Skip to content

The idealised self

Brands must stop focusing on who their customers are and instead identify what they would like to be
Even the most thoughtful descriptions on the most enlightened marketing briefs tend to root people in the here and now
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

There are two problems with the term ‘target audience’: the word ‘target’ and the word ‘audience’.

Thinking of people as targets is hardly conducive to fostering empathy with them and belongs with the old-style marketing militarism that gave us ‘high ground’, ‘ad-blitz’ and even ‘campaign’.

‘Audience’ is a more benign misnomer, but insidious nonetheless. It was probably never a fair description of the people we crafted communications for even in the good old, mass-viewing days; in an atomised digital world, it is ludicrous.

Take the phrase as a whole and you evoke an image of masochistic passivity: people as literally sitting targets, inert recipients of our smart communications ordnance.

Still, all this is surely just semantics and we know what we really mean, don’t we? The people we wish to reach, the cohort we’d like to gain a rapport with. We could give them real names, create their pen portraits and describe them fully, working backwards from our ethnographic studies, always taking care to do it in the way that HHCL’s co-founder Steve Henry enjoined, ‘as though we like them’.

This is less bellicose, but still oddly static. Even the most thoughtfully penned descriptions on the most enlightened marketing briefs tend to root people in the here and now, like a still from a moving sequence. Better to see the full sequence – to describe the inner journey that people are on. For that, you need to engage with the concept of Idealised Self.

The idea comes from Possible Selves, a seminal 1986 paper by the US psychologists Markus and Nurius.

The theory plots four mental ‘views of self’ that people typically oscillate between. Think of them like stops on a Tube line. Somewhere just left of centre is the main station: Actual Self. This is the day-to-day reality, warts and all, the person as he or she really is.

Backwards down the line is a station no one wants to visit too often: Worry-State Self. Going the other way, at the far end of the line, is Fantasy Self: where everyone travels on occasion, but only in daydreams.

The point that people are powerfully motivated to journey toward is just one stop along the way from the main station: Idealised Self. This is the person at his or her best, the person we strive to be even while the sobering reality of Actual Self stares back from the mirror. It is the better version of ourselves that we show on our social media pages.

Once you embrace the theory of possible selves, you will never again be content to describe your potential customers as they actually are, since this is the day-to-day reality they are constantly striving to move away from.

Instead? Describe the journey from Actual Self to Idealised Self. From tired, working mother to attractive woman in control. From single, slightly awkward young man to single, urban guy with a bit of edge. From 55 in years to 45 in looks.

It’s a bit like going from Holborn to St Paul’s. Not a long way, but sometimes nigh-on impossible. The role of a brand is to help people, both practically and symbolically, on that journey.

Marketers everywhere are bent on seeking an emotional brand connection with consumers. Understanding the Idealised Self is the surest way to achieve it. No more ‘target audience’. No more static descriptions. Instead, the momentum and drama of a journey. After all, the word ’emotion’ does contain the word ‘motion’.

Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius

Social psychologists Markus and Nurius are respected by academics for their work on symbolic consumption practice.

University of Michigan where both Markus and Nurius gained their PhDs

University of Michigan where both Markus and Nurius gained their PhDs

Both received PhDs from the University of Michigan: Markus in 1975, Nurius in 1984.

Markus’ most significant contribution to social psychology was the introduction of the concept of the ‘self-schema’ in 1977, the foundation for their Possible Selves joint paper.

She currently co-directs the Mind, Culture, and Society Lab in the psychology department at Stanford University, which explores the ways in which culture and its products shape individuals.

Nurius began her career as a counsellor for a rape crisis centre, becoming a social worker in Hawaii before getting into academia. She is currently professor and director of the Doctoral Program at the University of Washington School of Social Work, and has co-authored several practice-based books.