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Facts, Feelings and Memories
It’s interesting to be a researcher who deals in feelings, not necessarily facts. Feelings are squishy and hard to measure. They can shift and morph and elude you. But my job is to chase them down anyway. Why? Because feelings, as slippery as they are, are the things that make us who we are and drive us to do the things we do. To understand anyone is to understand how certain situations make them feel.
At Brandtrust, we pin slippery feelings down through the portal of memory because memory and emotions are neighbors in the brain. This close proximity and relationship between memory and emotion creates an inroad for us to take on the path to understanding people. We have learned that, essentially, people are who they remember themselves to be. Perception is everything. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. In order to understand how people feel about products or brands or pretty much anything, we have to look at things through their lens, through the eyes of the beholder.
Perception Is Reality
The idea that all that really matters is people’s perception is not just a new concept in marketing and business. It’s new thinking in a lot of realms, even medical care. This struck me when I came across an article from NPR about Dignity Therapy. Dignity Therapy is essentially a process used with patients who are terminally ill to help them cope with end of life emotional stress. Dr. Harvey Chocinov, the pioneer of Dignity Therapy, came about the idea for this therapy through an insight. Though he was a psychiatrist and though he had plenty of experience with palliative care, it was one moment with one patient that revealed to him something he had never really seen before. In his interview with NPR, he tells the story of walking into a patient’s room who was dying of inoperable brain cancer. His “ah-ha” moment of insight occurred as he looked upon this frail, weak “skeleton of a patient” lying in his bed while also noticing a photograph on the bedside table. This photo of the patient depicted his former identity: a strong, young, healthy bodybuilder. The juxtaposition of these incompatible images struck Dr. Chocinov. In that moment he became aware that his patient NEEDED to be remembered by the world the way he remembered himself to be. Not sick. Not frail. Strong. Young. A bodybuilder.
Leaving A Narrative Legacy
Based on this insight, Dr. Chocinov developed Dignity Therapy, which gives terminal patients the ability to retell the story of their lives. By documenting their personal narratives, they are able to archive who they were. They create an artifact of who they remember themselves to be. This process has proven to have therapeutic benefits for patients as they must come to terms with their mortality. It is a way for them to feel that even though they must go on from this life, they will be leaving a legacy behind that they had power in creating.
Patients use these narratives in different ways: historical narratives, love letters, apologies, or cautionary tales to their family members to not make the same mistakes with their own lives. But regardless of the intent, family members find one thing in common. These narratives often veer from the rational truth. The importance of certain events is sometimes diminished or embellished. Some things that would appear critical to the narrative are left out entirely and other events that seem irrelevant or meaningless are included. Family members are sometimes left scratching their heads. What happens when you’re charged with rewriting a life?
We Are Who We Remember Ourselves To Be
The same concept of perception is at work here: we are who we remember ourselves to be. And being in such close proximity to death will change the way a person remembers and interprets certain events in her life. As one family member explains about her mother’s narrative: "It wasn't an intentional blurring; it really was her giving us her take on things and where she was at the time. She was telling us that she chose to remember the happy parts of it. And truth is the way we perceive what's happening to us, how we interpret it."
This definition of truth, being influenced by our perceptions and interpretations of what’s happening, is at play not just at the end of our lives, but at the beginning and middle, too. This is why it’s so important for brands to look at themselves through their consumers’ eyes. Because in the end, and also at all the points before the end, what consumers feel and interpret about your brand or product or marketing is really the only the truth that matters.