When you are trying to build a brand, what job are you asking your brand to do? Is it to influence consumers' attitudes and perceptions, and therefore behaviour, so they buy your brand rather than its competitors? Is it to build trust, which hopefully leads to a purchase? Or is it something else, perhaps, such as making the customer's choice easier and less risky?
How you answer this question will affect everything else you do. It is probably the most important question in branding, so it's worth getting right. The snag: new research is casting doubt on what the right answer should be. Let's go back to a time of former cert-ainties when everyone knew the way to build a successful brand was to develop a USP backed by demonstrable product superiority.
This strategy was informed by 20th-century economics that told us that human beings are rational decision-makers who gather all the relevant facts and weigh them up carefully to arrive at an objective, best- possible decision. It worked well. Hugely successful brands were built using this formula.
Yet at the same time, some applications of the formula didn't work so well. Marketers soon discovered, for example, that too many facts turned off lots of consumers, while some emotional appeals worked rather well.
If you associated your product with being more attractive, or sexy, or a good mum, the sales response could be higher than clinically tested claims such as 'washes whiter'. Marketers had discovered the power of emotional as well as rational appeals and it wasn't long before we were sneering at the simplistic naivety of USPs and demonstrable product superiority.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. We now know, for example, that many of the decisions we make are driven by primeval instincts of attraction (food, sex) or flight (risk, danger) and that often the reasons we use to explain these decisions are just post-hoc rationalisations.
We smile, for example, when some bloke, who's obviously in the grip of a mid-life crisis, claims he bought his penis-extension sports car because of its exceptional road-handling and safety.
Such insights led some marketers to say: 'Forget rational reasons to buy (except as necessary afterthought excuses). Instead, go under the radar of consciousness to press those primeval buttons.'
More recently, an Aladdin's Cave of discoveries (bundled incoherently under the umbrella of 'behavioural economics') is casting new light on consumer behaviours. Often, for example, we act as if the best decision is no decision at all.
By definition, making big and difficult decisions is hard work and risky (we might get them wrong) so, even in matters of life or death, such as getting that medical check-up, many of us stall until the decision is made for us. The same goes across the board, from getting that pension sorted out, to changing that health-undermining habit, to shifting those savings to a better interest rate.
Decision-avoiding inertia is, it turns out, one of the most powerful forces in markets and, therefore, marketing. Countless highly successful marketing strategies boil down to one simple rule: exploit consumer inertia.
Inertia, however, is just one of the many so-called 'predictable irrationalities' celebrated by behavioural economics including priming, framing, salience, consonance, mimickry, the effects of awareness on liking, group-think, white-coat syndrome (obedience to authority) and many more.
The way many people in adland are talking nowadays, these insights are the new bee's knees, providing us with untold power to design 'choice architectures' which lead consumers to the right brand purchase without their even being aware of how powerful the herding process is.
One good reason
In other words, with each new twist and turn, marketing has become more sophisticated. At the same time, it's become more dishonest. If your goal is to close more sales more efficiently, these approaches may be more effective.
However, if it's the brand's job to make consumers' decision-making easier and less risky it's leading us in the wrong direction. It is making decision-making harder and more risky and branding a source of mistrust.
Could that be why word-of-mouth and third-party endorsements are so powerful now? Because consumers don't trust the marketing process any more, turning to each other instead? If so, we are suffering from a catastrophic and strategic loss of direction.
Now let's factor in one more discovery about human decision-making. Real human beings rarely adopt the rational approach of assembling and weighing up long lists of pros and cons. Instead, we tend to adopt heuristics - a series of simple 'if-then' propositions that form a simple decision-tree. These heuristics are the opposite of 'rational' in one important sense. Instead of gathering more information, they actually strip away as much as information as they can, to focus on just a few key considerations.
In fact, research by Gerd Gigerenzer at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development suggests that for many people, 'one good reason is enough'. If we can, we discard all available information to focus on just one thing such as, 'Was it OK last time? If so, buy again,' or, 'Did my friend recommend it? If so, buy.' Whatever it is, if we can boil our decision down to just one 'yes/no' factor, we do.
What is even more surprising is that those who follow this 'one good reason' strategy often make better decisions than so-called experts. In experiment after experiment, whether picking stocks to invest in or identifying who is going to win an election or the World Cup, novices and ignoramuses do better than experts on a statistically significant basis. Why? Because the more experts find out, the more their decision- making is crowded by extraneous factors until they can't see the wood for the trees. In contrast, the novices and ignoramuses' basic heuristic of 'If it's famous, pick it, because it must be good' usually works well enough.
Now take this back to branding. In those naive simplistic days of USPs and demonstrable product superiority, brands gave consumers 'one good reason' for making a choice. They made it easy. They also took the risk out of this choice by working very hard to deliver the promise. If you bought that BMW you didn't have to inspect the engine under the bonnet. One good reason - the brand - was enough.
Branding in this era didn't work because it was rational. It worked because a) it made decision-making easy in a way that fitted consumers' natural decision-making processes and b) it did so in a trustworthy way that reduced consumer risk.
It suggests the secret of successful branding does not lie in the brand's ability to persuade or influence consumer choices but in its ability to build trust - not just product trust, but trust in the decision-making process itself.
Somewhere along the line, the more sophisticated marketing and branding became, the more it forgot this basic truth. In discarding the childish naiveties of 'rationality' we threw the brand baby out with bathwater. Can we retrieve it?
Alan Mitchell is a respected author and a founder of Ctrl-Shift and Mydex