Millward Brown have recently shared with me one of the most interesting pieces of data that I’ve ever seen about brands:
A note on the data
First some context. This chart is based on data gathered using facial recognition technology used in ad testing to try and diagnose people’s responses to ads based on whether or not they smile, frown, look confused or angry. As I understand it, they’ve used this technology to see the ‘valence’ (the extremity of your facial response) when exposed to brand identities and other imagery that helps to put people’s response to brands into context with how much emotion they feel for things in general. I am told that the data on this chart was conducted in the UK, amongst both men and women of a nationally representative spread of ages and socio-economic grades. However, it should be noted that two data points – ‘scantily clad women’ and ‘scantily clad man’ were asked only amongst men and women respectively (not particularly modern in not accounting for those who may be attracted to the same sex…). Also, the Lego faces have nothing to do with how the data was collected – this is merely Millward Brown’s creative licence in how to bring alive how much people smiled or frowned in the test.
The positive side of facial recognition research is that it’s not measuring what people think they should say in response to a researcher or their questionnaire so is free from some of the biases inherent in other research techniques. You’re getting a more instinctive emotional response, like what Malcolm Gladwell described in ‘Blink‘ or Daniel Kahneman calls a ‘System 1’ style response in ‘Thinking fast and slow’. It’s not the only way to measure how people feel about brands but it is a very good one.
The conclusions from this data are insightful, beguiling (why do naked women give more pleasure to men than naked men do to women?) and depressing (how could washing powder beat Mandela FFS Britain?). However, first and foremost it is aiming to answer the question ‘Do people feel strongly about brands?’.
As the title says, we don’t really care
In response to this question the great British public have given a resounding ‘whatever’. On average, brands really don’t make us feel much at all. A very slight moving of the sides of the mouths upwards – like the polite strain on someone’s face when you’ve tried really hard to tell them a rather weak joke – is the best most brands achieve in the research. Compared to things we really care about, things that either really warm our cockles or totally boil our piss, brands are a humdrum flatline of insignificance.
Even, Apple, YES APPLE, gets only a minimal response. Let us not forget Apple is the world’s most valuable brand, a brand which at one point didn’t need advertising because people were so keen to broadcast their new products in social media, whose founder is such a cult in his own right that he can inspire Michael Fassbender to play him in a movie, and most importantly for us in advertising… the brand we always use to make our other clients feel bad for not being quite as cool and clever as.
And the response when we put the über-brand, the thinking brand persons brand, in front of representatively sampled Britain?
“Uh. What’s that? Apple? Hmmm. Yeah, whatever….” snoozes the voice from the real world.
So here we have it, fundamental evidence from one of the gold-standard research agencies in the marketing world that despite the hours of blood sweat and toil from marketeers and their agencies, all the bluff and bluster, fancy theories and high falutin’ marketing philosophies we cherish, and let us not forget, the billions and billions of pounds, dollars, renminbi and rupees spent year after year people really don’t feel very strongly about brands.
Its a big conclusion, and one that begets further questions:
- If nobody cares about brands what is the point of marketing?
- If nobody cares about brands how should marketing focus its efforts?
- Why is Cadbury the exception to this rule?
If nobody cares about brands what is the point of marketing?
It would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that people not caring about brands means that marketing is a waste of time. Whether or not that justifies all of the effort and money thrown at marketing is another question but actually Millward Brown’s data reaffirms the need for marketing.
The truth of this data is that for most people, most of the time, and with regard to most brands, we really don’t care that much. We are fundamentally disinterested. When we’re watching TV, browsing the internet, even when we are shopping, we are disinterested in brands even if we are using them. For the vast majority there are far more interesting things to do in our lives than think about brands unless we are being paid to do so. So whilst the marketing team may devote a huge amount of time and effort getting interested in their new variant of anti-perspirant the people whom they need to target are just not that interested when they’re outside of a paid research session and doing what is generally known as leading their lives.
Anton Gursky’s photograph ’99 Cent’ sums up how we feel about brands most of the time – “Too much meaningless choice, AAAGGHHH, get me out of here!!!”
