For some time now I have been exploring the role of meaning in marketing. I think being perceived as meaningfully different is the origin of a brand being able to command a price premium.
So if your brand is one that aspires to command a price premium, then you need to understand what makes it meaningfully different from the alternatives.
But meaning is in the eye of the beholder. So much as marketers seek to add meaning to their brands, the user also adds their own unique meaning to what the brand stands for, and the latter may be far more important than anything the marketer says or does.
Marketers provide a sense of what the brand stands for; a collective meaning. And then consumers add their own unique interpretation; a layer of meaning that is more motivating to them than the collective one.
This is not to say that collective meaning isn’t important. Any symbolic power wielded by brands is rooted in a collective understanding of what these brands represent. Perceptions of powerful brands such as Coca-Cola, Apple iPod, and Harley Davidson, consist of well-known and widely shared associations, which form a base on which people can add their own individual, subjective reactions.
So a collective understanding is critical to the power of brands. But those shared impressions may be less compelling than the individual, simply because they are less specific and personally relevant.
Interestingly, I am not sure that the nature of those individual impressions really matters too much. After all, people respond to impressions of the world around them not specific attributes. Ask me what color my wife’s eyes are and my memory fails me, but I can recognize her as soon as I see her, even in a crowded room.
My colleague, Gordon Pincott, suggests the same is true of brands. We don’t consciously remember everything we have ever experienced about a brand rather we retain a general impression of it. Gordon uses the word “gist” to describe this mental impression. And that mental impression is all important. It defines our relationship with the brand.
But in order for the gist to have an effect, it must first be triggered by something. Just as differences in hair color and physique prompt my ability to recognize my wife in a crowded room, so too we respond to specific elements of a brand. It could be the color, text, sound, shape or smell that triggers our impression. Knowing what the most salient triggers are and the strength and valence of that impression is really important. Because in today’s crowded and fast-paced world, you only have a second to make a good first impression.
Knowledge of a brand’s most prominent recognition triggers can help determine what is featured in ads and in-store to create a more coherent impression of the brand across all touch points (for more on this topic, see Gordon Pincott’s point of view, “The Keys to Brand Success”).
From a research viewpoint, it makes me wonder about the utility of some of the brand equity questionnaires I see. Many of them are loaded up with attributes that are more important to the marketer than the consumer, and which usually correlate very strongly with generic statements like “never lets me down” or “I love this brand.”
If we really want to know what inspires those reactions, I believe we need to adopt a more personal approach, such as qualitative interviews embedded in surveys or in-depth interviews to find out not just what makes the brand meaningful, but what triggers those impressions most strongly.
So what are your thoughts on the subject? Do individual impressions matter? And do marketers really know what triggers that all important first impression? How can we best use research to understand these factors?
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