Real consumers don’t have ‘brand conversations’. They use search

In this guest posting, Simon van Wyk argues that much as marketers might wish otherwise, most consumers don’t have emotional connections with brands

I have a background in marketing, but my understanding of branding seems at odds with the 2010 opinions I see from social media commentators, marketing and advertising agencies.   

LovemarksI read LoveMarks, but I don’t love brands. I read the definition which says: “Lovemarks reach your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without. Ever.” I don’t actually feel this way about any brand. My life is busy and I reserve that level of investment for the important people in my life, not the stuff I buy. I assumed other people felt the same.

I’ve read plenty on the social media debate about brand conversations. I don’t want a conversation with a brand. I just want what I need to make a purchase decision; when I’m having a conversation, that means something has gone wrong.

Conversation is about failure in the system. I’ve heard marketers talk about brand experience and brand aspiration and I never really bought any of it because I never felt the same way. I don’t have an emotional connection to a brand and most people I meet don’t, either. Hell, apart from groceries, most of my purchases, even toothpaste, are once a quarter. No emotional connection can survive that sort of neglect.

The Lovemarks language makes no sense in the context of real relationships. So by my reckoning it’s unlikely to make sense in a brand relationship. Finally, I don’t feel defined by anything I buy. If I did I’d assume something else was missing in my life.

How_brands_growI discovered Byron Sharp’s book How Brands Grow, where the South Australian academic makes a number of points based of extensive scientific testing of the facts that make complete sense to me. His model for brands looks a little different from traditional thinking.

It goes like this: Most of the purchases we make are irregular. Cars, cameras, TVs are once every five years, lots of consumer products are once or twice a year. So we don’t know a lot about these categories and we don’t know much about the brands in the categories. We’re hard pushed to remember the brands in a category and when we do it’s only a small number in the competitive landscape.

We use the brands we do remember as a shortcut to extensive research into a product category. So if I’m buying a new TV, I might be able to remember two or three brands in the category, say Panasonic, Sony and Samsung. Rather than spend a week researching the category I use these three as a shortcut to a detailed study. I have no knowledge of these brands, I have no love or in fact any feelings about any of them.

I can’t be bothered doing a full analysis of the landscape – like most people I’ve got too much on. So I do a perfunctory analysis using the internet, maybe ask a friend and talk to the sales assistant. My final reason for purchasing a specific brand might be related to any one of 100 reasons but most likely to be based on how I feel at the time. It’s got nothing to do with love, engagement or conversation.

All this is backed up by scientific research – this is actually how people deal with brands.

As Byron Sharp points out, “Brands compete for custom primarily in terms of mental and physical availability.” The key issue that brands have is to be remembered. It’s about salience – in other words, do I remember a particular brand in conjunction with a particular purchase?

What’s clear to me is that search, either paid or organic, is the most important element of branding. Why? Because the vast majority of search activity is somewhat generic ; a 50-inch flat-screen plasma TV, a medium-sized diesel 4WD, etc.

The outcome of this activity is a list of options. We know people scan the first two or three organic search options. If that doesn’t make sense, they’ll look at the paid search options. This quick scan is all we need to make a shortlist of options in our heads. If we see a few brands that we remember, that adds to the brand salience – if your brand is not there chances are you’ll be forgotten.

This behaviour has been confirmed by some of Google’s own research from back in 2007 where a study found that when a brand is in both the top sponsored and the top organic results, purchase intent increases by 8%, as well as revealing that consumers are 16% less likely to consider purchasing a brand that doesn’t appear on the search results page. In 2009 Omniture sponsored a paper that looked at this issue and found that search is 10 times more efficient than TV and 3.5 times more efficient than radio in raising top of mind awareness.

When you really understand the science of brands it all makes sense. So why, then, is this so contentious and so hotly debated? Byron Sharp says “Today marketing managers operate a bit like 19th century doctors: they are affected by the scientific revolution, but are not yet governed by it”

Look, I understand what the brand purists are saying. You need advertising to get into a consumer’s consideration set. I’m not suggesting doing away with advertising. But what I am suggesting is that every time you appear on a search results page, you are doing the most important branding job.

Connecting with someone in a category, when they are close to the point of purchase with the memory of your brand – there can be no better salience than this. Search is the most powerful branding tool in your marketing tool set. Make sure search is first place the brand budget is allocated, not the last.

Mumbrella welcomes guest posts on any topic related to media and marketing. We look for 6-700 words and seek articles that take a point of view on an issue. Articles that explain why the industry is desperately short of a certain expertise or service the author just happens to provide are generally rejected. Please send submissions to tim@focalattractions.com.au


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