Self reporting using mobile technology has been all the rage for the last couple of years. A camera in every pocket has proved an opportunity too good to refuse for data hungry researchers.

We embrace the technology. It would be churlish not to. However our experience is that smartphone self-reporting is far from a stand alone solution. The quantity of data produced is considerable, it needs careful sorting and the relevance understood; ultimately it needs curation. As a foundation pre-task smartphones open opportunities into understanding that are unparalleled, but that data then needs to be qualified otherwise more questions are raised than answered.

[animated gif by Brad Jonas]

Marketing books frequently favour hyperbole about intellectual rigour, driven largely for reasons of self promotion. Research agencies continually espouse the latest ‘patented’ methodology, which on closer examination the mechanics of which are far from transparent.

From the 1920s the principal of the subconscious have been influencing the thinking of marketeers. But the general approach of equating the subconscious with the irrational is simplistic and wrong. The dichotomy between being rationally driven and subconsciously driven is a false one.

We behave in a rational but subconscious way. The brain’s subconscious brand choices are strongly biased towards optimising reward, based on our personal goals. Our brain’s search engine pulls out from our vast memory the brand that can best and most reliably satisfy our goals in the given situation. Goals are highly situation and category-specific and can change from moment to moment. End result is the brain behaves in a rational and goal-optimising way.

“The brain uses a fixed set of rules or criteria to decide which brand best satisfies its needs in a given time, place and context” – Branding with Brains, 2010.

For this task it integrates a wide ranges of available information, both from our long-term memory and from our senses.

This process is set in motion by a subconscious goal or need, a thirst or hunger, or perhaps to buy a present. Brands we might say, fight out a ‘battle of awareness’ under the rules of the algorithm.

The brain’s brand-choice algorithm is based on the brand that best fits our present purpose and has signalled this to us this most frequently and intensely in the past.

We cannot significantly influence this algorithm, but must accept it as a given. To develop marketing that has the best chance of achieving this algorithm, three principles should therefore be the guide:

Principle 1 – Relevance

Is it relevant to the target group and distinct from competitors?

Relevant brands are better linked to the dopamine or reward system in the brain, which strongly influences our behaviour. Brands that are not distinctive tend to repress each other in the battle for awareness.

Principle 2 – Coherence

Is it coherent and credible given the history of the brand?

Principle 3 – Participation

Is it conveyed in the most participatory way possible?

Adhere to these principles. The unconscious is always at some-point consciously conceived.

The marketing landscape is rapidly changing, objectivity is needed. Mounting competition from emerging markets, market fragmentation, the explosion of the media landscape, the growing importance of word-of-mouth and the rise of consumer control are all making marketing increasingly complex and the value of strong brands ever more explicit.

  • Competition is increasing, as more products jockey for position in crowded markets. Look at any aisle next time you do your weekly shop.
  • Consumers are now “market experts” within minutes, thanks to the internet on smartphones and ipads
  • Differences in product quality within categories are no longer so stark, therefore consumers evaluate wider issues such as the pedigree of the  company, i.e. ethical and environmental considerations – “What is it’s green policy? Is it an ethical employer?” The company has become as important as the product itself.
  • Media consumption is now so divergent. Whilst a prime time TV ad may have reached the target audience (and many more) by default in the ’80s, now multi-platforms and multi-content mean messages must be bang on content and medium to succeed.

Therefore companies must establish:

  • What associations must a brand evoke in the target audience?
  • How can the brand be differentiated from it’s competitors?

Positioning ensures a brand stands out; attracting the attention of consumers and evoking associations that entice the consumer to buy that product. Products can easily be copied, but unique and relevant positioning make a product’s market place a lot harder to steal.

Positioning is a framework, providing very clear lines on which a product should be promoted. The clearer these lines are defined the greater the success of the differentiation.

Meeting a stock cube brand manager at a kids party BBQ recently I was reminded of the distorted outlook seen in many occupying that position.

Whilst the burgers charred on the griddle, he made small talk about work. The conversation quickly reminded me of frequent battles experienced trying to persuade corporate brand managers that contrary to the expectations of many, their products aren’t as interesting as they might believe. Unlike his, our next meal does not rest on increased volumes of stock cubes flying off the supermarket shelves. Stock cubes are a small and insignificant part in most people’s lives: and rightly they should be.

The need to remind brand managers of this should be not under-estimated. The recent fascination with laddering seemingly requested in any circumstance is a good example of this.

Laddering is a systematic exploration of the links between basic product / service attributes and the meanings, feelings and association they impart. The theory is higher-order emotional benefits and values have more motivational power than the direct benefits and attributes and are more important than the latter (Bystedt et. al., 2003).

Kelly’s theory rests on the assumption that people are actively engaged in making sense of and extending their experience.

Laddering is not a bad idea to understand underlying beliefs driving behaviour, at a personal level it can be effective. But it shouldn’t be stretched to suggest there is a conscious emotional back drop to every purchase that can be used as a framework for all.

Often people don’t have rational emotional feelings about stock cubes, products or brands in general. Most purchases are insignificant. We need to remember this. The focus should be on the person before the product. Understanding the person is the foundation for positioning. No amount of laddering work can help a product if it doesn’t solve a need. Without this; it’s a dud.