Advertising, Behavioural Economics, Marketing Strategy

Seek familiarity, not fame

Everyone who comes in through our door wants a “viral” these days.

I explain as patiently as I can that “full-service” doesn’t include that sort of thing anymore and we’ve all had our jabs in any case.

They then look a bit confused until I put them out of their misery.

“Oh!” I say, “you mean a punchy little film created for next-to-no-money that suddenly hits the webby-big-time and gets shared by countless millions of chortling geeks, all for free?”

“That’s it!” they say, brightening visibly.

I guess it’s just a function of our preoccupation with celebrity and the parallel attraction of something for nothing.

But there’s usually a problem.

Scan the list of most shared videos online and count how many have commercial/branded origins?

Now take that list and count how many have succeeded in a way that is consistent with their brand idea and character and doesn’t contain a moonwalking Shetland pony.

(Although that was quite a good one.)

There are some, but we’re entering Lotto-style percentage territory.

What you can’t check is the same picture looked at the other way round.

How many truly appalling, cringe-worthy attempts have been made to leap this particular existential chasm, and how many mangled examples of ill-conceived, out of character nonsense now languish at the bottom of the trench, their abject failure indelibly tattooed on them for all to see: “143 views”.

More extraordinary still are those organisations that seem to think that they can swap their successful strategy of carefully deploying professionally crafted integrated marketing communications assets for an approach where you essentially stick everything on red and hope you hit the jackpot.

My point goes further, though, than showing how slim your chances of digital glory are.

Because even when it works, it doesn’t do you as much good as you might imagine. Successful brand marketing is about achieving everyday familiarity not about getting famous.

If the difference between these two things seems mostly semantic to you, consider the following:

Branded products are trusted over non-branded products. This is a fact. Branded products are more considered by potential customers than non-branded products. They also command higher price points and (usually) margins too. These things are also facts.

But why is this?

Marketing people, who seek constantly to impose rational order on the behavioural chaos that surrounds them, will usually argue that it’s because they have come to stand for something on which the customer can rely.

This is true. But it’s not as true as they imagine.

Research we conducted into a very undifferentiated, apparently price-driven market threw up some rather astonishing results.

Before I explain these results I need to emphasise a crucial difference between two commonly used marketing research measures: spontaneous brand awareness and prompted brand awareness.

Spontaneous brand awareness is measured by asking a question like:

“You’re thirsty and fancy a (non-alcoholic) drink. Which brands come to mind most easily?”

Prompted brand awareness is measured by asking a question like:

“Have you heard of Coca-cola?”

(Sorry if you already know this.)

We discovered that brand consideration was almost perfectly correlated with spontaneous brand awareness.

The correlation between brand trust and spontaneous brand awareness was also extremely high, in excess of 0.8.

Familiarity

We were a bit shocked. But we shouldn’t have been.

Actually the recent research into behavioural science confirms the power of familiarity. It seems our brains are hard wired to prefer the things they recognise and to fear unfamiliar things, people and concepts.

If you want a really shocking demonstration of how these effects influence all our judgements and prejudices, visit yourmorals.org and take a few of their online tests.

When you get into the science itself, it’s all part of the way in which our brain conserves energy, using data from previous experiences rather than recalculating anew each time.

We make choices that have worked for us in the past. When we have no experience, we search for instances of other people (as like us as possible) having positive experiences and we use that as a proxy.

“500 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong”, we say to ourselves and the job is done.

Another effect (called the “availability heuristic” in Behavioural Economic Science) means that we also tend to overestimate the prevalence of things we are familiar with and/or have experienced recently.

“Is this phenomenon widespread?” we ask ourselves. Off scurries the brain, searching for examples. If it can find two or three examples easily, it concludes the phenomenon is indeed widespread. If no examples come to mind, it concludes the opposite.

Here’s the next thing.

There is practically no correlation between prompted brand awareness and either brand consideration or brand trust.

So being famous (‘have you heard of) doesn’t get you trusted or considered. But being familiar (‘which brands can you think of now’) does.

I’ve used data from an undifferentiated market (where products are considered quite similar to each other) because that’s where this effect is most marked.

The more differentiated your product is within your particular category, the less important everyday familiarity will be, relative to other brand dimensions. But don’t underestimate its power, even in these instances.

Until you are talking about real fashion brands and high-end luxury purchases, familiarity remains the single strongest driver of both consideration and trust.

Despite this, an amazing number of marketing people insist on using prompted brand awareness as their key measure of success even though they can link it to no commercial effect.

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