The power of the dark side: of passion and products, sins and sales

Shobha Prasad on affiliation of human behaviour to consumers’ buying patterns and how firms can leverage this to create powerful brands


Brands in a category could be sinful or virtuous depending on the position they take, and could be positioned on the inner wheel ( Wheel of Sin™) or the outer (Wheel of Virtue™), based on the type of sin or virtue that defines them. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Brands in a category could be sinful or virtuous depending on the position they take, and could be positioned on the inner wheel ( Wheel of Sin™) or the outer (Wheel of Virtue™), based on the type of sin or virtue that defines them. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Commercial break, and the ads roll by. A woman romances a faucet in a steamy bathroom. A toothpaste brand is engaged in a hard battle against germs—man versus evil alien invaders. Next, “Sale of the Century” ad, enticing you to rush before stocks run out! Powerful commercials, drawing on passions such as lust, anger and greed. In fact, three of the seven deadly sins.

The thought arose rather dimly at first: are the deadly sins really primeval, powerful motivators?

Colleagues, clients and friends listened, thoughtfully stroked non-existent (or existent) beards and agreed. It was intuitive, and seemed to open up a new line of thinking. Thus began a study to see if this thought could lead to a fresh perspective on consumers and brands.

First, following the seven sins to the source takes us to fascinating perspectives from ancient times. Ancient Indians imagined the human body as a chariot, driven by passions, visualized as wild horses, with the charioteer using the reins of reason to stay in control and keep on track.

Plato’s own version of this metaphor has two horses—a dark and a white horse—representing our baser and higher selves, and the charioteer uses both to move his chariot ahead.

The powerful and darker passions corresponded with the seven deadly sins defined by the church. Modern theories imagine a more rational and calculating consumer at the helm. Brands, for a while now, have been subject to the tyranny of the RTB—the reason to believe, without which we worry that the rational and suspicious consumer would raise an incredulous eyebrow at our pretensions and refuse to bite.

But then, do we really make buying decisions using lists of requirements neatly arranged in an order approved by Maslow? Or are decisions primarily driven by passion, and rationalized? The older concepts of passion and control appear more realistic.

The Passion Wheel™ evolved using this insight. There are two wheels—the inner Wheel of Sin™ reflecting seven primeval and primary drives, and around this, the outer Wheel of Virtue™ consisting of balancing or “Angel Behaviours”, which are the controls and expiation that we impose on ourselves. We strive for balance by “playing” both wheels.

Guilt forms a strong part of this—for example, a woman told us that when she ate an extra chocolate, she felt the need to walk three extra rounds in the evening to expiate her “sin”, to balance out her excess. We indulge and have fun, then atone and expiate. For balance, we need both wheels.

Brands in a category could be sinful or virtuous depending on the position they take, and could be positioned on the inner wheel or the outer, based on the type of sin or virtue that defines them. Suddenly there seems to be more room, both for products and for brands, within a category. How does this work?

Let’s look at the media category. Among English language news channels, Times Now is unapologetically positioned on a combination of anger and hubris (self-righteous wrath) and leads the TRP charts.

The Passion Wheel™ indicates that viewers who are overdosed on passionate denunciation of everything may need a balancing channel based on pacificism or humour. There are also other spaces, such as alacrity—the latest news almost as it happens (Twitter may be answering this need); diligence—most thoroughly researched news; envy—exclusively about the rich and famous, a sort of luxury channel; and so on. Do the other channels stand for values as powerfully? Perhaps they need to study and take clear stances on the Passion Wheel™ to be more successful.

The choice of positioning on the Passion Wheel™ depends on where the category itself is centered, and the cultural context. Not all spaces may be relevant for a category at a given point in time.

The Passion Wheel™ is a great tool for ideation. It could provide a general entertainment channel, for instance, with a complete guide to programming, so that every human drive is catered to with suitable content.

Each slot has its own set of codes. If we were to ideate for say, beverages, based on this, can we visualize a slothful drink? Is it a sluggish, thick, slow-moving, unhurried, long-lasting beverage that you can sink into? Or is it a relaxing drink for a break? Can we create an angry drink? Spicy chilli drink created to blow your mind and rev you up, like a Bloody Mary? How about a gluttonous super tall never ending Coke for those who just cannot have enough of the beverage? Or a pacifier—a soothing, calming drink—minty? Sweet? The Passion Wheel™ could even guide the brand nomenclature to ensure that the positioning hits home.

Conflicting drives between sin and angel spaces could also lead to new ideas. How about a product that resolves the conflict between the need to exercise and be fit, and the need to laze and be slothful? (In-home gym products resolve this to an extent!)

The Passion Wheel™ could help marketers think out of the box, to understand and hone positioning, plan portfolios and brand architecture and create hard hitting communication. Researching consumers should also be simpler, as passions lie close to the surface and are easier to uncover.

To touch consumers at a primeval level is the route to creating strong, lasting and meaningful brands.

It’s time we awakened the passion and “animal spirits” latent in our brands and helped them achieve their potential.

Shobha Prasad is director, Drshti Strategic Research Pvt. Ltd.

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