Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On the Road to Damascus: Science breaks down the myths of marketing

Social Media, ca. 30,000 BCE
European Lion Safari
Come on, come on down, you’ve got it in you
Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes
Sweet Virgina, Jagger/Richards

(Articles by Andrew Ehrenberg, Byron Sharp's book How Brands Grow, and two posts by Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam’s Head Planner Martin Weigle on his Canalsideview blog, have changed my way of thinking about brands and creative.  These explain and quantify decades of research into what works and doesn’t work in advertising.  These are not marketing fads or hot trends, just science evaluating and recording human behavior and how people view brands.  This research has, as Weigle says, “a very direct impact on the work. On how we expect marketing communications to work. On the creative content of what we produce. On our inputs into getting to that work. And how we measure and evaluate its success.”)

In DM, we live and die by measurable results.  Hundreds of books have been written about it.  Mathematical and statistical techniques have been developed to determine it. And yet, despite this raison d’etre, we continue to believe in “facts” that are only assumptions to create our work.  Facts without proof or are not empirically verifiable, such as:  Price promotions boost overall sales (Not over the long term they don’t.  In fact they can have the reverse effect and can put enormous pressure on margins), Loyalty programmes are an effective way to increase the number loyal customers (No, they are not, at least not to a statistically significant degree.  They are, however, expensive to run and usually they reward customers for doing what they would normally do.  To be profitable, these programmes must use and market their customer’s purchasing behaviour data).  Then, there’s the biggest, most persistent and blindly accepted fact: to position a brand, it needs a personality, preferably with a catchy single word description (like friendly, engaging, tough or social) that creates a unique point of difference.

This all-important point of differentiation is neatly summed up in a Unique Selling Proposition. And it is the USP that drives the creative direction of the project. The problem is that the assumption is bullshit; decades of research refute it.  This isn’t news to many creatives with efficient bullshit detectors—USPs are the most frequent trigger of our BS alarms. We know in our gut that there is hardly any difference between, for example, window cleaning brands or soaps or computers.  And if there is, it is almost meaningless.  But, we are expected to use flimsy weak-ass USPs to come up with kick-ass persuasive creative. 

There is no generalizable evidence of any lasting persuasive effects of advertising—at least not to justify a global spend of billions Andrew Ehrenberg, 2002

We apply our best techniques to describe the product’s attributes to get Brand B users to change their attitudes and switch to Brand A.  Research is showing, though, that loyal Brand B users are just as loyal to their brand as Brand A users are to theirs.  What’s more, their attitudes are stable over time and no amount of persuasive advertising will shift it.  Go figure.  (Listen to Mac and Windows users try to convince the other why their OS is better.  It usually ends with ad hominems and questions of the other’s mental aptitude.)

An important study (Romaniuk and Ehrenberg, 2003) used 28 brand attributes Y&R developed years ago, and found that 9 out of 10 brand buyers did not associate a particular personality to a brand. Other have shown that when a group of consumers is interviewed again several weeks after the original survey, only 40% to 60% of respondents repeated the same personality attribute to the same brand—the remaining 50% associated it with another brand.  What does this tell us? Brand personality attributes are fleeting; they represent only a moment in time. 

There are also problems with how we view customers of a brand and how we attract new ones.  The bulk of any brand’s sales come from light/occasional buyers—loyal diehard customers are no more than 20%—and the Pareto Principle (80% of your sales comes from 20% of your customers) is actually about 50/20.  Loyal customers always buy the brand and, whether it’s mayonnaise or laundry detergent, these customers don’t need, nor can they use, any more.  That leaves 50% of total sales coming from 80% of your customer base, the light or occasional buyers.  They display no apparent brand loyalty but have bought the product.  They question is why do they buy it occasionally. 

Because we look at consumers and the buying process as rational, we look for rational explanations for their actions.  What researchers are starting to see, however, is that buying behavior is anything but rational.  They have found that, regardless of what a person thinks about a particular brand, it has little effect on buying behavior.  When shopping, people do not consider all the brands in a category; they choose the familiar or popular one, usually within seconds, without ever thinking about it.  It is spontaneous, not the result of deliberation.  And it is a decision that appears to be based on brand salience. 

We are bombarded with hundreds of ads every day, most of which we ignore, tune out, or click past.  There are some, the salient ones, however, that we do notice—we may not read or listen to them but we are aware of them.  They aren’t the hard sell persuasive ads but instead are those that re-enforce familiar memories or experiences of the brand usually within seconds, through well-established brand assets: Coke = the swirl and red, McDonald’s = yellow arches, Ford = blue oval, etc. Alan Hedges in his book, Testing to Destruction, gives an analogy:

People can receive and process vast masses of signals at any one moment. It would take several pages of words to give even a brief outline of a small number of the more important communications received and acted on by the driver of a car approaching a busy junction, even within a few seconds. In fact, quite clearly people can take in a vast amount of information, screen out what is irrelevant for the purpose in hand, and process the remainder as a basis for action in a very short space of time indeed. But very little of this information needs to be consciously received or handled.
If the driver had to work out ab initio what each signal meant and what he should do about it he would quickly become paralysed with information overload and consequent indecision. This is incidentally one of the main problems facing people first learning to drive when coming into heavy traffic. They have not learnt to recognise broad patterns of signals and to habituate their responses to them.

Brand salience is about getting the consumer think of a brand—to make it an option in the future—not change what he or she feels about it.  It’s about ads akin to creative publicity of a brand’s distinctiveness not its differentiation.  It’s making ads that are memorable not persuasive.  Subtle not overwhelming—they should communicate at a lower level of attention. 

With science starting to explain the working of marketing, many of the entrenched truths and facts are becoming indefensible.  Only good comes from this.  A refreshed approach to advertising based on observations and reams of data will free creatives from rules that stifled creativity and open creative avenues that had been closed off for generations.  Think of it as targeted mass advertising. 

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