Consumers don't want your brands

11 Aug 2006|Added Value

Discovering the feeling: what connects people and brands.   What do you think consumers want?  Is it your brand? Your competitor’s brand?  Think again.  Consumers don’t want brands at all; they want results.  They want to feel a certain way; maybe sexy or powerful or accepted or competent.  Brands are just a vehicle to get them there. 

Neuroscientists are getting us closer to the holy grail of marketing insight: the “why” of brand choice.  Studies have revealed that human decision making is rooted in perceived outcomes – how we want to feel once a decision is made. 

Simply put, noted neuroscientist Professor Antonio Damasio says that consumers use only one criterion to make a decision: “how will I feel if I do that?” 

Brands are no different.  It’s not how we feel about the brand that really matters, it’s about how that brand makes us feel.  Every time we experience or engage with a brand, every time it speaks to us, it signals what we can expect to feel and is added to our broader knowledge about that brand and its category.  We use this knowledge to consciously or subconsciously choose one brand over another based on how we think each brand will make us feel. 

Mostly, we do this by relying on our “gut feeling”, not a purely rational cost benefit analysis.  Until recently, it was assumed that emotions were the antithesis of reason, with no place in decision making.  But today they are seen as the foundation upon which our thought processes are based. 

Think about BMW, for example.  If asked what you think of the brand, you might talk about precision engineering or mention the iconic kidney shape of the grill.  But if asked how you would feel driving a classic BMW down an autobahn, you’d probably talk about feeling successful or powerful or exhilarated.  How the brand makes you feel is crucial in how you relate to the brand and can be the most powerful trigger to purchase.

In his book, ‘Descartes’ Error’, eminent neuroscientist, Damasio says: “Far from interfering with rationality, the absence of emotion and feelings can break down rationality and make “wise” decision-making almost impossible.”

In other words, emotions underpin reason, making the rational and emotional inextricably linked.  Which means, each decision we make is based on both our rational experience and our emotional reaction. 

In the seconds before we make up our minds, we scan our full range of perceptions, knowledge, experiences, emotions and physical feelings.  We project ourselves into the various possible outcomes of our decision and we choose the one that most appeals to us. 

We remember this experience as either good or bad and store each one as part of our future decision toolkit.  We develop a range of “somatic markers”, like memory cue cards, for each set of experiences which become our decision making shortcuts.  In other words, we use our “gut” to anticipate how a decision will make us feel, now and in the future.

These breakthroughs in neuroscience have already influenced the marketing world.  Acknowledging the importance of emotions in decision making has made “emotions” the new buzzword in branding, resulting in the “Emotional Branding” concept. 

However, on the whole, this has just resulted in more emotional messaging being tacked on to communications.  The problem arises when the signalled feeling (communication) doesn’t match up to the actual desired outcome (experience).  For example, a brand might be sexy and people might think it is sexy, but if it doesn’t make its target audience actually feel sexy, then there is going to be a disconnect. 

Interestingly, this is where service brands most often fail.  Think about the number of times you’ve seen the communications of banks, hotels and call centres, who signal simplicity, ease of use, personal empowerment.  Often, your actual experience of those brands is about feeling frustrated and irritated.  Can you imagine if brands really committed to closing the gap?  Those that did would be far better positioned to build loyalty and long lasting relationships with their customers.

This thinking completely challenges the way we as marketers traditionally work.  Most brands aim to be consumer-centric, but they approach market insight or strategy by asking brand-centric questions: “why do you like this brand?”; “what is it about this brand that you like?” 

But by recognizing that consumers don’t desire brands – rather they desire an outcome, benefit or experience – we are able to hone in on the desired outcome and use it to resolve brand development issues with far more accuracy. 

For example, if we understand that buying nappies is not really about functional absorption power, but rather about a woman making a choice that helps her feel like she’s the best mum, we can develop our marketing strategies with much more precision.

The thinking explains why brand experiences are so important.  And it shows how every brand touch point and signal can collectively affect a person’s “somatic marker” about a brand.  It explains why the “residual feel” of communication affects behaviour.  And crucially, it changes the way we approach insight. 

We know that by asking ‘why, why, why’ we are forcing respondents to overrationalise.  More often than not, direct questioning in a research scenario results in respondents giving you a logical list of the functional benefits of the brand or a reflection of the imagery that its communication portrays.  But by using techniques that more clearly reflect the way our brains actually work when making decisions, we can get closer to the real reasons why consumers are choosing certain brands – and where the gaps are.  This translates into tighter brand portfolios with more compelling offerings.

As marketers, the real quest should be to develop and reinforce a “somatic marker” for our brands.  The brand should become the shorthand in consumers’ minds for the desired feeling that they are looking for in that given situation.  And every brand signal must help shape the belief of how the consumer can expect to feel. 

Some of these elements good insighters, marketers and advertisers have applied instinctively in the past, but now we understand with much greater precision what to do; what works and why.  The thinking challenges traditional research to the point that some see it as threatening to the industry, but like it or not, it is the future of branding. 

Getting to the heart of how brand decisions are made delivers better consumer insight. And better consumer insight means we can craft more relevant strategies, create more engaging brand communications and offer brand experiences that go beyond just measuring emotions or developing “Emotional Brands”.  It means creating brands that can actually deliver the feelings consumers truly desire.  Which, if we get it right, is good news for consumers and good news for brands.

Charles Broome
Added Value South Africa
Originally written for the annual Sunday Times Top Brands supplement

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