Brand dynamics: the shapeshifting of brand likeability

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The "bell curve"—the probability den...
The “bell curve”—the probability density function of the normal distribution. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our traditional view of product preference has for many years mirrored our view of markets. A bell curve, where products rise in popularity over time, sustain leadership through a period of maturity and then decline or are overtaken by another bell-curve driven by product development that supersedes the declining model and looks to take it to new heights. That model’s driving dynamic is demand. Its chief metric is volume. And its key pressure is time. The longer you can draw out that curve, and the more you can slow down the roll at the peak of the curve the more likely you are to make money.

Recently, two separate pieces of thinking have caused me to believe that this likeability model is now as good as dead.

Firstly, two thoughts from a really fantastic guest post by J Walker Smith at the ever-inspiring Brand Strategy Insider: “With social engagement more prevalent and more powerful, every marketing message is now subject to vetting by a crowd. No message finds its way to consumers absent the influence and input of others.” This spells the end of what Smith refers to as the “individualized encounter”. The second point he makes is that “the circles of intimacy are narrowing. The biggest trend in social networks is the shrinking of social connections … the future of social networks is a choice between Big Net and Tight Knit, and on this dimension small is the big trend.” Read the whole post to find out more. It’s great.

Second piece of thinking. This time from David Edelman at McKinsey, who envisages the consumer decision journey as elliptical: a journey that takes in multiple decision points and where marketers use social media specifically at each point to encourage people on to the next decision point. To keep consumers in this orbit, Edelman suggests, brands need to monitor, respond, amplify and lead.

I thought I’d try and connect these two streams of thinking back to the traditional brand likeability model. Doing so raised a number of intriguing questions:

Q. If the bell-curve has evolved into an ellipse or even a circle, was that change in shape influenced by the loss of the individual encounter?

My response: Absolutely. As Smith so rightly points out, consumers are no longer siloed in their decision making – “every marketing message is now subject to vetting by a crowd”. A process that once took place in a heart and mind or between small groups of hearts and minds can now be shared, discussed, justified, and opined or endorsed with reference to a whole world of other buyers. In fact, individual consumers now reference and chatter collectively in order to justify personally – because, of course, they can. And it is that pattern of gathering reasons that has fundamentally changed the shape of product life and corresponding likeability patterns.

The bell-curve tracked the collective effect of many separated individuals. The ellipse tracks the individual within the dynamics of a connected community that continually checks back on itself online. And again, as Smith points out, those orbits are becoming smaller and presumably more intense.

This model’s driving dynamic is community. Its chief metric is interest. And its key pressure is engagement. Customers disconnect from a brand when they fall out of orbit or if they are drawn into another brand’s orbit.

2. If “tight knit” is the desired dynamic, that would suggest that the tighter the orbit of Edelman’s decision journey, then the faster the time-to-purchase and the more intense the relationship. What does that suggest about marketing’s role?

My response: It suggests that the role of marketing is to feed the centrifuge by intensifying the motivation for people to feel like, and buy like, part of a community. That’s not to suggest, in my view, that traditional media is dead. But rather that media is media and content is content, regardless of channel or source. Conversation, fascination and integration clearly replace persuasion and repetition – a transition that seems to have been lost on too many brands who still seem to be looking to translate their advertising techniques into all their channels.

The dynamic that most fascinates me though is what happens at the conversion point of talkability to profitability because that moment represents the transition from “just looking and talking” to “buying and advocating”. Smith seems to be suggesting that greater engagement generates shorter consideration times and therefore, potentially, more purchasing. The key tension there will be for companies to maintain enough interest at a product and experience level to keep consumers coming back for more, more often. The role of marketing will be to maintain enough interest and dialogue to keep easily-distracted people in the community, committed to the brand and away from the many other brands seeking to gain their attention and interest – hence Smith’s point about keeping them close. All of this aligns directly with my own “upgrade culture” theory.

3. If both men are right, what is the likely effect overall on the traditional dynamics of brand likeability?

My response: There are significant implications in this shape-shift. Likeable brands still sell. But how they sell and how they judge success is unrecognisable from traditional marketing theory.

Traditional bell curves suit measuring SKUs. They monitor a traditional favouritism track between individual consumers and individual products. They also suggest, as I said earlier, that as one product dies, another is instigated to replace it, and hopefully each is timed so that the decline of one product is balanced by the emergence of another. Flights of traditional media helped fuel that demand. Consumers watched and bought.

But there is no tipping point in a circle. Things don’t ‘take off’. What they do do is collectively gather greater speed. Ellipses also support ecosystems of products and services that work together to keep customers involved. So rather than replacing, new products and services now join the orbit to push loyalty forward and old ones fall out. As Stone Yamashita have pointed out, the iPod helped transit Apple out of computing, but it was the introduction of iTunes that provided a cumulative experience better than either could have delivered alone. Together, they brought new customers into the Apple fold, with new motivations, and gave Apple fanboys more subjects and more reasons to immerse themselves in the community.

No one thing drives this dynamic. Traditional media is part of the mix – but only part. Social media is critical – but it doesn’t necessarily convert. Consumers talk themselves into buying because they’re excited about what they will own, what it will say about them and what it enables them to talk with others about.

Now instead of falling off the end of maturity and into obscurity, dying brands lose the elasticity in their ellipse. A fading brand loses momentum, the lag times between decisions and actions increase, the orbit becomes longer and eventually the whole process collapses. Conversely, likeable brands don’t peak under this model, although they may reach max speed and then start to slow down. They can continue to generate loyalty as long as they continue to generate interest. The tighter and more intense the interest and the generation of new interest, the deeper the loyalty and the more talkable and likeable they are as a brand.

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