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4 Spheres of Human Experience

In our media-saturated world, advertising strategies that are built on persuading through interruption, repetition, and brute ubiquity are increasingly ineffective. To have a meaningful impact, marketers must fundamentally rethink their approach - and expand their definition of what advertising is. 

Today, consumers are drowning in irrelevant messages. Across the web, TV, radio, and printadvertising is pervasive and disruptivedriving negative experiences that push some out of these channels entirely.  

Seeking escape, we are choosing streaming services over cable, blocking pop-ups on their browsers, opting out of banner ads, and paying providers like Spotify to avoid ads. 

It's clear that standard ad messaging and execution has rapidly become outmoded. To win consumers’ attention and trust, marketers must think less about what advertising says to its targets and more about what it does for them.  


The Power of Human Experience 

To adapt, advertising – as well as the offerings it promotes – needs to become a sustained and rewarding presence in consumers’ lives. 

This article offers a framework for that process. It’s based on our understanding that human experiencefrom one’s online and offline activities to social interactions, group affiliations, and thought processesis a vast medium for advertising. 

So, if human experience is a medium for advertising, how can marketers engage consumers there in ways they will welcome? 

The key is to conceptualise the human experience as a landscape composed of four overlapping domains: 

  • The public sphere - where we move from one place or activity to another. 
  • The social sphere - where we interact with and relate to one another. 
  • The tribal sphere - where we affiliate with groups to define or express our identity.  
  • The psychological sphere - where we connect language with specific thoughts and feelings. 

Rather than focusing first on their communication strategy and marketing mix, marketers should begin by considering how consumers live their lives - and under what circumstances they will prove receptive to messages in these domains. 

By explicitly mapping their programmes and messaging in the context of these four domains, they can engage consumers in effective new ways.  


The Public Sphere 

Advertising in the public sphere typically engages consumers during moments of downtime. When a person is moving between one point or activity to the nextthis is when theyre most likely to have attention free for new inputs 

This makes public sphere advertising a powerful way to reach consumers because it’s when people reflexively turn to their devices. 

Real-time bidding enables marketers to buy online ad space and serve up any of hundreds of variations of an adtailored precisely to an individual consumer’s profile and location within milliseconds. 

  • They are relevant in context. The messaging should align with the consumer’s experience at the moment they’re encountering the ad.  
  • They help people to reach personal objectives. When advertising is conceived as problem-solving, consumers are far more likely to engage because it furthers their own interests.
  • They are Branded interventions. Brands should be entering the lives of consumers in targeted and useful ways when and where they’re desired or needed.
  • They provide engaging, refreshing, or compelling experiences. 

As we’ve talked about in previous Thinking articles, experiential-based marketing helps brands to create a much more tangible brand proposition by bringing their offerings into public space. Pop-up stores and pop-up trucks, which are surprising, experientially rich, and brand-focused, provide one example. 

Air New Zealand is one such brand that has done public sphere advertising very effectively – simply by adding the airline’s logo to the wings of their aircraft. This strategic placement ensures that travellers aren’t just taking dreamy shots out of the plane window for social mediathey’re also sharing an ad for the service that feels unobtrusive and relevant.  


The Social Sphere 

Advertising in the social sphere helps people to forge new connections or enrich existing ones. It can turn social interactions themselves into carriers of ad messaging.  

Like public sphere advertising, it must appear in the right place at the right time – and with the right message. To that end, it must be relevant in context, align with social goals, address a social need, and facilitate interaction in innovative ways. 

Central to this sphere is reinforcing existing relationships while also reinforcing the brand. Any advertisement that consumers are inspired to pass along serves this purpose. Another form of social-sphere advertising uses a promotional event to help consumers achieve social ends. 

  • They are relevant in a social context. 
  • They address social needs or solve social problems. 
  • They facilitate social interaction. 

Coca-Cola's “Share a Coke” campaign has been immensely successful because it’s socially relevant and provides a fun way for consumers to make memories with loved ones (via personalised bottles of Coke)Thus, it drives both social interaction and valuable engagement with the brand. 


The Tribal Sphere 

Whereas the social sphere emphasises broad, diverse networks, the tribal sphere is the domain of more focused social engagement.  

Here, marketers can use or help create consumers’ identification with groups. Advertising that leverages tribal affiliation must suit the character and values of those involved. 

Tribal sphere advertising is not limited to the masses; luxury brands commonly use conventional mass media advertising while relying on their customers to deliver the most powerful ad messaging of all. They depend on consumers’ desire to signal their social status and their group affiliation. 

  • They address individual desires for self-expression or identity. 
  • They perform as a social signal or a status-maker.
  • They provide a form of affiliation. 
  • They empower the individual. 

A good example of this is a cult brand like Oakley, with its high-performance sunglasses, goggles and apparel, which relies heavily on tribal positioning. Not only do customers wear branded Oakley products; they also display the logo separately by sticking decals on their cars or laptops. The brand name, detached from the product, also signals inclusion in a tribe dedicated to extreme sports and athletic excellence. 


The Psychological Sphere 

This is the domain of language, cognition, and emotion. Obviously, all advertising ultimately operates here in one way or another. But ads optimised for this sphere are designed to insert words, phrases, or emotions into a consumer’s psychological processes, where they serve as shorthand for complex concepts, inspiring action or triggering positive feelings. 

  • They use language to establish a cognitive beachhead for a brand. 
  • They seek to create habits and train consumers to reach for the company’s product. 
  • They guide cognition. 
  • They connect a brand with a mood or an emotion. 

Nike has always been a master at leveraging the power of the psychological sphere. Their motto “Just do it” is synonymous with the brand and associated with the goal of achieving one’s personal best. In other words, it’s both an ad and a motivator. It nudges consumers to aspire to their personal best – with the supremacy of Nike products supporting them. 

Although advertising woven into the context of consumers’ lives is less disruptive than conventional advertising, it’s also more consistent. 

Advertising in the public, social, tribal, and psychological spheres works only when it is welcome and useful; the moment it assaults the senses, invades privacy, seeks inappropriately to extract value, or otherwise abuses consumers, they will reject it or, worse, react with a scorching backlash. 

If marketers abuse the tools at their disposal, their advertising can transform from “present and valuable” to “invasive and exploitative.”  

Thus, they must not only get “permission” from the consumers they approach - but also engage them with deep respect.