You can sympathise with people who want nothing more than to do the best for their families and themselves, but who are bombarded with advice from scientists, medical professionals and fitness gurus that can often be contradictory and even when it is single-minded is likely to pivot if not reverse next year. Fat causes heart disease vs dieters don’t get enough fat in their diet. Sugar is the new killer unless of course, you are consuming pesticides in your cereals. And, of course, the majority of us decide that moderation in all things is a safe strategy stirred in with a dose of the realities of minimising time invested in decision making, money and how value is assessed – what’s easily available, what others are doing, and ‘what they’ll eat’.
But contrary ideas, passionately argued and scientifically presented as the single truth are not just the domain of the food and health industry.
Instead of people in white coats or lycra, in the marketing industry we have men in dark suits. Ritson and Sharp have been slugging it out in the media lately along with a polite interjection from Koen Pauwels.
What these spats should do is raise debate and cause people to consider and review their ideas, but in a too busy world the easier option is to choose a side and ignore any challenges to it.
So how do we ensure that we get a balanced diet, neither taking too extreme measures that could kill our marketing efforts (or make us sick) nor doing nothing and thereby failing to optimise the wellbeing of our marketing efforts?
The power of ideas is to drive deeper understanding
What we should be doing is looking at the sector we are working in to understand the particular role that these marketing theories play in enabling us to maximise our marketing investment. We then need to layer on our understanding of human behaviour – which has also gone through its own rebirth based on new scientific evidence – and add the critical dimension of what’s going on around us. How is our category/social sector being affected by the cultural (political, physical, societal, technological) landscape?
This is no different from a deep understanding of people, taking into account their individual traits, the influence of their social networks and the context of the wider cultural environment.
The parallel for marketing is to first develop a deep understanding of the role that brand plays in creating connection and forming an emotional bond – in which case, easy recognition and distinctive assets are key. But we also need to understand how to nurture and evolve that connection beyond repetition and long-term investment in distinctive assets. And that’s where monitoring clarity, momentum and fit with people’s beliefs and values comes into play. This is not the same as measuring sets of promiscuously held attitudes (people’s attitudes change during the course of a single day). Instead, it is a measure of their perceptions of the brand – so the brand is the focal point, not the person’s stated attitudes. There is a crucial difference here.
Second is to also understand what levers can be pulled that will increase the chances that when people are faced by a choice – not a habitual purchase decision. It is important that we have in place a strategy that reflects how people make decisions at an unconscious and a conscious level. For example, what biases are at play that we can leverage to trigger the decision we desire. If we are going to make product/service claims that we believe differentiate us, we need to be very sure we know how that information is going to be processed by people, if at all. How will they slice the information for example? What will they anchor to? How will they relate it to other choices? What influence will social context have?
And thirdly we have to lift our heads and look around at what is happening in broader culture. For example, bottled water has been massively influenced by the fitness trend and by seeing other people carry water bottles. But before that bottled water, especially in the European markets where the dining experience was an important part of the social culture, was about status and it borrowed from food and wine signals. Now bottled water is being affected by the cultural movements around anti-plastics minimising consumption and sustainability.
If we pull these three components together we generally see that the emotional equity in the brand, expressed through its distinctive assets and reinforced through emotional connection is an overarching driver of choice. But, other factors clearly come into play along the way and we can influence these factors through our marketing activity.
A distinctive brand carries its differentiation in its assets
In the car buying market people will hold strong opinions about which brands offer reliability, low-cost parts and servicing, good mileage rates, second-hand value etc. We also know that when they consider a new car purchase they only shortlist a small number (usually three) brands – and the emphasis here is on the word brand.
They do not painstakingly compare these differentiating factors across all of the possible car brands – instead, they use the shorthand of the brand, that is the pre-set mental picture and connection they have to that brand. This connection is something that marketing can influence – it can use the levers of brand connection to strengthen and tweak the emphasis.
Having got our shortlist of three, does differentiation play a part in the final decision? Some aspects of differentiation probably will, but these are mainly rationalisations for deeper cognitive biases. If you park your car in neighbouring driveways and on the road around someone’s house, you will significantly increase the chance that a person will buy your car brand. Now I am not suggesting that you adopt that strategy, but so much for rational decisions based on product differentiation – even with a significant purchase like a new vehicle.
And culture will be playing a part too. All car brands are working on electric vehicles and the cultural tide is moving in that direction, even if people do not do so because they understand or care about carbon emissions. Electric cars are signals for a more fundamental and systemic change in creating better societies through car sharing leasing models, for example.
So what power will the Telsa brand have when all car companies have an electric vehicle and none is truly differentiated from another? Will it own the cultural movement? Will the value of a legacy car brand be stronger than the legacy of innovation and cultural relevance in the Telsa brand? What marketing strategy would you adopt – distinctiveness and availability or product differentiation?
Or will it be a balanced diet of moderation stirred in with a dose of the realities of minimising time invested in decision making, money and how value is assessed, what’s easily available, what others are doing, and ‘what they’ll be willing to drive’?
This is article two in a series responding to the ongoing Byron Sharp versus Mark Ritson debate about the value of brand perceptions.