Greg Sampson takes a look at the tyranny of absolutes

For those of us interested in the power of marketing to drive business success, now is a challenging time to be involved in the industry.

Along with all of the new media and experiential opportunities, there is a rapidly advancing and scientific understanding of the discipline. This is led by a wide range of strong thinkers with ever increasing access to data, experiments and advances in a range of disciplines such as psychology, anthropology and economics. We are constantly being told that everything we thought we knew is wrong and there is a new reality we need to embrace. Sometimes this is the case and sometimes not.

In this context it can be tempting for practitioners to throw their lot in with the latest new idea or get behind a particular thinker or leader in the industry. In the extreme this leads to a place that could be descried as a tyranny of absolutes. This is not a good place to be as any casual look at the state of US politics at the moment would clarify.

An example of this tyranny of two ideas is demonstrated by the ongoing discussion between Byron Sharp, Mark Ritson and Koen Pauwels. The central tension is the direction of causality between attitudes and behaviour.

Different or distinctive

One view holds that attitudes to a brand are drivers of behaviour. The implication for building brands is that a focus on changing or building different attitudes to my brand will lead to greater consideration and purchase. An example of this would be: if I could get more people to think that my brand is ‘made with local ingredients’ they will be more likely to buy my brand in the future. This is especially the case if they are in the ‘authentically natural’ segment.

The counter view holds that the direction of causality is in the opposite direction. Attitudes follow from behaviours and are essentially post-rationalisations of past behaviour and are a product of people creating a ‘consistent narrative’ to justify past behaviour. The implication of this is that I would reject an effort to change or build attitudes to my brand focusing my efforts more on activities designed to drive behaviour change more directly, such as better visibility at the point of purchase.

Context is everything

What we see from this is the differentiation camp – arguing for segmentation, targeting and communicating the essential purpose and meaning of the brand as the path to growth; and the distinctiveness camp – arguing for ‘mass targeting’ of mental availability and physical availability as the path to brand growth.

The truth is that the world of marketing and behaviour change is in fact far more complicated than these two ideas by themselves would indicate. For brand builders we need to layer in the context and some nuance to make practical sense of this.

As the first element of context, we need to be clear about the attitudes that we are referring to. At TRA we have strong longitudinal evidence that Brand ManaTM, a measure of the emotional connection of the brand with consumers, is predictive of future behaviour in a longitudinal data set. There is positive evidence that this particular measure of connection does in fact drive future behaviour. And this is further backed up by the consistent finding that brands that share the values of consumers are much more likely to be bought than brands who do not have shared values with consumers.

At the same time though, we see no evidence to suggest that changing a consumer’s view on an attitude such as ‘is made with local ingredients’ has any discernable impact on future behaviour. However, current buyers are more likely to agree with such a statement than non-buyers, which certainly suggests a level of post-rationalisation.

Another element of context, as Ritson points out, is the category that we are operating in. When choosing a beer that will be drunk in a social situation then my perceptions of the brand is likely to impact my future buying decisions. I am unlikely to take a 6 pack of beer to a BBQ at a friend’s place if I consider it to be a ‘bogan’ beer – unless I am being purposefully ironic.

A third way of thinking

So, how do those of us who are charged with building brands work through this? Context is the key. We need to start by understanding what the science is telling us and the context in which it is developed – allowing a clear sense of both the strength and limitations of the findings. Next, we need to apply what the science is telling us to our particular context – the category, the competitors and the business and brand challenge.

And finally, mindset is important. Not falling in to the tyranny of absolutes but rather holding two seemingly contradictory ideas in our head and applying them thoughtfully in alignment with the context of the challenge we face.

This is article one in a series responding to the ongoing Byron Sharp versus Mark Ritson debate about the value of brand perceptions.

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