Branding by Word of Mouth

First published September 18, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In the past few weeks, I’ve looked at where our feelings towards brands come from and how they get stored in our brains for future recall. I’ve looked at how powerful brand beliefs can be, even to the point of altering our physical sensations (the Coke blind taste test), how advertising can mix with our own personal experiences to create false memories, how emotions can build a powerful subconscious reaction to a brand and how we label complex concepts, including brands, with a summary label that reduces all we know about a brand to an easily accessible impression. Today, I’ll round out the building of brand belief with perhaps the most powerful influence of all: the opinion of others.

Social by Nature

We are social creatures. One of the reasons humans have flourished on earth is because we take advantage of the power of groups. We have built extremely sophisticated heuristic rules to help us know when to trust and when to be wary. In our past, human survival depended on the passing of information from those we trusted and ignoring information from less trustworthy sources. While the survival value of word of mouth might not be as critical to us now (unless knowing a good Chinese restaurant or mechanic is a matter of life and death) those evolutionary mechanisms are still in place, and every piece of information we receive has to be filtered through them.

Remember, heuristic rules, which we know as our gut instincts, tend to form when the same circumstances produce the same results in the majority of cases. Given this stable pattern, we create a subconscious mechanism that allows us to act without thinking. A huge percentage of human behavior falls into this category (I explored one example, habits, previously in this column). The same is true for how we treat word of mouth information. Let me give you two examples.

Whom Can You Trust?

First, the closer someone is to us, the more we tend to trust their opinion. The word of family or close friends tends to carry a lot more weight than that of a stranger. That’s because friends and family have proven their worth in the past and gained our trust. They haven’t steered us wrong before, so why should they now? Secondly, the more enthusiastic the endorsement, the more value we give it. If we get a wishy-washy recommendation, we probably won’t run right out and take action. But if someone close to us is ecstatically recommending a Thai restaurant, the odds are we’ll try it ourselves in the near future. Enthusiastic endorsement shows that the initial impression was strong and memorable because it was emotionally tagged, making it more believable to us. Incidentally, it probably isn’t coincidence that many personal recommendations tend to revolve around eating. Sharing information about promising food patches would have been a key survival strategy for our ancestors.

Gut-Level Judgments

When we get presented with information from others, it’s not as though we pass the information through a number of rational filters. Calculations like the two examples are done below the surface. At a gut level, we instantaneously affix credibility to word of mouth and decide whether to pay attention or not. But if we do pay attention, this becomes a tremendously powerful consumer motivator. It’s no coincidence that word of mouth typically tops the list as the key influencer in every marketing study ever done. Word of mouth fits our inherent survival strategies. We are programmed to prioritize information from trusted others as being important.

Your Word Over Mine

In fact, in many cases the opinion of others may trump even our own experience with brands. Studies have shown that we alter our own memories of a consumer experience depending on the opinion of others. If we’re recalling a less than positive experience but at the time of recall we’re surrounded by others who have more positive opinions, we’ll alter our own opinions to better match the collective one. The same is true in reverse. A great brand experience suddenly loses some of its shine if others are vocal about their bad experiences.

In this altering of our own opinion, one has to remember an interesting principle about memory formation. Memories are not unalterable snapshots. They get reformed every time they get retrieved and then laid down again. So, if we retrieve a personal experience with a brand from our memory, then alter it to fit the opinions of others, it’s the altered memory that gets recoded. We don’t suddenly revert to our previous opinion when others aren’t around anymore. Our perception of the brand has been altered by others from this point forward. This helps explain why others have such a powerful influence on our brand loyalties.

Next week, I’ll look at an interesting study that explored how word of mouth spreads in a network, whether it’s online or in the real world.

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