Brand Beliefs and the Facebook Factor

First published May 17, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week I talked about the power of our beliefs to shape our view of the world around us. I also mentioned how our belief constructs impact our view of brands. As luck would have it, two separate pieces crossed my path this week, both of which provide excellent examples of how we may perceive brands, and how marketers often get it wrong when trying to shepherd a brand through the marketplace.

The first piece was “Does Branding Need to be Rebranded?” by Mediapost’s Matt Straz in Online Spin. In it, Matt mentioned the backlash against Sir James Dyson (he of the cool vacuums) when he dared to mention that he doesn’t believe in branding. Now, to clarify, Dyson doesn’t believe in branding the way it’s practiced by many companies, where through sheer force of advertising, their heavily controlled (and often contrived) brand story is theoretically imprinted in your brain.  This isn’t so much branding as brain-washing. Let’s call it “brand-washing.”

But let’s go back to how our beliefs define our view of brands. We use beliefs as a heuristic short cut allowing us to operate efficiently in our world. We form beliefs so we don’t have to endlessly think through every single decision. Beliefs form based on our own experience, but they are also formed based on what we’re exposed to. All this input gets synthesized into a reasonably coherent and remarkably resilient belief. Once in place, this belief guides our action.

So, from our perspective, a brand can be defined as what the buyer believes a brand to be.  In the ad community, there is much debate about the definition of a brand. But, in the final analysis, the only definition of brand that matters is the one that rests in the mind of the buyer. All else are simply inputs into that final mental model, which is created solely by the customer.

James Dyson believes the best of those paths is by producing great products and then letting them speak for themselves. If you create products that consistently exceed expectations, that is enough to build an authentic and enduring brand belief. It’s hard to argue with that logic, and, in fact, it’s what P&G called the Second Moment of Truth with consumers: their experience when your product is in their hands. In this definition, brand is intimately coupled with the product itself.

But, if Dyson is right, why is there an advertising industry at all? Even Dyson buys ads to sell vacuum cleaners. This brings us to the second piece that I saw in the past week. It was a report out of Forrester called the Facebook Factor. This is a bit of a tangential detour, so bear with me.

The report posits that we can now quantify the value of a Facebook “like.” The reasoning is fairly simple. If you add a few questions to a typical customer survey, you can start to quantify the correlation between someone liking you on Facebook and subsequent purchasing of your product. But, as Forrester points out in the report, there is a correlation/causation trap here that could lead to many marketers making the wrong conclusion.

If you try to equate people who felt motivated to “like” you on Facebook with likelihood to purchase, you run the risk of mistaking correlation for causation. People didn’t buy your product as a result of “liking” you on Facebook.  The Facebook “like” came as a result of a positive “belief” about your brand. It was an effect, not a cause. At best, the Facebook Factor should be considered as nothing more than a leading indicator of brand preference.

But many marketers will confuse cause and effect. They will believe that driving Facebook “likes” will drive higher brand loyalty.  This is where brand and product can potentially become decoupled. Here, once marketers start assigning a value to a Facebook “like” based on Forrester’s methodology, they will start regarding Facebook “likes” as the end goal, trusting in the mistaken belief that a Facebook “like” will always correlate positively to purchase behavior.

Once this decoupling happens, the value of the Facebook “like” starts to erode. The motivation for the “like” often has little to do with a positive brand experience. It’s driven by a promotion or campaign that has just one aim: to drive as many likes as possible. From the customer’s perspective, it’s easy to hit the “like” button. They have no skin in the game. There is no belief behind the action.

In the end, I believe Dyson’s definition of brand is the more authentic one. It goes back to the very roots of branding, which was a reassurance to buyers that they were buying what they believed they were buying.

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Believing is Seeing

First published May 10, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In his book “The Believing Brain,” Michael Shermer spends several hundred pages exploring just how powerful beliefs are in forming our view of the world. Beliefs affect not just what we think, but they literally filter what we see and do. And, once in place, beliefs tend to be stubbornly unshakeable. We will go to great extents to defend our beliefs with rationalizations that are often totally or partially fabricated. As Shermer says, “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.”

In the world of consumerism, this becomes important in any number of ways. For one, we have beliefs about brands, both positive beliefs and negative ones. And, as previous neuro-research has shown, those beliefs can dramatically alter how we sense the world. In a study at Baylor University, Dr. Read Montague found that the reason Coke devotees are so loyal has almost nothing to do with the actual taste, and much more to do with the Coke brand and what it says about them as people. It’s not the taste of Coke we love; it’s the idea of Coke.

A few weeks ago, I saw a press release from another study that takes this concept even further. The implications for understanding consumer decision-making are dramatic. In the study, Ming Hsu from the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an fMRI test of individuals participating in a multi-strategy economic investment game. As they made decisions based on the actions of their opponents, the parts of the brain that were firing were recorded.

Games of this sort require that the participants learn from events and adjust their strategies according. Here’s an excerpt from the media release: “The researchers focused on two types of learning processes. So-called ‘reinforced-based learning’ (RL) operates through trial and error. In contrast, more sophisticated ‘belief-based learning’ requires decision-makers to anticipate and respond to the actions of others. The researchers computed the areas of the brain where activity tracks these two types of learning. In addition, they discovered that the prefrontal cortex is an area that processes learning about others’ beliefs. The same area also predicts an individual’s propensity to engage in either belief learning or simply RL.”

