Tools and frameworks

The Spectrum of Self – targeting tool

The Idealised Self is the most interesting thing you can know about your customers. It is a brief description not of who they are, but of who they want to be: the self they imagine and aspire to in moments of reflection, the better version of themselves that transcends day-to-day reality. Both practically and symbolically, your brand should help them on their journey from actual to idealised self.

The concept is taken from the Theory of Possible Selves, put forward by the US psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius in their seminal 1986 paper.


The Spectrum of Self


The theory plots four mental ‘views of self’ that people typically oscillate between. Think of them like stops on a Metro 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 they really are.

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 their best, the person they strive to be even while the sobering reality of Actual Self stares back from the mirror. It is the better version of themselves that they show on their social media pages.

Targeting needs to take account of this. There is no point in obviously targeting your consumer’s Actual Self, since this is the reality they are seeking to move away from. Instead? Frame your targeting descriptions in terms of a journey from Actual to Idealised Self. From tired, working mum to an attractive woman in control; from single, slightly awkward young man to single, urban guy with a bit of edge. From 55 in age to 45 in looks.

Three-point checklist for better consumer targeting:

  1. Create an accurate pen portrait of your consumer’s actual self. Ethnography is the best methodology.
  2. Gain a close understanding of your consumer’s idealised self, in the context of your category. Social-media analysis can be a big help here.
  3. Explore ways in which your brand can help people, both practically and symbolically, on their journey from actual to idealised self. At the very least, understand the power of veto the idealised self can impose.


MORE: Helen’s Marketing columns on the Idealised Self: Sweetly off target (September 2014); The idealised self (February 2011).