The clothes we wear, the songs we add to our Spotify playlists, the photo we choose for our Twitter avatar — we make all of these choices to create an image. Sure, that image reflects who we are, but in the age of public sharing there’s no question that the disparity has only increased between the real self and what research firm PhaseOne Communications has now dubbed “the idealized self”. Whereas your real self might shop at Target, listen to Phil Collins and wear UGG boots on weekends, your idealized self, cultivated across social media platforms, probably communicates something slightly more aspirational: a blog post about Victoria Beckham’s latest shopping spree at Harrods, a “like” for Gotye’s new album, a RT of a link to Reed Krakoff’s new suede and acetate sandals.
Smart brands recognize this divide and do their best to capitalize on it. In PhaseOne’s new study on the subject, which looked at 22 popular brands across six industries, analysts concluded that what attracts people to affiliate with a product or brand on a social media site isn’t personal interest but rather a “public desire to send a message to those in their networks about how they want to be perceived.” Unlike actual purchases, which require a sacrifice of money, consumers can have social media allegiance for free. They can tap into all sides of themselves on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest: their charitable side, intellectual side, creative side, any side.
For brands, even though revenue is still paramount, social media numbers and quality of social media engagement are still critical metrics of success. As such, you see companies like Starbucks, Audi, McDonald’s, Red Bull and American Express (the top five performers in the study) using social media to actively appeal not just to consumers’ want for their products but consumers’ desire to seem cool, innovative and money-savvy as well. If eventually that Facebook fan buys decides to buy Starbucks’ $5 latte? Well, that’s just icing on the cake.