December 13, 2019
The importance of ‘creating a sense of belonging’ - it’s the latest trending theory in international relations and the latest go-to phrase of many new-age marketers. Interesting, but is it just that – interesting; and nothing more than a phase that will eventually bow out in favour of the next aha moment to come out of a slick advertising strategy?
Let’s hope not. Because what we’re actually talking about is a principle that underpins modern psychology – ontological security - and its relative importance in understanding consumer behaviour is on the rise.
On face value, the general idea seems relatively straightforward but the concept itself is complex.
So, what then is the simplest explanation of ontological security? First coined by sociologist, Anthony Giddens, ontological security describes the sense of security that people derive from continuity and stability in regard to the events and experiences in their lives. Such security is a function of sustained trust and confidence in the surrounding world.
The Maori concept of Tūrangawaewae – having a ‘place to stand’ - talks to the exact same phenomenon of having not just a physical home but a sense of belonging and continuity that being anchored in a place provides.
This sense of ‘security’ is directly linked with a feeling of predictability, and control, over everyday life, allowing us to focus on everyday tasks by avoiding anxiety from unknown risks and events. In a world of heightened stimulus and opportunity to try and do new things, ‘same old, same old’ can actually be a good thing.
The Kiwi dream of home ownership is fundamentally all about the ability it provides to impart a sense of permanence and stability in one’s life – or in other words, ontological security. Home ownership has been ingrained in New Zealanders forever, so the current challenges many face in getting onto the property ladder is a constant undermining of their sense of ontological security.
Similarly, trust in others and in wider society plays a vital role in creating a sense of ontological security. This includes trust in central and local government empowered to make decisions on behalf of a community, and trust that certain institutions will function as they should in the event of a disaster.
New Zealand’s response to the tragic events of 2019 that we’ve endured as a nation have both reinforced and challenged the sense of ontological security that comes from being Kiwi. We hold certain expectations around appropriate behaviours of authorities – expectations built on a trust that is founded in protection and in doing the right thing. When we perceive these authorities to behave in a way that is contrary to our beliefs of who we are and what we stand for, our very own sense of place is threatened.
Insurance companies are a good example of the importance of institutional trust, where customers pay premiums to minimise the impact of unpredictable events, thus gaining a sense of protection and control. When these parties fail to follow through on the services or roles a person trusts them to fulfil, stability is lost, and ontological security suffers as a result.
The concept of ontological security is relevant to any entity that has people as its primary customer because when people have an unstable sense of ontological security, it directly impacts the success of strategic plans, policy and marketing initiatives.
Being able to predict shifts in generalised ontological security is a strategic imperative, not an academic exercise. It’s a principle that is well worth the effort comprehending and contextualising - it can have considerable impact on what consumers will do.Research First – making the complex simple.