John Willshire recently published an excellent provocation in Contagious entitled ‘Give me the freedom of the gloriously brand’ and I was very kindly invited to join the debate and throw in my two cents’ worth.
This is a version of the piece that originally appeared here. More POV’s and contributions will be published.
Marketing is (to some degree, understandably) fixated on precision, pinning brands to positionings, addressing precise target audiences or segments, crafting propositions and single-minded thoughts, and seeking to insert messages into people’s minds.
In large part it’s borne of not distinguishing between stimulus and response, of a belief that we can control people’s responses, and of overvaluing words and underestimating a brand’s silent voice, its vibe, its aesthetic whole.
The fact of the matter though is that precision ‘targeting’ is overrated.
Brands within any given category don’t appeal appeal different kinds of people. They appeal to everyone in a category. Thus, we see that Pepsi drinkers also drink Coca-Cola, and Nike buyers also buy Adidas.
All of which rather renders a lot of the quest for precision, redundant.
And when it comes to how people perceive brands, it’s a world removed from the brand temple, onion, pyramid or whatever.
We operate in the world through making generalizations about people, objects, and events. We do so because it’s more efficient than looking at everything in a very individualized, atomized way.
In the same way, we generalize about brands. Certainly we don’t carry the precision of brand onions and pyramids in our minds.
Besides, people just don’t work that hard at brand learning – because it’s just not that important. In fact people really don’t know that much about even the brands they buy and consume. And brand image differences are not a big as we think they are.
The result is that brands in the real world – in people’s minds – are fuzzy, not precise entities.
But that does not mean the time has come for us to abandon continuity.
For let’s remember that the first imperative of branding is to make people’s purchase decisions easy. And that will only happen if brands are easy to think of in purchase and consumption occasions.
Which means that one of the most vital and enduring tasks for marketing and communications is the creation and maintenance of memory structures. And that takes repetition and continuity.
Connections between neurons in the brain (which is all that memories are) are only created when neurons fire repeatedly. It’s a bit like walking the same route across a grass field until an enduring path is created.
Whether it’s an advertising property, a brand property, a brand line, a point of view, an aesthetic… If you have continuity, you can be flexible, adapt, respond, and innovate. You can breath fresh life, interest and meaning into people’s brand memories.
But without continuity, you’re not even fuzzy.
You’re a total mess.
Postscript: There’s a good summary of all the contributions to this discussion here.
Thirteen years ago the researchers Judie Lannon and Virginia Valentine had cause to note:
Like a planet in the sky, marketers imagine that the brand can be controlled to shine as brightly as possible so that the consumer notices it. It sends out carefully calibrated messages so that the consumer, like a moon, feels the gravitational pull and is drawn towards it, remaining in orbit.”
The “satellite consumer” as they characterised it, was always an inaccurate and unhelpful notion.
The idea that people want to engage in “a constant dialogue” with brands does nothing to get us out of this rut.
And as Henry Jenkins has put it:
Too often, Web 2.0-era companies speak about creating communities around their products and services, rather than recognizing that they are more often courting existing communities with their own histories, agenda, hierarchies, traditions, and practices”.
Placing our brand at the center of things makes a mockery of any claims to be “consumer-centric”.
It is time for us to move on.
Judie Lannon & Virginia Valentine: ‘The 21st Century Consumer: A New Model of Thinking’, International Journal of Market Research: Vol. 42, No. 2, 2000