Thoughts & Notions

Aspiration vs. Exaggeration

  Consumers are skeptics. They see advertising and marketing as a sea of lies, and for good reason. They’ve been deceived too many times. Building a strong brand means managing consumers' expectations, honestly and consistently. However, all too many try to be something they’re not, only to disappoint consumers with outlandish claims they couldn’t possibly live up to. There is a difference between a brand having aspirations (setting a goal it aims to pursue and someday achieve) and over promising (making a claim it isn't capable of backing up). Too many are guilty of the latter. Consider the photographic representation of fast food vs. reality or the underpowered car that slides across your TV screen at 100 miles per hour, “Professional Driver. Closed course.” Few brands are able to balance expressing their ambition and promising more than they can deliver. In their effort not to underwhelm people, some brands tend to exaggerate… and let’s face it, some brands are more honest than others. The most effective live by a simple, singular idea, an ideology expressed from communications to the product itself. They not only gain people’s trust and admiration they gain their business as well. Apple is an aspirational brand in that they praise the solutions, not themselves. However, their rise to becoming the world’s largest company may disqualify them from being “aspirational.” So, let’s consider some challenger brands. Avis’ tagline “We Try Harder” is a brilliant example of stating an obvious and compelling reason to believe: Of course the number two brand is going to try harder. Then there’s New Balance’s “Endorsed by No One,” which achieves a similar goal by shifting the focus from endorsements to a product known by runners to be beyond reproach. Domino’s Pizza went as far as to admit that their product was sub-par and promised to “…reinvent our pizza from the crust up.” Everywhere you look companies are claiming to be more than what they are and provide more value than they do. Consumers have had enough. In years past, they weren’t able to verify the claims companies made, so advertisers spun the truth. Today, we live in the information age where, within a few clicks, anyone has access to everything. Building a brand means building a relationship. This requires a commitment to live by a predefined set of rules and principles. Those who see the relationship as transactional quickly find themselves chasing the market. Those who aim to deliver the most distinctive value find the market chasing them. In the end, brand strategy is nothing more than a plan to provide the greatest value to the customer, because your brand is not what you claim, it is what consumers experience.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a well-understood phenomenon that causes all of us (yes, that means all of us) to run information through highly personalized filters. This personal bias is created by the confluence of our genetics and our environment, so much so that our genes can predict our political affiliations. Be it a product or a president, most of us make choices based on what we already believe. Without really considering them, we dismiss the facts that do not support our beliefs and readily accept those facts that do. In his post “Why Politics is Hard,” Rodger Dooley points out how surprisingly easy it was to sway liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans equally, simply by saying a liberal idea was invented by a conservative, and vice-versa. In both cases, people reported loving ideas that didn’t line up with their stated politics when told those ideas had come from their own political party. Our biased acceptance of certain kinds of information allows us to feel good about the decisions we do make, be it to buy (or buy into) a product, a person or a policy. If information doesn't make sense to us (what’s called cognitive dissonance), we reject it and label it as untrue.
"People's convictions arise not from proofs supplied by the brain but prejudices amplified by the heart." —William Bonner
Our news sources are brands every bit as much as Pepsi and Coke. They reflect and pronounce our values. You won’t find many conservatives reading the New York Times or many liberals spending Sundays watching Fox News. We choose news sources that stand for what we "know to be true" and against that which we oppose. Cognitive bias is, of course, easy to see in others (and hard to see in ourselves). All of us make decisions that MAKE SENSE TO US on some level — why else would we make them? After all, we live in a world with LOTS and LOTS of information and choices — if we were to honestly and impartially consider all the data all the time, it’s likely we would never be able to make any decisions at all! (Cognitive bias can even be found in things as esoteric as art and music.) WHAT’S THIS GOT TO DO WITH BRANDING? Quite a bit, it turns out. While weaker brands appeal to base emotions, such as scarcity (it’s running out!), social proof (everyone else is doing it!), and authority (everyone knows that…), stronger brands appeal to both emotion and logic. Here’s why: Emotion builds a connection and logic validates our decision to take action. That's because in many ways a brand is a belief system (and people believe only what they want to believe). Simply put, when there is a conflict between data and desire (fact and emotion), good branding offers a bridge. We bet you can name at least a dozen brands whose entire business is built on offering consumers this bridge. We often say, "People don't buy brands that they like. They buy brands that are like them." Do you have a Mac or PC? Or perhaps you run Linux? Did you have a relative who loved Fords but thought Chevys were junk? Cognitive fluency means people prefer things that are easy to think about. This is why we either disregard the bad press about Apple’s new maps app (if we just bought and love our new iPhone 5), or revel in its flaws (if we’re the proud owner of the latest Android phone). In short, we weigh information, but we all have our thumbs on the scale.   NOTE: While we attempt to respond to every comment, we ARE NOT interested in turning this into a political debate and will politely stay out of the muck and meyer.

Option Paralysis

What happens when consumers are faced with too many options? Depending on the urgency of the purchase, this can result in commoditization (“They’re all the same. This one’s the cheapest.”) or failure to make a purchase at all (“This is too confusing. I need to do more research… Do I really need this? I don’t have time…”). Consumers say they want more choice. However, research paints a different picture. Too many choices have the tendency to paralyze consumers. This isn’t only true within categories, but also within brands. It’s why with over 500 channels, there is never anything to watch on TV. Psychologists call this phenomenon “Option Paralysis” and it is happening more and more often in every sector of commerce. So what can companies do to ensure consumers have adequate choice, but aren’t overwhelmed with options? In 1995, Dr. Sheena Iyengar, professor of business at Columbia University, set up a booth of jams in a boutique market. Every few hours, she reduced the number of available options by 75% (from 24 to 6). As you can see from the results of the study in the chart below, people are attracted to choice, but are motivated to purchase by smaller, more distinct choice sets. Obviously, jam is an impulse purchase. However, what is true of low involvement decisions is also true of high involvement decisions, people want to make the “right choice.” Granularity over complicates the decision process by making it difficult to discern one option from another. The key is to provide enough choice so as to present options, but also to ensure clear division within that option set. Think Small, Medium and Large, not 6 ounce, 8 ounce, 10 ounce, 12 ounce, 14 ounce, 16 ounce… and so on and so on. As you can see, the SM, M, LG set provides clear options (two extremes and something in between). The other example provides little differentiation within the choice set (“Am I 12 ounces thirsty or only 10?”). Many marketers make the mistake of pitting themselves directly against their competition. This is not brand positioning. It’s a street fight (the result of poor, if not nonexistent, differentiation within choice sets). This greatly contributes to Option Paralysis. You may hurt your competitor, but at what cost? Overcoming Option Paralysis is about Brand Positioning, and Brand Positioning is about disrupting the status quo to stand for something that not only stands out but addresses a unique consumer need in a way that no other brand can. This creates contrast and that’s what branding is all about: Differentiation (“This one stands out.”) and Identification (“That’s the one I was looking for.”).