As I covered last week, if I mention a brand to you – like Nike, for instance – your brain immediately pulls back your own interpretation of the brand. What has happened, in a split second, is that the activation of that one node – let’s call it the Nike node – triggers the activation of several related nodes in your brain, which is quickly assembled into a representation of the brand Nike. This is called Spreading Activation.
This activation is all internal. It’s where most of the efforts of advertising have been focused over the past several decades. Advertising’s job has been to build a positive network of associations so when that prime happens, you have a positive feeling towards the brand. Advertising has been focused on winning territory in this mental landscape.
Up to now, we have been restricted to this internal landscape when making consumer decisions by the boundaries of our own rationality. Access to reliable and objective information about possible purchases was limited. It required more effort on our part than we were willing to expend. So, for the vast majority of purchases, these internal representations were enough for us. They acted as a proxy for information that lay beyond our grasp.
But the world has changed. For almost any purchase category you can think of, there exists reliable, objective information that is easy to access and filter. We no longer are restricted to internal brand activations (relative values based on our own past experiences and beliefs). Now, with a few quick searches, we can access objective information, often based on the experiences of others. In their book of the same name, Itimar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen call these sources “Absolute Value.” For more and more purchases, we turn to external sources because we can. The effort invested is more than compensated for the value returned. In the process, the value of traditional branding is being eroded. This is truer for some product categories than others. The higher the risk or the level of interest, the more the prospect will engage in an external activation. But across all product categories, there has been a significant shift from the internal to the external.
What this means for advertising is that we have to shift our focus from internal spreading activations to external spreading activations. Now, when we retrieve an internal representation of a product or brand, it typically acts as a starting point, not the end point. That starting point is then to be modified or discarded completely depending on the external information we access. The first activated node is our own initial concept of the product, but the subsequent nodes are spread throughout the digitized information landscape.
In an internal spreading activation, the nodes activated and the connections between those nodes are all conducted at a subconscious level. It’s beyond our control. But an external spreading activation is a different beast. It’s a deliberate information search conducted by the prospect. That means that the nodes accessed and the connections between those nodes becomes of critical importance. Advertisers have to understand what those external activation maps look like. They have to be intimately aware of the information nodes accessed and the connections used to get to those nodes. They also have to be familiar with the prospect’s information consumption preferences. At first glance, this seems to be an impossibly complex landscape to navigate. But in practice, we all tend to follow remarkable similar paths when establishing our external activation networks. Search is often the first connector we use. The nodes accessed and the information within those nodes follow predictable patterns for most product categories.
For the advertiser, it comes down to a question of where to most profitably invest your efforts. Traditional advertising was built on the foundation of controlling the internal activation. This was the psychology behind classic treatises such as Ries and Trout’s “Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind.” And, in most cases, that battle was won by whomever could assemble the best collection of smoke and mirrors. Advertising messaging had very little to do with facts and everything to do with persuasion.
But as Simonsen and Rosen point out, the relative position of a brand in a prospect’s mind is becoming less and less relevant to the eventual purchase decision. Many purchases are now determined by what happens in the external activation. Factual, reliable information and easy access to that information becomes critical. Smoke and mirrors are relegated to advertising “noise” in this scenario. The marketer with a deep understanding of how the prospect searches for and determines what the “truth” is about a potential product will be the one who wins. And traditional marketing is becoming less and less important to that prospect.