Why conflict can be good for your brand

Kathy Benson

  • Chief client officer, Ipsos
Kathy is the chief client officer for Ipsos Australia and New Zealand and has 29 years’ experience as a strategic researcher specialising in assisting companies and brands to stay in sync with consumers and abreast of the latest consumer trends and behaviours. Kathy has held the Australian Market and Social Research Society’s professional accreditation of QPMR (Qualified Practicing Market Researcher) since its introduction in 2002, and conducts both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, combining advanced research capability with strong strategy skills. Kathy has directed many large-scale and complex studies for clients across CPG and FMCG, telecommunications, financial services, entertainment and tourism, retail, education, infrastructure and transport. Kathy has a Bachelor of Business (with Distinction) and a Master of Marketing from Queensland University of Technology.

Everyone hates conflict. Well, mostly everyone.

Conflict is essentially a clash. When between two people, it’s just about always a clash of views or opinions. And when it comes to this type of conflict, more than the misaligned views themselves, what we typically hate the most is our physiological response. If there was no physiological response, we may well be able to happily engage in conflicts several times a day and walk away unperturbed. 

The truth is conflict generates a range of physiological responses that are just plain uncomfortable. Heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, racing pulse and potentially blood thumping through our head to the point of headache. After a particularly intense conflict, your body can feel like you have just run a marathon and not because you have allowed all those physiological responses to flow unchecked, but more from trying to keep them restrained and under control.

And that is the rub: We hate conflict because we hate losing control. But maintaining control can be downright painful. Physically painful.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, those physiological responses are here to stay. They are part of our evolutionary success - they are, in fact, the reason for our survival as a species. Those responses are our body reacting to danger, even when in our modern world the conflict might be as simple as disagreeing about what to get for dinner. When there is conflict, we as humans are built to take action.

If we hate conflict so much, then why might it be necessary for brand success?

To answer this, we need to step into the realm of Behavioural Science and the Dual Process Theory (DPT).  Ever since Daniel Kahneman published his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, the marketing world has been enthralled with the pursuit of understanding and utilising System 1 thinking to increase the efficacy of marketing initiatives and drive the growth of brands. It is now commonly agreed System 1 is the fast, instinctive and emotional thinking that leads to quick decisions that may or may not be logical or rational. There is a widely held premise that marketing needs to plug into System 1 decision-making to grow brands (See: How Brands Grow. Byron Sharp. 2010)


Figure 1 The Dual Process Theory (DPT)

Lately, however, there has been a new conversation emerging. We now know there is much more going on in the brain than System 1 or System 2 operating in a clean-cut, linear sequence known as the Dual Process Theory (DPT). Ipsos behavioural scientists now know and can prove both systems often operate simultaneously and when they do, something very powerful can happen. 

Scientific thinking is evolving from DPT and the Ipsos Global Science Organisation has recently released the Dynamic Decision Making Model (DDMM) as an additional explanation. DDMM suggests that at the point of intersection of System 2 disrupting System 1, the two systems work simultaneously as an ‘Executive Control’ or adaptive processing system. It is when this happens that new mental pathways can be built.


Figure 2 Dynamic Decision-Making Model

This new thinking doesn’t replace DPT, rather expands our knowledge on how it works. In fact, DDMM explains using System 1 interventions in our marketing efforts can be very useful in reinforcing existing behaviours. 

For example, if customers are buying and using a brand the way you want them to, and your objective is to reinforce this behaviour, then emotive-based System 1 interventions are effective. 

Sometimes in the behavioural science world, these System 1 interventions are called ‘nudges’. They are reminders, rewards and emotional reinforcements you are doing the right thing and to keep going. Essentially, these are System 1 interventions designed to protect, maintain and cultivate an existing mental pathway.

If marketers have a more ambitious goal in mind however, such as changing consumers from buying one brand or product to another, or adopting new ways of using a product, then a higher order intervention is required. Before we can stimulate the new behaviour, the marketer’s job is to firstly create a new mental pathway in the mind of the consumer that enables them to even contemplate engaging in the new behaviour. 

Neuroscience now proves new mental pathways cannot be developed through System 1 interventions. Instead, the marketer needs to use System 2 thinking to disrupt the automatic System 1, and in doing so will engage the master switch, that is, the adaptive processing system.  Through this disruption process, System 2 overrides System 1 until a new mental pathway is built.  Once that pathway is built, marketers can then move back to using System 1 interventions such as ‘nudges’ to reinforce the newly created mental pathway. 

How do we switch on System 2 to override System 1? We need to create conflict of course. We need to raise a tension, create an incongruency - in essence, we need to engineer a clash. New evidence as described in our model suggests as people detect conflict, they recruit additional processes even when already engaged in biased automatic reasoning. In simple terms, when conflict exists, System 2 will kick in to intersect with System 1, engaging our ‘Executive Control’ master switch and our human body will prepare for action. That action might manifest as physical movement, such as running away, or it might result in firing up and creating a new mental pathway in our brain. 

Which leaves us with one more question: What conflict and how to generate it? 

That is a discussion for another day.  


Tags: data-driven marketing, brand strategy, behavioural science

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