Of Stories Bought and Sold

How and why do certain ideas spread? The answers may be embedded deep within us.

All through the 80s and much of the 90s, Fair & Lovely sold us creams based on the idea that a fair complexion is an asset, primarily in the marriage market. As we moved into the 2000s, the story had to be updated to reflect the aspirations of women with more than marriage. The brand also expanded its reach, now targeting men with the message that lighter skin delivers better results in the dating game.

Is this a regressive story sold to us by a profit-focused brand? Have we allowed ourselves to be brainwashed and to buy into a beauty ideal created by a cosmetics company?

Marketing guru Seth Godin argues in a book provocatively titled “All Marketers Are Liars” that people are motivated by certain innate desires and shrewd marketers are just adept at tapping into this. Marketers cannot manufacture needs. These exist, at some level or the other, within us.

Fair & Lovely did not create a desire for lighter skin among the larger population. We’ve always wanted it, if our history with natural skin lightening products such as sandalwood and turmeric is an indicator. The brand just made it more convenient for people by packaging that promise in a tube.

Our fears and insecurities fuel many of our choices as consumers. One recent consumer trend that is hard to decipher, given the relatively narrow roads in most Indian cities, is the increasing popularity of SUVs. However, we may be misreading the trend if we interpret it just as a growing preference for SUVs. In reality, people are gravitating towards cars that are more SUV-like, not necessarily in size but in appearance. A good example is the Renault Kwid, an entry-level compact car with a more muscular look. The Kwid, to use a boxing phrase, ‘punches above its weight’ with a striking front grill and other strong design features. A person behind the wheel of a small car is most fearful of being hit or edged out by other motorists. An SUV-like compact car such as the Kwid is still easy to maneuver but also sends a message to others to keep their distance.

Our actions stem from our beliefs. And our beliefs are based on the stories we buy into. We see this play out in political and social movements as well as in consumer marketing. Consider how Hindutva emerged and grew into a force over the last couple of decades in India. Although religious practices and ideas have always been a part of our social fabric, the airing of the Ramayana and Mahabharata serials on national TV helped to bring Hinduism and Hindu mythology into pop culture. The actors who played the main characters in those serials were able to run for and win elections. In this environment, it was easier for a political party to propagate the idea of Ram Rajya, a time – so the narrative goes – of peace and prosperity; an idyllic era before the foreign invasions began and one that we could and should bring back for the country.

The idea resonated with people because they were already consuming it as culture, as weekend family fare. The yearning for Ram Rajya existed at some level and was available to be leveraged and amplified. But it was an unexpressed and amorphous feeling until a group gave it voice and enabled a more hardline form of it to develop.

In essence, we buy into stories that align with our worldviews. The key to making something spread then is to find an existing worldview that has not been articulated. These worldviews may not always be harmless or desirable. Ram Rahim was able to play to the fears and anxieties of those on the fringe – people who felt shunned by mainstream religion – in order to build his Dera empire. Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a disenfranchised group of voters in order to win the 2016 US elections. In recent months, we have seen each of those narratives unraveling, to varying degrees, in chaos and violence.

Anticipating how something will play out is, of course, not that easy. Author and social commentator Santosh Desai once said: Insight is that which becomes retrospectively self-evident. In hindsight, we can clearly detect patterns, but they are harder to detect going in.

We can’t accurately gauge the impact of factors beyond the main narrative in shaping outcomes. Timing is another key factor. Take the story of Gandhi as an example. For the longest time, there was a level of myth making and a halo effect around this story. He was a man of principles, a crusader against untouchability, the leading beacon in the freedom movement. There was little room to examine his politics, let alone criticize them. It’s only more recently that we have acknowledged that he was human, with imperfect personal relationships and sometimes contradictory views. This has opened the door for more nuanced portraits of the Father of the Nation in books and movies.

On the consumer marketing side, the Fair & Lovely narrative now has a counterpoint in Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. The idea that beauty doesn’t have to be narrowly defined by society or by cosmetics brands is a confident one that may not have taken off in the 80s or 90s. But over the last decade, Fair & Lovely’s narrative had become so mainstream that it was time for a new one that would give voice to updated worldviews. Dove stepped in to fill that void.

The irony is that both Dove and Fair & Lovely are Unilever brands. Two competing narratives. One parent company. Is that contradictory or inauthentic? Not necessarily as long as each brand remains committed to talking to consumers who connect with its worldview.

We create stories and buy into them and ultimately that’s what keeps the world and its ideas going around. At the core of it lie some very basic human needs – for love, security, identity and belonging.

Ameen Haque is the founder of Storywallahs, a company that helps leaders and organisations leverage the power of stories.