This is interesting. Reinforced learning is completely reactive in nature. It’s learning after the fact. But if that was the only way we learned, we wouldn’t survive long. So the brain needs to adapt a proactive learning framework, and that framework relies on beliefs as its primary construct. We act based on what we believe the best outcome will be, and alter as necessary based on the success or failure of our decisions.

Now, if we were purely rational and empirical in the way we form those beliefs, this would seem to be logical way to live our lives. But, as we’ve seen, our beliefs are often anything but rational. They are usually formed with little thought or input, and once formed, tend to resolutely remain in place, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: 55% of Americans believe in angels, 39% believe in evolution, 36% believe in global warming and 34% believe in ghosts. I’ll leave it you to decide which of those stats you find most troubling.

The other note in the above excerpt that’s interesting is where this belief mechanism sits in the brain: the prefrontal cortex. This, by the way, was the same area of the brain that lit up in Montague’s test when his subjects knew they were drinking Coke. It’s the one part of the brain that really makes us who we are — quite literally, in fact.

Even in something as fleeting and supposedly unemotional as using a search engine, I’ve seen firsthand the powerful impact a strong brand belief can have. It physically alters what we see on the page of results. We’re just getting preliminary results from our own neuro-scanning study, done with Simon Fraser University, and it appears that looking for a favored brand affects how quickly we can find relevant information, how much time we spend looking at it (counterintuitively, we actually spend less time engaging with favored brands) and how easily distracted we are by other information on the page.

Truly, in consumerism, as in all areas of our lives, our beliefs determine how we see and sense the world around us.


Reinventing AIDA

First published April 5, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, my column was about how branding differs between search and more traditional brand channels like TV and print. It came from a recent client conversation I had. Rob Schmults from Intent Media added a well-thought-out, on-the-mark comment that deserves a follow-up. There are three points in particular I want to dive deeper into.

“ I think part of the problem in attempting to do so is that branding is all too often an end in and of itself rather than a means.”

Absolutely. Most sales and marketing happens in dozens of disconnected siloes, with little thought about how the actions of one silo affect all the others. Each silo measures progress by its own metric and set its own agenda. The problem is that all these different initiatives are aimed at the same target, but there is little thought as to how each initiative can impact the prospect.

For the past year, I’ve been thinking about how to approach marketing by starting first with creating a common understanding of the buyer’s motivations and behaviors, and then mapping a decision landscape so we can begin to understand the path the buyer takes through it. Much of my writing over the past two years has explored various aspects of this landscape: things like the role of risk and reward, and how they affect the emotions drive our buying decisions.

If branding becomes disconnected and “an end in and of itself,” it starts to lose touch with the chain of “means” that translates brand awareness into action. I saw a particularly acute example of this in a recent meeting: a brand agency presented research showing each point of movement in its unaided brand awareness metric translated into X of additional revenue. I didn’t dispute the finding, as I believed it to be true. What was missing was the long chain of interdependent “means” taking us from there to here. It was like saying that each inch of rain translated into X increase of revenue at the local farmer’s market. We’re jumping from “A” to “Z” without worrying about the 24 intervening letters.

“SEM is clearly a means — it’s a step to driving a conversion event (typically a sale).”

As I mentioned last week, presence on the search page is very often a critical intermediate step between the lofty heights of brand-building and the nitty-gritty of bringing cash in the door. In fact, if you take the time to understand how search is typically used in the purchase process with your typical buyer, it typically falls into the “no-brainer” category, because the prospect has intent and is completely open to being persuaded. Which brings me to Rob’s next point:

“Branding has value, so the war Gordon describes doesn’t have to end with total victory and branding’s extinction.”

As effective as search is, it’s a channel with built-in limitations, including available inventory. If there is no awareness, there is no inventory. People can’t search for something they don’t know exists (at least, not yet). Branding creates awareness, which, if the dots are connected properly, eventually turns into intent. And when intent is present, search is very effective at converting that intent into action. The chain then is Awareness – Intent – Action, which is a variation on the venerable AIDA branding model: Attention – Interest – Desire – Action. If you combine the two you end up with Awareness – Interest – Desire – Intent – Action, or AIDIA. You need branding at the front end, to create awareness, spark interest and create desire. You need search at the back end to allow prospects to act on their intent and discover how to take action.

It’s interesting to note that the original AIDA model jumped all the way from desire to action without much explanation on how to get there. Given that two of the steps –“interest” and “desire” — seem pretty similar, it’s odd that there is such a huge chasm between the domain of branding and the ultimate transaction itself. The AIDA model was definitely biased towards the front end of the marketing process.

I think what digital has done, especially through search, is to provide much more granularity and clarity on the many steps you can take to get from desire to action. But, as Mr. Schmults reminds us, none of these steps is “an end unto itself.” They’re part of a journey. They depend on each other. And each is passed through by your prospects as they travel down the path of purchase.

To come full circle, that was my original point. I’m not calling for the abolition of branding. I’m just asking that we take the time to understand the journey our customers take, and be there at each step.