Marketing to the Inner Narcissist

Narcissists can be a pain, can’t they?  Conceited, arrogant, grandiose, that sense of entitlement and, when they don’t get their own, rather prone to adopting a somewhat irritating victim mentality. Narcissism can, perhaps understandably, often be seen as a rather negative term. Indeed, when taken to extremes, we even diagnose it as a disorder. And when it comes to consumption, it is the narcissist that loves to display the expensive Rolex watch, wear high-end designer clothing and cruise around town in that shiny new luxury car. The show-off, in other words.

Like it or not, though, psychologists have long known that we are all narcissists at heart (or at least ‘in brain’). Personality inventories of all theoretical persuasions capture scores on a trait of narcissism that, to varying extents, are associated with particular patterns of purchasing. Know a person’s level of trait narcissism and you can determine the likelihood that they will buy your particular brand of designer perfume – or at least that’s the logic, for traits alone are notoriously weak predictors of actual consumer buying.

Thanks to recent advances in evolutionary psychology and neuromarketing, however, we now understand narcissism a lot better and are in a position to leverage it more effectively in our marketing practices. Rather than being regarded as a trait, it is more helpful to think of narcissism as a state; something variable within all of us, which personality tests are simply identifying a baseline level of. If we want to sell a product that appeals to the narcissist, we just need to craft marketing messages that raise the target customer’s narcissistic state.

State narcissism is the output of what I would term the narcissismDRD, one of those hard-wired deep-rooted drivers (DRDs) of behaviour that evolved in our hunter-gatherer past to solve problems associated with surviving and reproducing in the harsh ancestral environment. Displays of narcissism would have signalled strength, status, dominance, healthy genes and sexual power – exactly the same qualities the Rolex or Lexus buyer is now seeking to signal. Our narcissismDRD was the motivating force long ago and it is still very much in evidence today. If we  market to it effectively at an unconscious level, we can raise state narcissism and trigger a sale.

To see this in action, just look at any television commercial for a luxury car. Narcissistic consumers have, among other things, two very prominent behavioural characteristics; they like to display goods publicly, but consume them in private for their own personal gratification. Luxury car commercials tap into the unconscious roots of these characteristics beautifully, skilfully juxtaposing images of driving away from expensive night clubs and restaurants, turning heads in the process, with scenes of open roads, conquering the elements and of the lone driver enjoying exquisite taste in music. All of these cliches are, in fact, unconscious appeals to the narcissismDRD, raising state narcissism and increasing the likelihood of purchase. It is a very powerful effect and even words can stimulate it. In one study, Emanuel de Bellis and his colleagues found that even changing the caption on an Audi A6 advertisement from “You belong.” to “You impress.” led to a dramatic increase in the quantity and value of the optional extras car buyers purchased.

So, if you want to sell high-status products that appeal to the narcissist within us, you need to make sure that your marketing messages stimulate the narcissismDRD. It is a technique that can be applied to a whole range of consumer products, from the latest iPhone to that little black Chanel dress.