Colleen Ryan: from wolf whistles to Ritson and Sharp

My morning walk to Britomart took me past a building site. I walked alongside the site for a hundred meters or so as I was enjoying my morning musing on life, the universe and everything, including the long-running Ritson versus Sharp theory of marketing debate. My daydreaming put me in a reflective state of mind and most likely heightened self-awareness which is why, when I felt a tiny ripple of emotion that I couldn’t quite identify, I peered inside myself to see what was going on.

Now let’s be clear that it’s been a while since I was the target for wolf whistles or offers to give me a good time, so the last time I felt discomfort when subjected to that type of behaviour certainly pre-dates by a decade or so the more recent changes in construction site staff behaviour policies. Yet here I was experiencing an emotion that had been triggered merely be walking alongside a building site occupied by a dozen or so, in this case innocent, workers.

Emotions and their trigger stimuli are deeply engrained and hardwired to the point that they can lie dormant for long periods and still be triggered by the right stimulus. Just think how many advertising jingles or slogans you can remember from your childhood. How a smell can bring back an entire experience along with all of the feelings associated with it.

The power of memory

It’s hard to articulate these experiences, yet we all know we have them. Sometimes we can’t pin them down. For example, if you see someone walking toward you and you recognise them but you can’t place them, you don’t know who they are or where you know them from, but what you will know for certain is whether you liked them or not. You’ll feel warmly or coolly toward them, despite forgetting the circumstances that led to that feeling. You could say that’s a case of poor branding because it’s all very well to create an emotional connection, but it has to be sticky to the brand in those important consideration and decision making moments.

Any emotionally-charged experience is more likely to be remembered than a dry cognitive message-based stimulus. However, like any muscle, our brains benefit from repetition and reinforcement of set routines. My building site memories aren’t based on one experience but a couple of decades of what was then normal behaviour. The other aspect of emotionally-based memories which is sometimes neglected is the stimulus, and this is very much Sharp’s territory whereby a brand’s distinctive assets are the stimulus.

Distinctive assets are more than just the brand name and in fact, it isn’t enough just to mention the brand name – if you knew the name of the person walking toward you it might not help you place them because context is a bigger influence than the person’s name. The Ehrenberg theory posited by Sharp is clear on the role of brand at demand moments and purchase related entry points. So the brand needs to evoke deeply embedded memories in particular circumstances around consumption decisions, consideration decisions and purchase decisions. This is a largely unconscious process but one that with smart techniques we can capture and measure.

Both Ritson and Sharp allow for the importance of emotion in how we process brands. Both agree that we don’t fall in love with brands nor do we have significant inter-personal relationships with them, we save for those for real human beings. Which isn’t to say that a brand can’t make you think about your mum or your children with a rush of affection and warm feelings. It can make you think of warm, lazy summer days and the associated stress-free childlike pleasure of wiggling your toes in the sand, reminding you of your childhood and leaving a warm glow of happiness. Brands can also trigger emotions about your grown-up self, perhaps eliciting feelings of pride or accomplishment.

And that’s where Ritson chimes in. We are after all adults. We do make choices in some categories, on some occasions based on what are variously described as proof points, reasons to believe, product differentiators, alignment with a brand’s purpose and pillars. The core of the argument is that Sharp does not believe that these factors can be measured or proven to influence decision making. But perhaps we are dancing on the head of a pin here. These ‘differentiation factors’ should be an integral part of our emotional memory of the brand. They should be the things that trigger our senses and thereby the feelings that we associate with the brand.

Brands should engage our senses

I am brand loyal to English marmite. It triggers warm childhood memories, I instantly recognise the shape of the pot, I will argue with anyone that it tastes better than other Marmite, that it’s better value despite its premium pricing because it’s stronger so you use less, it has better texture when it combines with melting butter on toast, the smell feels reassuringly familiar and so on. The emotional response I have to Marmite carries with it a host of product perceptions that I would argue influence my decision to buy. But nothing tops those Sunday morning memories with my grandmother, eating Marmite toast fingers quietly in the kitchen while my parents had their weekly sleep in. Way better memories than walking past construction sites, but alas the bad memories stay with us too.

The ‘my science is better than your science’ discussion will no doubt rumble on and it’s good to have these issues debated. But if you’re taking bets on who is right, trust your senses and don’t bet on Ritson or Sharp. Bet on emotion – creating it, reinforcing it, measuring it and owning it.

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