Why plausability is more important to your brand strategy than ever

Professor of marketing at Melbourne Business School and UNSW colleague apply mathematical process to brand behaviour to show marketers why they're generally labouring under a degree of self-delusion

Why marketing analytics is not about ROI calculation, but innovationThere is well-worn Venn diagram that describes three overlapping circles of ‘good’, ‘fast’ and ‘cheap’. The central point is usually labelled ‘impossible’. But that hasn’t stopped many brands trying to claim at least two of those attributes, if not occasionally all three – and failing badly.

It is a brand behaviour that professor of marketing at the Melbourne Business School, Ujwal Kayande, has been intrigued by for some time, thanks in part to a presentation his UNSW colleague, professor John Roberts, once saw delivered by a CEO at AMP.

“We had heard the CEO talking about AMP being large, and hence having the comfort of being a safe institution, but also needing to be agile and responsive to customer needs,” Kayande tells CMO. “The CEO is keen on doing this, but in the customer’s mind it doesn’t it make sense at all.

“Customer don’t necessarily allow you to be big and nimble, because they have a belief structure that if you are big you can’t be nimble, and if you are nimble you are really small.”

That led Kayande to ponder what was really going on in the minds of consumers, and to work with Roberts to apply mathematical models to existing psychological research.

“Our mathematical theory suggested that when you have two pieces of information that are disparate, customers become very uncertain about the claims that are being made,” he says. “And as a consequence of that uncertainty, they walk away from the product.

“There are hundreds of examples we assembled of products that tried to go against customer belief structures, and have been failures.”

One example is PepsiCo’s foray into ‘crystal’ and blue cola variants that were at odds with consumers’ expectations that colas should be brown. Another can be found at Volvo.

“When Volvo goes out and advertises being sexy and stylish it just sets up too many signals in the mind of the customers,” Kayande says. “There are other claims you can make that are far more plausible in the minds of customers that will actually generate the sort of response you are wanting from your marketplace.”

That is not to say brands can’t change what consumers believe to be plausible, but Kayande contends doing so requires more than just saying the words.

“You can push the boundary a little, but going too far generates a big penalty,” Kayande says. “And if you want to go really far, then you have to take customers on a brand’s migration path. You have to at least have some way in which you can allow them to believe what you are claiming.

“By just saying you are big and nimble, you are not going to be believable at all. That process of belief migration is something you have to work on in a very well-defined way. It is very difficult to change category belief structures.”

Read more: Why marketing analytics is not about ROI calculation, but innovation

Kayande and Roberts’ research has since been picked up by Melbourne-based brand growth specialists, Forethought Research, and applied to clients as a product called Prophecy Thoughts & Feelings.

Forethought’s managing partner and founder, Ken Roberts, says the concept of plausibility is increasingly important in a society where consumers are becoming more cynical and believe less of what they are told.

Rather than striving to be different, Roberts advises brands to focus more on understanding how people make decisions, such as the key drivers of price, emotion and quality, and ensuring those drivers are plausible when combined.

“It is about understanding the choice criteria they are using, and then being the best at that criteria,” Roberts says. “If you are communicating something implausible, you are wasting your advertising dollar.

“Most of the advertising that we see is not using attributes that the customers are using for choice. Saying we are Australia’s oldest bank is not a choice driver.”

There are brands which appear to break this model, such as the US East Coast-based low-cost airline JetBlue, which also has the best NPS scores of any US airline. Roberts says suggests they have successfully blended the non-complimentary attributes of ‘cheap’ and ‘great service’ due to the lived experience of their customers. But such exceptions are fragile.

“When we test that claim on the East Coast, it is plausible,” he says. “When we test it on the West Coast, it is impossible, because they are not well known. So they had to have a different proposition the West Coast.”

Ultimately, however, Roberts says brands generally are labouring under a huge degree of self-delusion, as an absolute minority of brands understand how people make choices. Roberts says this may be due to much of the focus of marketers today being on the channels they use, rather than how they are using them.

“This is a major brick in the wall as to why communications fail,” he says. “Consumers just immediately turn off.

“There has been a huge focus on ‘where do we say it’. But the next emerging area is ‘what do we say’, because along the way we have lost track of that.”

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu

         

 

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