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Who you calling a CONTROL freak?

OK, I admit it. I do have rather tidy bookshelves. My desk can look like I’ve finished for the day when I’m actually still working. I can often think of a better way of other people doing things. I work for myself. But a ‘freak’?

There’s been much talk of Control recently. Most obviously, the Leave campaign said the UK was going to ‘Take Back Control’. But now Theresa May has said she’s going to do ‘everything we can to give you more control over your lives’. See what she did there?

Then a couple of random tweets in the last few days. Tom Goodwin saying he felt one of the big macro trends for the next 5 years would be ‘navigating abundance’. And Helen Tupper on Monday morning talking about the tyranny of the email inbox. Apparently we now receive on average 122 work emails and check our inbox 74 times each day.

It all sounds like many people’s need for Control is on the rise. So how come we’re still quick to label a proportion of them ‘control freaks’?

Well first, when people talk about Control they often mean it in an outer-directed sense. At the extreme, they don’t even mean Control, they mean someone’s desire to be in charge.

But most of the time people talk about ‘control freaks’ in terms of how they observe them behaving. We all know the symptoms. A tendency to micro-manage. Wanting others to work to your schedule. Lots of ‘To Do’ lists. Writing in short sentences.

You do get glimpses of an inner turmoil. Frustration when they don’t get their own way. Being thrown by an unplanned event. Agonising over a decision with an unknown outcome. It’s usually fleeting because, of course, the one thing Control ‘freaks’ are brilliant at controlling is their emotions.

But if you want real insight into the need for Control, the inner world is where you have to venture.

The truth is people feel a need to control others when they lack control of some aspect of their own life. They want to regain control over whatever has become uncontrollable. Nothing wrong with that. It’s how emotions are meant to work, signalling to us that some need needs to be satisfied.

The problem comes if that thing can’t be controlled. Because then you go looking for something or someone around you that can be. This isn’t necessarily bad news. People with a Control need are often extremely competent. They also really care about things being done ‘right’. The classic example was Steve Jobs. How telling was it that he wanted Apple to be a closed system, the brand a reflection of his own personality.

But it can make people with a strong Control need a bit scary. That’s why I think they get called ‘freaks’. Safer to create some distance.

So with all that going on, how does a brand target Control? It isn’t easy because the emotions are hidden, so the temptation is to focus on rational persuasion. But better is to find a way into their ‘closed system’ through the right kind of research. Projection techniques work best. Then use this to discover the point of tension that your brand can resolve. That’s the kind of insight you’re going to need.

I’ll give you an example. Bluewater is a major shopping centre just outside London that was basically the UK’s introduction to mall-style shopping. It opened in 1999 and in the early days, the challenge was to attract people to this new kind of experience and away from the mass of local alternatives, including Central London.

Early research showed at a deep level how primal shopping can be – the ‘hunt’, the ‘kill’ as you draw your credit card, the ‘trophy’ as you walk home with your bags and drape your purchases across your bed. It’s all about identity and adrenalin.

But everyone knows that the shopping experience has many aspects to it that can cause anxiety. What if I can’t find what I want? What if I can but can’t afford it? What if they don’t have my size? What if there are too many people there? Where’s my car?

In this world, not surprisingly, there was clear evidence of a significant, and largely unmet, Control need. People wanted to feel certain their shopping experience was going to be rewarding and that it would end up in success.

The idea that emerged was that everything Bluewater did in the future should aim to ensure you got what you wanted from your trip and you felt in control while you were there. That didn’t mean the place was an asylum for control freaks. It meant Bluewater made you feel confident about shopping - on top of things, a sense of purpose, composed, calm. Like blue water. It worked because deep down, we’re all a bit of a ‘freak like me’.

Of course, the only problem was Amazon then came along. But that’s another story of Control.

Fellow ‘freaks’, I’ll look forward to your carefully-crafted comments below.

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