Building an online mood pharmacy

Over the past few years I’ve been involved in a number of research studies exploring the psychology of entertainment. Through out this research, the importance of moods emerges as a consistent theme.

For 20th Century Fox we found that entertainment is actually dictated by moods – with DVD products acting as a ‘modern mood pharmacy’ for individuals. What’s the implication of this finding? What you buy and watch isn’t about age or price - it’s about how you want to medicate your moods.

Making money from moods:

Whilst ‘moods’ may seem abstract and potentially difficult to manage, they actually deliver a very simple and user-friendly experience. One of my favorite examples of building moods into a product experience is Musicovery; a website that generates playlists based on music moods.

Example: Musicovery interface and mind-map 
The interface is incredibly intuitive and allows the user to make selections by genre, year and most importantly, mood. The playlist is presented visually in the form of a mind-map, which is much closer to how human thought processes actually occur (not in linear lists, but in inter-connected webs).

This simple approach to information visualization has applications far beyond the generation of music playlists. Could you imagine searching a Yellow Pages listing for restaurants by mood and then getting connected to other types of entertainment in the form of a mind map? Much more fun and user-friendly than a list!

Psychological contracts with buddies and brands

Walking down an aisle at my grocery store the other day, I happened to notice a particularly well stocked section of the fridge. This section was literally full to the brim with untouched products; all belonging to the same unfortunate brand.

Why was this section untouched? Well, the brand had recently been the subject of a massive public health recall – a crisis of trust and loyalty that was still apparently playing on the minds of its former customers.

Looking at this pile of untouched food, I recalled some interesting research I‘d read on ‘psychological contracts’ (For Example: The psychological contract in retrospect and prospect). Just like a normal contract, a psychological contract is an agreement between people that contains a number of mutual expectations. Unlike a normal contract, a psychological contract occurs in the mind and often remains unspoken, unwritten and even unconscious.

According to the research, people are involved in making (and potentially breaking) psychological contracts every day; at home and in-store, with buddies and with brands.

Psychological contracts with buddies:

Consider how many things in a friendship or relationship are agreed upon but never actually spoken or written down. For example, do you have a written contract with your best friend not to sleep with their spouse? Probably not. However, if you did sleep with their spouse, what are the chances of your friendship surviving?

This is a simple and common-sense example of a psychological contract that exists between friends - two people who have chosen to exchange loyalty and trust for friendship and companionship. As humans, we inherently understand the ramifications of sleeping with a friend’s spouse; it would violate a psychological contract and probably end a friendship.

Psychological contracts with brands:

Just like the psychological contracts that exist between friends, psychological contracts also exist between customers and brands. These contracts can potentially contain thousands of expectations – most of which are unspoken, unwritten and maybe even unconscious.

For example, consider the relationship you have with your brand of bank. Part of this psychological contract may involve respecting your personal privacy. Would your psychological contract be violated if you found out that they sell your financial information to credit-card companies?

Alternatively, consider your brand of peanut butter. Perhaps part of your psychological contract with that brand involves the safety and history of its ingredients. Would your psychological contract be violated if you found out that despite a label indicating ‘Made in the USA’ – the actual peanuts were grown in China and only crushed and canned in the USA?

Both of these are practical examples of expectations that can exist in a psychological contract with a brand and how misunderstandings can lead to feelings of violation.

So what can you take away from these findings on psychological contracts?

Whilst many businesses and brands like to talk the language of friendship, using words like trust and loyalty with their customers - how many actually consider the psychological contracts that they're forming and the subsequent expectations they must manage?

Just like the contract that exists between friends, contracts with brands contain psychological expectations that are unlikely to be written down or verbalized. Whilst something unwritten and unspoken can be unappealing to try and manage; turning a blind eye won’t make it go away. In fact the pile of untouched food in my grocery store was practical proof that a contract in the mind is just as powerful as a contract on paper.

Branding risk: Anyway or Whatever

In products and in life, people are always looking for ways and means to fulfill their psychological needs. One area of basic human motivation is the desire for change and transformation; taking a risk and trying new things if you will…
When I say risk, I don’t just mean betting $10,000 at a casino or investing in an American bank – I also mean little everyday risks. For example: tasting something new in a restaurant, meeting new people at a function or buying something different at the grocery store.

The desire for transformation and risk is present in all of us. We all have some appetite for risk; indeed, it’s an essential part of human nature. Unfortunately, so many of the products and services we experience on a daily basis ignore this and choose to work with a limited spectrum of our motivations.

Contrary to popular belief, conscious decisions and rational thinking do not represent the majority of human thought – in-fact according to Prof. George Lakoff cognitive scientists now believe that 95% of all human thought is actually unconscious (For example: Philosophy in the Flesh; The Embodied Mind and Its Challenges to Western Thought).

