Convincing consumers to care about their future-selves

28th of Oct 2018

Michelle Bourke


What is “future-self focussed marketing”?

University, parenthood, retirement.  All these things in a distant future that seem so disconnected from the perspective of our present reality (depending on our current age), we struggle to interpret, let alone make informed decisions about them.  But we’re living longer than we ever have before – more years added to our average life expectancy than all of the previous millennia combined!

It’s hard to imagine but get this for a stat: back in the early 20th century, the average American would spend just two years in retirement before…well, you know the rest. Now it’s closer to 20 years!

From financial planning to health care planning, humans are inherently bias toward the present or more immediate future.  For marketers in superannuation or public health and other areas where the earlier an investment or behaviour change is made, the greater the benefit – this is a pretty immense challenge to contend with.  This “future-self focussed marketing” is literally fighting against the hard wiring of the human brain.

Present Self Vs Future Self - Marketing Illustration Foresight Digital

“People always say “be true to yourself” but that’s misleading, because there are two selves. There’s your short term self, and there’s your long term self. And if you’re only true to your short term self, your long term self slowly decays.”  Anon.

What are the challenges for marketers who need to connect with consumers around future-self focussed concepts?

The real challenge for marketers in this context is, how on earth do we connect with this second-self?

Social psychologist Hal Hershfield and other colleagues found something pretty fascinating.  They built on prior research which revealed the area of the brain that activated under MRI when participants thought about someone else, was in a different location to the area that activated when the participant thought about themselves.  Wharrrrttt?! Yep, it’s true. So the participants in this follow-on study were asked about their present verses their future self which enabled the research team to determine (with MRI scans of course), how much of a different person they perceived their two selves to be based on the location of the brain that “lit up”.  Then the participants were asked questions related to different types of financial rewards. This helped the researchers to conclude that people who saw their future self as “more different” were also more likely to favour smaller, short term rewards over higher, longer term rewards.

This is pretty important right?  Because it suggests that we all exist on a temporal (time-based) continuum of self perception. This likely isn’t a surprise to you when you really think about it. You can probably remember that one friend in high-school who would do something reckless and when questioned about their behaviour might remark “Who cares, I’ll never be that old” (and old in this 15 year old’s mind was always around the clearly elderly age of 29!).  

The Immortality Of Youth - Marketing Illustration Foresight Digital

One of psychology’s greats, Zimbardo, even had a nifty little way of helping to categorise different types of human perspectives on their relationship with time.

What this means for marketers though, is access to a WHOLE new type of segmentation.  Added to age, geography, income or any other kind of demographic indicator, this psychographic segmentation (perhaps we call it “temporal bias”), could be a truly powerful new personality dimension to tap into.  But how?!


How can learnings from social psychology and behavioural economics help marketers to address these challenges

If we imagine each individual in our target audience has a straight line that represents their relationship with their present and future self. The longer the line, the more disconnected they are. Then we could perhaps start by breaking down segments into some core categories represented by the length of their line.  You could potentially also layer Zimbardo’s categories on top of these for an extra dimension.


The segments could be:

  • Single-Selfers.  Strategy – Target first as low hanging fruit
    These would be people that, regardless of age, income and any other socio-economic, psychographic or demographic grouping, are in the top third for their psychological predisposition to be more connected to their future selves.  
  • Middle-Selfers. Strategy – Shift the self relationship
    These guys are the second third.  They aren’t fully connected to their future self, but they could be more easily influenced to change their behaviour.
  • Two-Selfers.  Strategy: Nudge behaviour
    These you’d tackle last.  They love living and making decisions for their present self and they’re unlikely to change without some sort of significant life event.
Temporal Bias Marketing Segment - Marketing Illustration Foresight Digital

Now at this point you might be saying, ok yes Michelle that’s all well and good but Google doesn’t have an affinity segment I can use in my digital campaigns called “Future Self”. True dat. However there are some cool ways I hypothesise we could go about identifying these segments.


Segment Identification

Let’s break this out into two parts:

External / acquisition strategy segment data
Use a survey asking similar questions that researchers like Hal Hershfield have previously asked participants to help determine their temporal bias.  Something to the effect of “Do you think future you would be the same (ideals, values, likes, dislikes) as current you”, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being least similar and 10 being most similar.


