Consumers look to purchase products and brands that are relevant to their needs. Self evident. But the ways in which they make choices are much more complex than quality or availability because they are so much more human.
As Martin Bishop has pointed out, numerous studies have shown that ‘different’ exists in the mind of the consumer rather than in the actual physical attributes of a product or brand. A brand is distinctive if people feel it’s distinctive; it’s worth paying for if it feels worth paying that amount for. At one level, as Seth Godin affirmed in his book All Marketers are Liars (later retitled All Marketers Tell Stories after members of the marketing fraternity reportedly took offense), that’s a testament to the power of story.
But – having a story doesn’t make you different, especially in a world now jammed with brand stories. The reason is straight-forward. It’s not the story itself that generates preference. It’s what the story appeals to.
1. Priorities – consumers buy into products that talk to the things that matter in their lives. But “things that matter” is not a static thing. As social attitudes change, what matters and the level of urgency that we have for its attainment also changes. Marketers often believe that people buy products and services because of their intrinsic goodness. That’s why they’re so keen to tell stories based on features. But powerful brands look to appeal to our wish to change the world. That world may be as immediate and personal as our own happiness, or as panoramic as global change. It must press a button in us that others can’t press in the same way. Perhaps it’s speed. It could be time, quality, excitement, finding, togetherness…And it changes. Not just as attitudes and priorities change, but also as competitors match a particular appeal or pitch a greater appeal to buyers.
Brands need pressure to work, not in a selling technique sense but in the sense of gathered energy, because without pressure there are no priorities. People look for inspiring answers to things that loom large. The critical insight is understanding why your brand delivers on a timely priority in an inspiring way.
2. Choice Cues – consumers are attuned to particular ideas and words. When we see or hear them, or they are re-presented to us in new and powerful ways, they capture our attention. Language attracts us not just because it communicates but also because, as Sheena Iyengar observed in her insightful TED presentation, it talks to our sub-conscious biases and that in turn decides our preferences.
Through background, culture, religion, life experience and many other prompts, words strike chords in us. We don’t just hear or read a word, we encounter an idea. If that idea rings a bell with us as consumers, we are more inclined to believe it, and the brand behind it.
Too often the language of brands lacks excitement, because marketers focus on what is being said rather than what is being communicated. They fail to inject emotional cues with primal appeal into their interactions. Things are natural or sustainable or organic or premium – but those words are so over-used that they lack distinction anymore. Iyengar gives a great example of the power of language in her presentation when she talks about choosing a nail polish called “Ballet Slippers” over one called “Adorable”. Language is not just about style. It’s about evocation and cadence, and the reactions they inspire. It’s those reactions that can make seemingly identical nail polishes feel different – because they talk to the consumer in different ways. If you want to build a brand that is different, pay attention to how you speak not just what you say. If you’re not singing as a brand, chances are you’re mumbling like everyone else. Too many marketers still confuse noise with connection.
3. What Others Say – we’re social creatures. We’re intrigued by what others like. As consumers we find that momentum exciting. Participation gives us a powerful sense of involvement and appeals to our sense of curiosity. That’s why millions of people are, right at this moment, head down in their phones pursuing a Pokémon through their real worlds. That’s why people wait in line for hours to visit the Sistine Chapel. And why review sites are such a powerful force in the hospitality and travel industries. Consumers want to know others’ experiences, and then they want to forge their own version of that experience so that they can then share it with others.
Powerful brands look to form communities for that reason. Because they know that in encouraging consumers to share what they love, they are encouraging more than exchanges between devotees. They are creating reasons to investigate.
Where we see an idea is perhaps as important as the idea itself. Place has huge potential to change perception and therefore interest. Like the story of the world-class violinist playing in the metro who goes unnoticed by passers-by, we ascribe value by association and we make choices based on the value we ascribe. I’ve watched too many marketers review channel as a distributional function and not as a perceptual endorser or game-changer.
Price too provides powerful choice signals. On the one hand, it rules people out – because it filters those for whom what’s on offer is more or less a priority. On the other, it reassures those who ascribe a brand a particular level of priority that they have found a product that will deliver what they are looking for.
My advice – place and price on the basis of priority. Do you want your brand to be a habit or a treat for example? And calibrate effort to choice so that purchases become rewards not transactions. Make people work harder to save money and encourage them to pay more to save time.
If you’re reworking your brand right now, it’s not enough to complete a story that fills out your philosophical detail. Your real challenge is to craft and tell a story that is true to who you are (so that it doesn’t ring hollow) and that serves as a reason for consumers to seek you out because they perceive in you something that’s worth walking past everyone else to get to.
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