The Narcissism Trap: Why Brands Need to Stop Talking About Themselves in Their Content Marketing Campaigns

By Nicola Brown on August 23, 2017

In our brave new world of selfie sticks, Snapchat face masks, and user-generated content marketing, we really enjoy turning the camera on ourselves and broadcasting our lives to the world. Look at me and my new brand name shoes, and here I am enjoying a glass of bubbly at this trendy establishment, or climbing this mountain with my impossibly coiffed hair.

The value of social media cred pushes constant participation, leading to new phenomena like FOMO (recently listed in the Oxford Dictionary). If we are not sharing ourselves and our lives online we feel like we are missing out. But what is the upshot of this kind of narcissistic format for going through life and connecting with others?

The Narcissism Trap: Why Brands Need to Stop Talking about Themselves in Their Content Marketing

Image attribution: Drew Graham

The Double-Edged Sword of Narcissism

Science tells us that narcissism, though it often carries a negative connotation, actually exists on a spectrum from healthy to pathological. A little narcissism (i.e. some self-love and confidence) is a very beneficial thing, while a lot of narcissism (i.e. being self-obsessed and lacking empathy) is not.

According to the authors of a 2013 study, "Narcissistic traits have reached epidemic proportions with serious consequences. Ever increasing levels of greed, self-obsession, superficial relationships, arrogance and vanity are everywhere apparent and not making us any happier, with common mental health problems on the increase, especially among the young." They implicate social media as one of the main culprits in this rise. Likewise, Skyword CEO Tom Gerace speaks of a lack of empathy as one of the biggest problems we face today. Could this be related to our increasing levels of narcissism? Quite possibly.

Brands have a hard time here. One of the primary jobs of marketing communications is to build greater awareness of a brand or company among an audience. So if you're not talking about yourself and pushing your name and image, how can you build effective content marketing strategies?

The Narcissism Trap: Why Brands Need to Stop Talking about Themselves in Their Content Marketing

Why Brands Need to Stop Talking about Themselves

One of the biggest pitfalls any brand can make today is assuming that in order to promote themselves they need to talk about themselves.

Let's quickly revisit a fundamental adage in the world of effective storytelling: Show, don't tell. This was a frequent red-inked scribble on my essays in high school and university. I was constantly falling into the habit of trying to explain things to death rather than using a poignant example to illustrate them or giving other elements, like my style or tone, permission to help tell the story.

Many brands today are guilty of being verbose and non-demonstrative in their content marketing. It's easy enough to say, "We are environmentally friendly," but it's much harder to make your audience believe your statement. An action demonstrating environmentally friendly behavior shows authenticity in a way no statement can.

In his keynote address at Skyword's Forward 2017 conference, CEO Tom Gerace cited a brilliantly non-narcissistic communication campaign from Starbucks called "The Way I See It." Instead of plastering a giant Starbucks logo across their cups, they chose to print poetry and prose that offered little nuggets of wisdom and inspiration, like this one:

"I used to feel so alone in the city. All those gazillions of people and then me, on the outside. Because how do you meet a new person? I was very stumped by this for many years. And then I realized, you just say, 'Hi.' They may ignore you. Or you may marry them. And that possibility is worth that one word." - Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors

Instead of telling you something about their brand on their cups with a logo that says nothing more than "We are Starbucks," they used creative storytelling to make their coffee drinkers feel a certain way. They provided value to their customers that had nothing to do with promoting themselves explicitly but helped to form a deeper emotional connection. The Burroughs quote above implies that Starbucks values human connection, a much more effective delivery method for that message than saying, "We value human connection." By taking the narcissistic "I" or "we" away, brands are forced to think more innovatively about how to communicate messages and values.

Science has shown that while narcissism may attract a following initially, the trait lacks the ability to keep that following over the long term. From a study cited by the LA Times, reporter Melissa Healy writes: "When a group of strangers is thrown together, individuals who score high on narcissism enjoy an early surge of admiration, recognition and friendship among their peers. But over time, their self-assurance and showmanship cease to build or sustain the growth of friendships." She suggests instead that exercising emotional intelligence and expressing empathy are better long-term strategies.

This is something to think about when launching influencer marketing campaigns as well. It may be better to choose a less narcissistic social media influencer who can carry your brand in the long run than a fast-to-fame narcissist who may have the internet's attention only briefly. The same goes for team leaders within your organization.

Think about the emotional quality of the messages you create and the people you work with as a brand or company. Sometimes the best way to cut through the content marketing noise isn't by yelling, "Hey look at me!" but by whispering, "Hey, look at this . . ."

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Featured image attribution: Jill Wellington


Nicola Brown

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at