PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: Why Brands Should Focus On The “Why”
We picked PSFK 2017 speaker & Google Strategic Planning Director Abigail Posner's brain on consumers' 'fascination with the familiar'
If humankind was to give an Oscar speech on everything it can thank the Internet for, the speech would probably go on longer than Greer Garson’s acceptance speech in 1942. Thanks to the Internet, the greatest masterpieces ever to have been manifested are at our fingertips, from Nobel prize winning books to the Mona Lisa up close to language courses to 3D views of the Great Barrier Reef. Yet when we arrive home from a typical day at the office, do we preoccupy ourselves with these things? Hardly. Rather, we spend our time sharing cute cat videos on Facebook or taking Instagram photos of our food. That being said, we don’t just upload any old Tabby cat or our Mom’s lasagne. We showcase our kitten fighting its own reflection in the mirror or we recreate sushi into popular NBA shoes. Why? Well, according to Google’s Strategic Planning Director, Abigail Posner, it’s because we want to connect to our everyday lives in a way that makes us feel like they’re exciting and beautiful.
Analyzing this “Why” factor and looking beneath the surface of human behavior is what Abigail has spent her lifetime doing, dating back to her elementary school days. More recently she did so in the agency realm for Publicis and DDB New York, and now leads a team of senior strategists inside Google’s ZOO, a global creative think tank partnering with agencies and C-level marketers. There, her team develops highly strategic and creative brand solutions for the digital space based on strong insights with global brands ranging from Warner Bros to Fed Ex to Heineken.
What’s more, she even authored a series of studies called Humanizing Digital which is an industry-first thought leadership series based on anthropological research on human beings’ deep, emotional relationships with the digital space.
I sat down with her to pick her brain on our fascination with the familiar and how the saying “don’t focus on the product, but the experience” isn’t necessarily true.
How have human beings’ emotional relationships with the digital space, and brands in general, changed during your career in advertising?
Back in the ’60s, our expectations of products were that they would solve a problem. Everything was a commodity. The soap needs to take the dirt out. Then all of a sudden, this concept of “brands came about. The role of a brand was to actually give this product more of a raison d’être, more of a meaning and a value for people, beyond just taking the soap out.
Then the industry goes, “OK, I’m going to take that a step further and I am going to appeal to people’s emotional state and what their aspirations are versus just getting the dirt out. I’m going to talk about people’s family relations and how they perceive themselves as mothers and what it means to be a mother in America today? Oh, and, by the way, we take the dirt out!”
But now what we’re seeing more and more is that the brands that are succeeding are the ones that are really being useful at helping people. Let’s go beyond the emotional stuff sometimes. Enough of trying to just connect me to some emotional state or aspiration out there, where everybody sits in a circle singing Kumbaya. Do something that’s actually going to help me become a better person myself. Give me the facility to do that. Prove that you’re doing that. And don’t just do that so you can sell more soap.
What are some key things brands can do to humanize their digital experiences?
In general, we have to understand that the digital space is not a screen. It’s not a broadcasting space like TV. We can’t look at it like it’s either for bigger screen or a smaller screen and, “I’m just going to take the communications that I’ve been using in other spaces and plop them in there.”
These spaces are cultures in and of themselves. Just like we ascribe value to products, we ascribe value to these digital places and spaces. We have to understand what that value is. When we understand what that value is, then we can truly leverage that space in the most meaningful way.
The first thing that people have to do is understand that value and understand the codes of behavior in these places and spaces—understand the lingua franca. Once you do that, you understand what’s driving people’s behavior, why they’re spending time there, and the true meaning of these spaces, then you can adapt your content, message or experience—whatever you’re trying to do in that space to befit that space, along with being true to your brand.
It’s all about heightening and elevating the everyday. We call it “fascination of the familiar.”
On the topic of your client work, when you say this to your clients, what do you think are some of the most-rewarding client projects that you’ve worked on to date?
Our best client cases are those where we surprise the client with who they could be, what they could be, and gave them something that was both insightful, fun, and edifying. We went beyond their expectations of how you can leverage the digital space in a unique way, but in a meaningful way and still in an engaging, Sometimes, it’s a little deeper. Sometimes, it’s a little bit more serious. But no matter what, it’s something that we hope will inspire our clients to do things they never thought they could do.
How are consumer attitudes to advertising changing and how brands are reacting to this change?
Sometimes brands almost dismiss their products in an effort to tap into something different. Whether it’s borrowed equity from a celebrity or tapping into culture, they don’t actually talk about their products. Talk about your product because that’s what we’re buying in the end. People are seeing through the distancing and how brands are trying to elevate themselves beyond who they are.
One of the things that I love is the notion of the “fascination with the familiar.” Because of the digital space now, we are looking at the seemingly mundane everyday things with new light. We’re romancing it. We’re desiring it. You now have access to the world’s masterpieces through the digital space. You can now see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Mona Lisa up close and personal. Yet, we don’t look at it.
What we look at is our dog jumping. What we look at is the sunset. What we look at is the hamburger we took a picture of. The reason for that is that it’s not your regular old hamburger. You don’t put it in stupid shot. You put it in a cool shot. You don’t show your dog sitting there. You show your dog doing something almost miraculous. Yet, it’s still your dog.
The point is that we want to connect to our everyday lives in a way that they don’t feel boring and mundane, but interesting, wondrous and exciting. It’s the quotidian. It’s Proustian.
We’re not all going to travel to Mars. We’re not all going to be the Queen of England, but we want to know that our everyday lives are exciting and beautiful.
This is what the digital space does for us. It gives us a lens to see the world in a new way and see things that are beautiful.
As a thought leader, author, manager and corporate executive, Abigail has spent her life catalyzing change and creating impact. At Google, she works closely with the advertising and marketing communities to help amplify their strategic and creative efforts in the digital space.