Then cross reference responses against demographics to help determine if there are certain demographics that may over index as “Single Selfers”.  

For instance, you might be surprised to learn that according to research released a few weeks ago by Roy Morgan, Gen Z’s (born 1991 to 2005) are the generation most likely to seek out advice on retirement planning!  

Or behavioural economist Keith Chen who shows that language itself can influence temporal bias. In his research, he found languages without a concept for the future resulted in higher rates of saving.  I stumbled across his work after noticing and investigating some interesting patterns when I was learning Mandarin (please don’t ask me to say anything in Chinese when we next speak, I have long forgotten what I learned! Xie xie!).

In any case, once this survey is conducted, you could then use findings to help shape your broader media buying and planning strategy.


Internal / upsell strategy segment data

With your existing customer base you could also take a survey approach but of course thanks to SurveyMonkey and other similar tools this would be a cheaper exercise. You ask the same question to determine their temporal bias, and in this case, you can then tag them into a specific segment in your CRM or other customer database (broadly separating them into top, middle and bottom thirds based on their response).  E.g.

  • 8, 9, 10 = Single Selfers
  • 4, 5, 6, 7 = Middle Selfers
  • 1, 2, 3 = Two Selfers
The Real Self Survey - - Marketing Illustration Foresight Digital

What’s cool about this is you could then take your single selfer segment, and, if it’s large enough, load it up to Facebook or Google or any other number of marketing platforms that allow you to create “similar audiences”, that is, audiences that are similar to the email list that you have loaded.  Obviously each platform’s approach is different but effectively you get the benefit of a much more sophisticated algorithm that runs through your data and looks for patterns that define the audience you’ve provided and seeks out other consumers that meet the same criteria.  In this case, other consumers with a high connection between their present and future selves who may be already more primed to consider your message.


Using these principles and knowledge, what are some practical, creative examples that organisations could draw from?

Glad you asked!  But first, a story. When I was in late high-school, I did some radio presenting. Just thinking about going on-air made me sick, but I pushed through the nauseating apprehension because it seemed like such an interesting opportunity. As part of one program we had planned to discuss the topic of teenage mothers. My family had lived in Papua New Guinea for three years when I was in primary school and so I had certainly been exposed to lots of younger-than-usual mothers in our local village, where it was commonplace for students not to even go on to high-school let alone attend university.

But back in Australia the cultural conditioning was very different. I was only 16 after all and most 16 year olds of my generation didn’t expect to have children until well into their 20’s or early 30’s.  So I did what any good young researcher would do, I decided to have one. No, no, not a real one! I hit up a teacher in Health Ed for a virtual baby to use in this experiment of mine. My mother kindly banished me for the night to an old campervan that had been squashed into our garage, obviously knowing (as a nurturer of four healthy and strong minded real children of her own) what lay ahead of me that evening.  The randomly activated and quite frankly, rude, crying in the middle of the night that required careful placement and holding of a key in the back of this baby-shaped piece of plastic was far from blissful. But even more so than the Tamagotchi craze that swept high schools in the late 90’s, the longer I carried this fake creature around, the more I felt myself to be a genuine mother.

I lugged it from Bendigo to Melbourne, wrapped in a little beanie and a cute jumpsuit on my way to run the radio segment.  Walking from Flinders Station down to the ABC studios in South Melbourne, I carried the “baby” in a pouch toward my chest so the casual passer-by may have thought it was real.  As I stopped at the lights, I felt the red hot gaze of older mothers eyes on me. Quiet whispers of disdain and a murmur about the way I was holding the baby, worried comments that I might be smothering it.  I felt embarrassed, ashamed, alone, and also surprised that aside from some snide remarks, no one actually bothered to reach out and offer to help me. On the program I spoke about this experience of isolation and a sense that young mothers may feel judged while simultaneously harbouring a deep desire for connection and guidance.  Ok I’m not sure 16 year old me put it all that eloquently but you get the point.

