Should brands tell the truth? ~ Brand Mix

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Should brands tell the truth?

We can't go through life doubting our abilities at even the most basic tasks. We have to have some confidence in ourselves.

Yet research continues to show that, below a veneer of competence, we are extraordinarily inept. For example, wouldn't you think that most people, asked to choose which of two jams they liked the best would notice if, immediately afterward, they were offered the wrong one when asked to explain their preference? You would. But, in fact, Lars Hall and colleagues found out that only 20% of the people they tested thought they'd been offered the wrong jam, even when the jams in question were as different as Spicy Cinnamon-Apple and a bitter Grapefruit.

This example of choice blindness shows that we're just not very good at using our senses and we're easily confounded. (Puts the famous Folgers instant coffee ad into perspective, doesn't it?).

To compensate for our sensory failings, our brain adopts some interesting strategies:

1) The use of other cues
I previously described an experiment where a group of CalTech researchers showed that people's preference for wine was much more influenced by how expensive they thought it was than what was actually in the bottle. What made the experiment really interesting was that the CalTech scientists had their subjects wired up to an fMRI machine. This showed that wines labeled as high-priced fired up the medial orbitofrontal cortex (responsible for the cognitive processing of decision-making) which then sent out instructions to the rest of the brain telling it that these wines tasted better, overriding any evidence from the taste buds to the contrary. Once our cortex has spoken, that is our reality.

2) What does everyone else think?
Hartbeat has a great article about choice which shows, among other things, the strong influence of society and culture on the decisions we make. We will jump on one bandwagon, then another, sometimes reversing ourselves. Once we were happy with water from taps, then we had to have our water in plastic bottles and now, maybe, we're going back to water from taps. Our perceptions flip-flop in synch with whatever bandwagon we're on. We see what we want to see.

Let's recap. Brain's ability to judge things by our senses? Low. Influence of other cues, culture or society? High.

So, should brands tell the truth? Yes, of course. But what truth? Just the facts, pure and simple? There's a school of thought that, in a world where traditional advertising is losing ground, marketers should go back to basics--just make sure that they make the best product and let the rest take care of itself. But such thinking credits we consumers with abilities to discriminate and form our own independent opinion that the evidence contradicts.

What counts is how people perceive brands and our perceptions can be shaped by many more things than what's in the product. As marketers, it would be a mistake for us to ignore all the other opportunities for influence in a misguided belief that truth can be measured by reality alone.

Photo by Sean Rogers1 on Flickr


Marc Lichtenstein said...

I think brands should tell the truth by developing an identity, and then sticking with it if it works. Brands that abandon their identity only wind up losing their market position and that erodes their ability to gain trust with consumers.

In a market of parity products (like jam), the brain is led by brand perceptions which will be reinforced by the product experience. For example, Smuckers jam is a brand whose identity is one of old-time heritage, so there's an implied quality and folksy perception. Does it taste any better than a generic jam from Safeway? Probably not. But after all these years of "with a name like Smuckers it has to be good", they have stayed true to their brand identity, and have continued to be the #1 brand in their category. Most consumers can't even name another brand of jam.

Great blog post Martin.

Martin Bishop said...

@marc: Thanks for the comment and the Smuckers example. Perfect.

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