On that note, I’d like to share with you a brand that is (in my opinion) one of the best examples of building psychology into a product. It’s called Anything or Whatever:

This line of soft drinks comes in a unique style of generic packaging, so you literally don’t know what the flavor is until you taste it; it could be Anything or Whatever. Whilst the brand, packaging and communication for this product are brilliant, what I like most about it is the underlying strategic insight. People sometimes like to take risks.

So what can we learn from this innovative product?

Risk is a fundamental human motivation and one that has been fundamentally ignored by many brands. Risk doesn’t necessarily mean risky; and if businesses are serious about connecting with new customers and new generations, perhaps they should start considering some new motivations.

Environmental bench-marketing

I’ve had a little theory marinating in my mind for the last few months – nothing groundbreaking, but something I thought I’d share with you. It’s about the psychological impact of environments, but it has some interesting applications for location and destination marketing.

The background research:

There’s a lot of research looking at the effect an environment can have on the human mind and body (For Example: Health Psychology: What is an unhealthy environment and how does it get under the skin?).

Similarly, there’s a lot of research looking at the human tendency to compare themselves with those around them (For example: Classic and current social comparison research: Expanding the perspective).

The environmental theory: 

What if people sub-consciously benchmark (or compare) themselves to the most dominant things they see in their environment? Depending on what dominates their environment, their sense of happiness and self identity could be affected in any number of ways…

Example One: New York City

When the dominant things you see around yourself are man-made (think of the Empire State Building) you would tend to bench-mark yourself against the actions and achievements of your fellow man. This may inspire competition and creativity or lead to feelings of inadequacy and envy.

Example Two: Vancouver 

When the dominant things you see around yourself are natural (think of the Vancouver Mountains) you would tend to bench-mark yourself against the achievements of nature. This may inspire introspection and entrepreneurship or it may lead to a sense of complacency. 

So what could we take away from this theory on environments?

If this theory is right, the key to successful location and destination marketing wouldn’t lie in functional features or cliché taglines, but rather in understanding and communicating the deeper psychological effects delivered by an environment on its inhabitants. For example: 

- NYC - Supercharges your competition chip, or 

- Vancouver - Reconnects human-nature.

After all what could be better than taking a mental break?

Ink-stained emotions

I was in a bar the other night having a beer with a few advertising and film-making friends. The bar itself was filled with all the usual suspects, but one person in particular caught our eye; a waitress with some very unique tattoos.

Always on the look-out for a story, when the next round of drinks were ordered we struck up a conversation with the waitress - keen to understand the history behind her canvas. Although many dots were left unconnected, she shared with us an amazing story of her childhood in Japan (as a red-headed Canadian girl) and of her teenage years spent in Canada (as a blue-eyed Japanese girl). Transitioning between two countries, she was Japanese in all but looks - at home in Canada but culturally homeless. 

This discussion sparked an interest in me, so I decided to look for some more information on the topic of tattoos. In fact, there are many interesting studies exploring the link between tattoos and psychology (For Example: Tattoos and antisocial personality disorder). Without getting into the details, here are some key points discussed:

Tattoos may represent an ‘exo-skeletal’ defense against the world

You’ve probably seen the tattoo stereotype before - the angry rebel or the cocky kid with something to prove. But what if the opposite were true; that instead of representing anger or cockiness a tattoo is a sign of vulnerability? It would seem that tattoos actually represent a safety blanket for their wearer, helping to defend them from the hostility they perceive in the world. We all need our shields – for some it may be a four-wheel drive, for others it’s a tattoo.

Tattoos may fill the role of a ‘transitionary object’

The objects and products we choose to surround ourselves with serve more than a ‘functional’ or ‘rational’ purpose; they also help us meet or medicate our psychological needs. But what happens when we’re forced to make a transition in life and leave things behind? For some people tattoos may help fill the role of possessions; giving them belongings and a sense of belonging, no matter what.

Tattoos may help people express emotions in pictures that they can't express in words

So much of what we experience as humans is emotional, indeed the famous neuroscientist Prof. Antonio Damasio believes the existence of human emotion may have been the key to our species’ survival. But what happens when we’re unable to properly express our emotions? Where words fail, other means emerge – for example through action or, in more extreme cases, tattoos. It’s ironic that one of the first things we often do when seeing a tattoo is ask ‘what it means’ - the research would suggest that when people have a tattoo it’s because they couldn’t answer that question in words. 

So what can we take away from these findings on tattoos?

A tattoo is much more than just ink and flesh. In fact, you could think of a tattoo like a little emotional advertisement…communicating to others our feelings, our belongings and defending us psychologically from the world in which we live. It’s no wonder we noticed the waitress in the bar – her tattoos were communicating something to us, and like all good advertising we were intrigued.