The whole experience certainly had the hoped-for deterrent effect on me personally. However, a study published in the Lancet back in 2016 found that despite virtual babies being used as a teenage pregnancy deterrent in 2,000 schools across Australia, it actually made it more likely, not less likely for teenage pregnancy to occur!  Perhaps in my case, it was the pairing of the child with a socially negative experience (verses the natural human experience of child-induced sleep deprivation!) which shifted the psychological outcome.  

The point I want to make with this story is that, as you’ll find below, one of the key ways to help shift temporal bias toward alignment with a future self, is to bring that future self into the present in an experiential way.  In fact this is exactly what the Virtual baby exercise in schools was designed to do. But of course how that experience impacts human behaviour may be very different to your expectations.


As marketers we have a heavy responsibility to ensure that (especially in marketing concepts that have a future focus bias and long term impacts) we use our powers for good!  We need to spend the time to really test that the messages we’re communicating have the intended impact. Covering measurement for these types of campaigns is a whole other article though…


Ok now on to some creative examples as well as suggested tactical considerations and how they relate to what we know from research

We know that levels of feelings of connectedness to a future-self impact decision making in the present.  Triggers that influence that state still require more research, but this is where we as marketers can be at the frontier of this social science.  Especially for “middle selfers” where we are trying to increase this connection to the future self, these are some ideas to consider:


  • Use augmented reality to help people meet their future selves.  
    But take it one step further with emotion.  See how your current choices impact your future self.  For instance when an app detects contributions to your savings account, the face of “future you” gets happier.  We know from some early examples of this type of approach that it does have an impact on behaviour. Ubank and the University of Melbourne teamed up in this experiment which showed propensity to save shifted when participants were shown a digitally aged image of themselves.
  • But why stop at a purely ego-driven concept of the future self?  
    Particularly in western society, the concept of ageing is generally viewed in a negative context.  If you’re focussed on products and services related to an “old self” (as defined by a western society) such as superannuation, retirement planning or health planning associated with ageing, why not create stories or a campaign that is driven around generating positive emotion toward older people.  I recall a viral video that went around Facebook a few months ago where two young men dressed up as an elderly couple to experience what it was like. They were blown away by the bias and range of negative responses they experienced from younger people. What experiential activations could you do with your customers to help bring them closer to their future self?

    By that same token, consider cultures who are more elder-positive (e.g. Indigenous Australians, Chinese and other Asian cultures) for specific campaigns.


  • Form bonds with the future self via influencers
    No I am not talking about social media influencers.  Let me explain. My grandparents both came to Australia during World War 2 from Czechoslovakia.  They were unable to return to their former home until well after the war ended as the country was still under Communist Party rule.  But in 1989, actor and activist, Vaclav Haval was named president after what was called the Velvet Revolution – one of, if not the, largest peaceful overthrow of government in recorded history. Haval had attempted political change previously, pleading with families to stand up for their rights – but at the time many were threatened by the state with having their children removed from school, or having their access to the same opportunities as other children revoked.  Years later these same parents came out in the millions, coursing through the streets of Prague in demonstrations that brought the country to a standstill. So what changed their minds? Police brutality against their own children, now university students who were questioning the system and had initially attempted their own peaceful protests. The same logic that had these parents choosing to accept Communist Party rule was now the reason they were ready to fight against it. The lesson?  Children are often the greatest influencers of parent behaviour, regardless of age. In fact research from consultancy firm Barkley suggests that millennials as generation in particular have had an unprecedented impact on the behaviour of older generations.


  • Create vivid, active authorship experiences and avoid time-distance linguistic cues
    We know from research with younger children, helping them to decision make about their teenage or adult selves, that the “vividness” of the future scenario and self is necessary to impact choices. A wonderful example of this are some now “ancient” AT&T ads from back in 1993 predicting pretty much every single technological innovation that has come to pass in recent years.
  • The accuracy at times is a little freaky. But that immersion in a future reality, one that still shows the present self connected to it, is a very powerful image.  We now have the opportunity to extend that connection with virtual or augmented reality and of course Adobe Voco to create extremely vivid experiences for consumers.

