Brand truth: fascinating insights into what holds true for consumers

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Brand truth for consumers

We don’t always mean what we say in social situations – nor, it appears, in research. That seems to be the key take-out from recent research (delicious irony!) by Chip Walker and the Y&R research team. In their recently released study, Secrets and Lies, (thanks Hilton for the reference and for the introduction to Chip) the team concludes that consumers’ conscious motivations differ markedly from their true deep drivers. In fact, they’re often the opposite of what they say.

Those conscious-unconscious biases are also reflected in the brands that people say they like versus those they actually like. Consider this: “The top 10 conscious brands are Amazon, Google, Apple, Target, Whole Foods, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Facebook, AT&T and Prius. That contrasts with the order of the top 10 brands consumers favor unconsciously: Target, Amazon, Facebook, Whole Foods, National Enquirer, Exxon, McDonald’s, Apple, Starbucks and AT&T.”

While it’s important to recognise that, for the purposes of the study, people were asked to rank a finite list of brands not to nominate those brands from scratch, the contrast between public and personal acknowledgement is telling. I suspect that the difference lies in the brands people want to be associated with socially versus those they actually like personally. Impression versus inclination.

Walker’s conclusion is that we need to rethink three key pillars of modern day marketing:

1. We need to rethink traditional research. His view that traditional surveys and focus groups are misleading will no doubt be greeted with loud cries of “Told you” from the many in the creative community who have stated this for years.

2. We need to rethink traditional targeting. People don’t behave consistently. They behave impulsively – meaning they both conform with, and deviate from, the behaviours that are expected of them by marketers. No surprises there.

3. His final target really interested me. Rethink positioning. “We’ve been programed to believe that single-mindedness is the foundation of all good branding. Yet this research shows consumers aren’t singular today … is it time brands move away from the single-minded idea and embrace conflict and tension?”

He extrapolates on this thought elsewhere: Brand tension, he says, “is the idea that break-away brands – like the new consumer – thrive on conflict and polarity (e.g., Land Rover is both hardworking and luxury.) Brands that are one-note (e.g., K-Mart = cheap) are simply less interesting to consumers today than those that show more depth of character by embracing a tension (e.g., Target = Cheap + Chic.) Patagonia’s new campaign … takes this concept to an extreme – by embracing eco-friendliness while simultaneously acknowledging all the ways they currently harm the environment.”

Research has simplified brands, Walker seems to imply, to the point that consumers lose interest. Brands are now so committee-ed, so uniform, so managed, so flat that they are utterly predictable. Bring back a little danger, he seems to be suggesting. Throw in some curve-balls to colour things up.

Of course re-dimensionalising brands to make them more fascinating also makes them much less test-able. That may lift the risk rate at one level, but at another it adds much needed interest. Personally, I’ve always held the view that brand values should ‘contradict’ each other to an extent in order to hold absolute principles in check. Chip’s statement takes this one stage further, suggesting that brands themselves must embrace a certain contrariness. That’s interesting on a number of levels:

1. It allows brands to explore a range of paths, that are not necessarily logically compatible, simultaneously.

2. It allows consumers to discover brands from a range of angles, which also adds to their ongoing intrigue.

3. It changes the nature of the brand story from a statement of facts to a compass for actions.

4. It acknowledges that what we think we know or believe as consumers is not always what we tell ourselves we know or believe, allowing buyers to “find” approaches in brands that really appeal to them, perhaps for reasons that they themselves can’t explain.

Best of all, it sets up a heretical question that I can’t wait to lobb. The next time a brand manager insists that the brand doesn’t behave a certain way, I shall take my cue from Chip and ask “But how much more interesting could it be if it did?”

There’s music in them jaws a-dropping …

Further reading:
Many thanks to Chip for the reading list.
Media Post
Neuroscience Marketing

Image of “talk to the hand” taken by Mahalie Stackpole, sourced from Flickr

4 thoughts on “Brand truth: fascinating insights into what holds true for consumers

  1. Fascinating – it suggests people can handle complexity of brands. But can I suggest that the complexity has come from consumers themselves. It’s they who interpret brands to fit into their lives.
    And yes, I’m one of the ‘told you so” people. Shallow market research is of little use to marketing because it only touches the conscious. What people say and think at a ‘public’ level is very different to the way they think and behave sub-consciously and privately. Because it never explores this deep, marketing regularly misses the mark and stays within safe “single minded brand propositions”

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