with marketers (and aging boomers)! Thanks for brightening my day.


  • Freya
    Posted at 20:00h, 14 May Reply

    Well written, interesting and so very right on.

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