    Interestingly the same research suggests that authorship is critical to the sense of vividness, so the more you can ensure that your customers actually engage in the creation of their future selves, the more effective the behaviour change will be.  On top of this, the research suggests people are also very sensitive to linguistic cues about distance (as it relates to time), so avoiding terminology that actually serves to create that distance through language is important. Consider this in any copy or script writing.

  • Consider micro commitments to nudge behaviour for those in the ‘Two selfer” segment
    The app Raiz (formerly Acorn…I don’t get why they changed it) does an excellent job of this. The idea of nudging behaviour by creating smaller but higher volume micro commitments. Certain super funds had already partnered with Raiz as an option for consumers to invest their spare change that they have a low emotional connection to. Perhaps after seeing success in numbers on its own platform, Raiz announced earlier this year, plans to launch its own super fund.  How could you apply this same technique to other services or products?
The Present and Future Squirrel Self - Marketing Illustration Foresight Digital
  • Decrease emotional connection with the present self
    Another reverse technique to increasing connection with the future self is, instead, to decrease emotional connection with the present self. At least that’s what I’m calling this tactic!

    Take the standard female wardrobe as an excellent example.  Most women will get what I’m saying here. You enter your over-laden wardrobe where you have somehow absorbed two thirds of your shared bedroom closet and all of the space in your spare bedroom wardrobe. You painfully admit it’s time to cull. But what if you want to wear that old pair of pants that you bought 5 years ago and haven’t worn since…um…you could fit into them. What do you do?  You bundle up a bunch of stuff you’re pretty sure you don’t need anymore but you don’t have the heart to take to St Vinnies. You cart it down to your garage (if you’re lucky enough to have one since the size of garage space seems to be directly proportional to your distance from the city centre), and you stuff it in a dark corner somewhere. Because it’s out of sight, it is also out of mind. And sure enough, six months later, you’ve completely forgotten those clothes exist.  The next time you open the garage for a clean out, the emotional bond you had with those clothes is gone, and you’re ready to give them away.

    Here’s my challenge to you.  How could you build this concept into your product?  Take super as a great example. I know if I put my hard-earned “today-money” into my super account, I don’t get it back until I retire.  I’m too emotionally connected to that money right now, with the things I could potentially do with it in my “present-self” life. But what if I were to be with a super company that gave me the option of having small amounts auto deducted from my bank account and keep it in a little “half-way-home” account.  Something I felt a sense of control over, and could pull the money out of if I really needed for up to a year. Then at the end of fin year, after I’d had some time to disconnect with it – it would just “disappear”, off to my super account.


While many marketers lack direct control over the Product “P” of the marketing mix, creating an experience for consumers that allowed them to make these types of micro or extended time commitments seamlessly could actually create some very powerful levers to nudge behaviour that go beyond what you could possibly achieve with a marketing campaign alone.

As the nobel prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Khaneman proved to the world, we humans do not make purely rational decisions as traditional economic theory dictates.  This is a very important concept for marketers to understand. The emotional complexity that underlies our decision making can be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful marketing offer.

Of course with all of the above tactical ideas, we must consider how we get our campaign message to live beyond the marketing ad spend investment we put behind it.  In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, professor of marketing at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Jonah Berger, articulates some significant research findings on how to create this sticky behaviour.  It comes down, in part, to environmental triggers. Pairing your message, product, service with a related and connected concept that enables consumers to access the memory via assisted recall.  For instance, how many times have you started, annoyingly, to sing Rebecca Black’s not-so-classic hit, “Friday”, whenever Friday rolls around? And when that song was first released, guess when searches for the song would peak on a weekly basis? Yup, Friday of course.

Think of how Google’s search algorithm operates, how it can understand not just single keywords but the semantics of those keywords and how they relate to other similar categories in English or other languages.  Our brains are just like that. We can see, understand and link connected concepts in a way that computers are only just now learning to do in a sophisticated way.

And remember, while Abraham Lincoln said “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today”, we must still contend with the Alison DeLaurentis’ of the world who say “If you ignore it, it will go away”.

But we can never hide from our future selves. Life catches up eventually.


Thanks owed to Owen Walker, senior manager of digital growth over at AMP marketing for helping to spark the inspiration for this article with a conversation we had earlier this month.

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