Disempowerment: Why good intentions often backfire

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Brands typically dramatize transformative product benefits, but instead inadvertently take consumer power away, writes the director of strategy for Burns Group.

In today’s self-directed world, rarely is there a strategy that doesn’t use the word empowerment. We strive to empower consumers to live their best lives or be their best selves by solving a problem that’s getting in their way. However, too often, our good intentions backfire.

Typically, problem-solution approaches dramatize the brand benefit and communicate how transformational our brands can be in the consumer’s life. After a decade of working with health and wellness brands, I’m convinced that these approaches may be inadvertently taking the consumer’s power away.

Karpman’s Drama Triangle suggests anytime there is drama three roles exist: the persecutor, the victim and the rescuer. This dynamic plays out in our relationships every day. Have you ever felt stressed out by a deadline that feels impossible or a demanding boss who is keeping you up at night (hello, persecutor)? Maybe you vented about it to a colleague or partner in your frustration and desperation. Now think how annoyed you were when they just threw out a solution like it was nothing (the all-knowing rescuer). Who do they think they are?! Do they think you are useless?? They clearly have no idea what you are up against (yep, that’s a resentful victim)! Sound familiar?

The Drama Triangle breeds unhealthy relationships between people and also between people and brands.

ZzzQuil’s recent commercial, "Boss," dramatized the familiar experience of the dreaded boss keeping you up at night. Quite literally, the boss is sitting at the end of the bed tormenting the poor consumer (aka the victim). ZzzQuil claims that when life keeps you up (persecutor), ZzzQuil (to the rescue) gets you to sleep in 20 minutes or less.

This may seem like a beautiful thing, but the psychology suggests otherwise. The stressed out woman in this commercial feels overwhelmed, unable to shut off her mind, and the situation feels, well, hopeless. ZzzQuil can make it all go away. What a promise! But the very act of being rescued reinforces the consumer’s position of hopelessness. It implies the consumer is unable to control her mind from racing. Over time, this contributes to a dysfunctional relationship fueled by fear of dependency, resentment and reluctance to use the brand.

We embrace drama as a path to make our brands seem more relevant and efficacious but there is a flaw in this simplistic approach, especially when it comes to things that truly impact the consumer’s life every day. We may get a short-term transaction but this comes at the price of a long-term relationship.

If you look closely you will see this dynamic subtly played out everywhere. Zantac is one of the most literal (and not subtle) examples of the Drama Triangle in action. Its brand icon is a Zantac fireman (rescuer) that comes to the aid of a man suffering from heartburn (the victim) at a party because of the greasy food (persecutor) he was indulging. Yes, he needed relief and he needed it now, but this approach doesn’t offer an opportunity for consumers to feel good about themselves in the equation. Instead they are the victims of bad food choices.

By complete contrast, Rennie’s (the Tums of the U.K) "Happy Tummies" campaign completely reframed the drama triangle, removing the consumer completely and focused on tummies. Excess acid (the persecutor) caused an adorable animated tummy to be in distress (the victim) and Rennie comes to the rescue by turning excess acid into water and other natural substances. At the time of this shift, Gaviscon was outspending Rennie four to one and Rennie was losing share. This campaign was a category disruption and allowed Rennie to come back by reframing efficacy and the consumer’s role in solving their own problem.

A later evolution of the campaign, "Flowers," rebalanced the power by elevating the consumers’ role in solving the problem to be equal with Rennie. "Flowers" reinforced that the same food can effect tummies differently, hence removing the shame of bad food choices that most of the category still uses as the persecutor, and it was actually another (handsome male) tummy, armed with Rennie, that rescues a sweet female tummy. Rennie now shares the rescuer position, allowing space for the consumer to feel even more capable.

Reduced mental ability is probably one of the biggest fears people have. Playing on this fear could have been a tempting strategy for Lumosity when it introduced its brain training games platform and the concept of brain training to the world. Instead, the brand embodies the empowering coach.

It clearly defines behavior: people know exactly what do, brain training for 10 minutes, four times a week. Done! It provides personalized relevance: goals are defined by the user, choosing whether they want to improve attention, memory, speed, problem-solving ability or flexibility. It gives a sense of progress: each day training is completed users get a big tick, and a sense of pride, that they did something good for themselves.

The brand places responsibility on the consumer: the message is clear, if you train, you will improve. If you don't, you won't. And it elevates meaning in participation: it offered a higher, inspiring purpose to "discover the full potential of your brain" and who doesn't want that?

Companies that rely on the traditional Drama Triangle to market their products can learn from new brands like Lumosity and redefine the roles their brands play in consumers’ lives, to become valued as part of the solution, and not resented for being offered as the solutions. They need to build experiences that truly empower. This is the path to brand commitment.

You need to give up power to give power. That means brands can no longer be the knight in shining armor. Power has to be returned to consumers and create a new dynamic of mutual respect, where consumers are capable creators and brands provide support as empowering coaches.

Alison Earl is the director of strategy for Burns Group.