Why Brands Struggle When Marketing to an Envious Consumer

Social media has created a market rife with jealousy and shame

We’re in the middle of a new cultural context of envy, born directly from social media. Getty Images
Headshot of Barry Lowenthal

A cultural context is an event or idea that shapes an era. Sometimes a cultural context lasts years, like Woodstock (peace and love) and 9/11 (fear and terror), or it can last a few months like optimism around the recently concluded Winter Olympics.

Regardless how long it lasts it shapes how we see the world and how we experience our environment. It even shapes the way brands connect with consumers. Today we’re in the middle of a new cultural context born directly from social media. This new context is envy, one of the most insidious of all the Seven Deadly Sins.

When you search “social media makes me feel,” the auto fill results include: like a loser, bad, inadequate, lonely, jealous, unpopular, depressed. You get similar results when you search Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram “makes me feel . . .” It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Social media was supposed to connect the world and make it a happier place.

Facebook’s mission in 2008 was to help you connect and share with the people in your life. In 2018 its mission has evolved to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” This is a wonderful and inspirational mission. It’s magical.

However, most people feel worse about themselves after spending time on social media than before, according to many studies, including one from Deloitte reported in Harvard Business Review as recently as last year. I suspect the reason this is true is because as soon as you judge your insides by someone else’s outsides, you begin the slippery slope to resentment, depression and envy.

As soon as two people are connected it’s a universal truth that they start judging each other, and while we all do it, no one is happier because they judged more. Now that 2 billion people are connected there is more judging and comparing than ever before, and since this state of being is so new, we haven’t had time to develop effective coping mechanisms.

Now that 2 billion people are connected there is more judging and comparing than ever before.

Envy is also one of the most destructive sins because it’s the one that causes the most shame. As Americans we’re told we’re better than everyone else; we’re taught to put people on pedestals and then knock them down. And we’re taught we’re supposed to be envied, not envy. When we feel envy we also feel shame. We all feel it, we just don’t talk about it, including marketers. Since envy also drives consumerism, we comfort ourselves with financial success and we ignore the long-term destruction we’re doing to the mental health of our nation.

Since social media enhanced and amplified envy as the new cultural context, and context gives brands meaning and allows us to understand our experiences, envy is affecting how brands are connecting with consumers.

Often a brand will lean into a cultural context or use it to highlight something about its brand. In that way context is helpful. One of my favorite examples of the power of context is Vogue. When you advertise in Vogue it’s clear who you’re trying to reach (women who care about fashion) and that brands that advertise in Vogue have a fashion-forward point of view. This is how we use context to shape our understanding of each other and the brands we use.

But when the new context is envy and the most powerful medium on Earth makes us feel worse about ourselves after spending time with it, should a brand even use it? One answer is to consider the power of opposites, or opposing ideas which create tension that can make brand marketing communications stronger and more effective.

For every one of the Seven Deadly Sins there is an opposite, called a virtue. The opposite of envy is kindness. When the current context is envy, brands can lean into envy as a context, like E*Trade recently did in its TV advertising (and very effectively).

E*Trade ran a campaign with the tagline “Don’t get mad, get E*Trade.” One of my favorite spots depicts the classic nerd-turned-successful-entrepreneur archetype. E*Trade seems to realize that its customers may envy this kind of guy, but instead of feeling envy, it suggests getting even by opening an E*Trade account.

Another option is lean into kindness like Procter & Gamble did during the Winter Olympics with its #LoveOverBias campaign celebrating moms. Both E*Trade and P&G campaigns understood the power of context, but the latter’s was exponentially more powerful (in my opinion) because it led with a virtue. Talking about kindness amidst envy takes communication to a whole other place.

As a media buyer, I don’t think I can change the way social media makes us feel. I wish social media made us happier, but it doesn’t.

But I can recommend to my clients how to use it in a way that counters this new horrible cultural context with kindness, which is the best antidote to envy—and likely the fastest route for brands to be accepted into customer journeys launched with good intentions.

This story first appeared in the March 26, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@barrylowenthal Barry Lowenthal is CEO of The Media Kitchen.