Why brands shouldn’t listen to consumers if they want to evolve

In this guest column, consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier says consumer uproar over Arnott's decision to rebrand Shapes is just one reason why brands cannot look to consumers when evolving their products.

Adam Ferrier

Have you ever been involved in transforming a brand. Helping it carefully migrate from one offering to another? I’ve done it a number of times now, with a degree of mixed success. It’s a tough business.

In light of the recent Arnott’s Shapes changes, and to all brands facing this tough dilemma I thought it might be useful to share a few observations.

Consumers Don’t Know 

Perhaps the greatest brand transformation ever is Steve Jobs taking over Apple the second time. Famous for not asking consumers what they wanted and not getting them to predict their needs, he was both incredibly consumer centric yet quick to dismiss the consumers expressed opinion.

If you’re going to evolve a brand, then there is one person you should never ask what to do and that’s the consumer. Consumers are terrible at explaining why they do the things they do, and even worse at predicting how they will act in certain situations or to new offers.

There are many ways of getting valuable consumer insight – asking them what they think is rarely one of them.  If you find yourself asking the consumer about your potential new product you are more than likely asking the wrong person.

People Don’t Like Losing

By now everyone is familiar with loss aversion. This is the universal concept whereby a loss is felt with around twice the intensity of a relatively equal gain. So when evolving a brand – try and extend first and cutback (quietly) later.

If it is ‘one in and one out’ then the net-net impact on the consumer is that have significantly lost out (as the ‘one out’ is twice as bad as the ‘one in’ is good). Thus the consumer feels an overall sense of loss and will react negatively.

Consider McDonald’s and their ‘Create Your Taste’ range – no one loses. They add things to the menu and if it sticks with the consumer it stays.

Don’t Tell Me, Give Me Autonomy

Did you know that many of the ice-creams you buy from a supermarket don’t have cream in them? Including many of your favourites and most indulgent? Possibly. Over the years the cream has been replaced with other ingredients leaving a product more like ice-lean than ice cream.

However, the ice cream people didn’t shout about this, they could have (e.g. we did it so it’s healthier) but they decided not to.

To this end, giving consumers control over something, a sense of letting them find out on their own terms can be very effective (ask Aldi).

We all yearn for autonomy, a sense that we are in the drivers seat of the decisions we make. I know personally when someone tries to sell me on change I’m not ready for makes me dig my heels in. No one likes to have an opinion forced on them – people like to come to their own conclusions

In Closing

Managing consumer facing change is one of the greatest challenges facing marketers. Consumers thrive on consistency and like things to be kept simple. They prefer tweaks not revolutions, they want us to downplay not play-up, change, especially to brands they have a strong attachment to.

However, perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned is from personal experience – and it’s a two-fold lesson. Firstly, people pretend to care but really they don’t, and secondly, media outlets have an extraordinarily large amount of content they need to find each day.

The hype should be expected and tends to blow over quickly (and often results in increased sales). Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper (insert more up to date metaphor here).

Adam Ferrier, partner and CSO at Cummins&Partners. Author of The Advertising Effect: How to change behaviour


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