The interest graph and marketing to consumer aspirations

“I strongly believe that consumption is less about reflecting who we are–even though that’s clearly a fundamental dimension of it–as much as it’s about who we wish to be.”

That quote comes from Paul Mullins, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University and president of the Society for Historical Archaeology.  Professor Mullins new book, The Archaeology of Consumer Culture, proposes that the study of remnants from our past may offer us the best insights about who we, as consumers, are today.

In the book, Mullins explores how trends in product purchases – plates and silverware in the late 18th century, or expensive running shoes today – reveal over and over that we buy stuff not just for the utility but for the message it sends about us.

While that’s not new – driving a BMW, drinking Heineken, wearing Burberry – all project something about us. But what Mullins argues is that we are sometimes portraying a persona that we’ve yet to realize, instead declaring that it’s who we want to be.

So what does this have to do with marketing, advertising or social media? Quite a bit if you think about it. We have this new phenomenon going on called the interest graph. Pinterest, The Fancy, Fab, Springpad are all letting us declare our wishes, not necessarily by making a purchase but by displaying how we’d like to be perceived in other ways.

If Mullins is right, and if this same insight informs the kinds of things we see people pin, then there are even more opportunities for marketers. It’s not just about posting content that drives a link, or trying to sell a product or service to someone who has raised her hand. There’s an opportunity for brands to find new ways – content, product, service, imagery, interactions, advice, utility – to actually help consumers and users become what they dream of becoming.

And if a brand can do that, well then, the opportunity for attention, sales and loyalty gets even bigger.