As Byron Sharp’s Ehrenberg Bass Institute has demonstrated at length in their ‘How Brands Grow’ studies, and as Martin Wiegel’s excellent blog has highlighted often, brands are most likely to grow when attracting infrequent or light users of their brands to use them more.
The point of marketing is therefore to bring your brand to the notice and interest of people who are mostly highly disinterested in brands in general, and who are probably not that interested in your brand in particular. To create interest amongst the disinterested is the point of the whole exercise. This is how marketing and advertising work and this is how brands grow. Creating interest amongst the interested is easy – the fact that most people aren’t interested is why marketing can be hard, why it is highly effective when done well, and why its worth spending time and money on and taking seriously for a business.
If nobody cares about brands how should marketing focus its efforts?
I’ve always struggled a bit with the ethics of what we do in advertising and marketing. On a bad day I find it hard not to agree with Bill Hicks when he said this. One of the things that Hicks railed against was the idea of commercial propaganda, filling our minds and media with meaningless brand-centric manipulation. However, in a free-market democracy brands can and will buy media space to try and improve their business chances. When that brings the new and interesting to our attention most people don’t mind. But when brands use marketing as a form of brand-centric noise pollution it inspires comedians like Hicks to call on us all to do a Jonestown, and artists like Banksy to capture public sentiment with art like this:
(Image from here)
Surely marketing which is pure of heart would try and find a meeting point between the world of the brand and the world of the people who they want to listen to hear their messages? Yes, marketeers, its your media time and space that you’re paying big dollar for, but its also public time and space that you’re colonising with your messages. It’s the lives, living rooms, and free time of people that brands insert themselves into. And what’s going on for people there is as important as what messages you could choose to communicate. In one word, marketing needs to show respect.
Too often I’ve seen the marketing process become a kind of self-brainwashing exercise that means that when the rubber hits the road and we need to get those disinterested people out there interested in a brand, our priorities are all over the place. Too often we hothouse ourselves into a position where all we can think about is what we want to say about our brand. When this happens we find it impossible to engage with what people might actually be willing to hear. This leads to the marketing which as Jim Carroll has written, shows brands that have become “puffed up on their own self-importance”. The result of that attitude when taken to the disinterested masses is like being a religious zealot at a meeting of atheists – nobody wants to listen to you.
All of us need to remind ourselves constantly that the obsession we have with our brands is an attitude that is only shared by the very weird amongst our customers. And marketing shouldn’t be about marketing to the very weird amongst our customers unless you’re maybe Skittles. Maybe we need to shift the balance of time we spend talking and thinking about our brand in meetings and reorient it more towards thinking and talking about the lives of the disinterested people we need to attract to our brands. This latter point is the argument of Chief Culture Officer author Grant McCracken who has called for the study of culture to be brought to the top table of businesses.
With this in mind here are some thoughts proposing how we should focus our efforts in marketing and advertising:
- Show respect for the fact that our potential customers often do not share our obsession with our brands
- Communicate with respect for the perspective of the disinterested people who are trying to get on with living their lives whilst we are trying to sell them things
- Rebalance the overwhelming majority of time we spend thinking about what our brand can say towards time spent thinking about culture, people and the lives they lead
When I see things like the new Specsavers ad I see a brand that doesn’t need my little soapbox lecture – they realise that bringing back Basil Fawlty to our living rooms is far more likely to get the interest of the disinterested than wanging on about the latest reformulation of their tortoiseshells.
I like this example as its not Apple, nor Nike, nor any of those brands that are the tried and tested sources of inspiration for the marketing world – its a humble chain of British shops that sells glasses. In 2014 an IPA effectiveness case study demonstrated that this campaign has added £1.1bn of incremental profit for Specsavers since it launched. Rich reward for respecting the fundamental disinterest of a TV viewing audience.
Why is Cadbury the exception to the rule?
It’s probably worth broader reflection than I have space for in this already rather long post. However, without doing a disservice to the Cadbury marketing team or their agencies I have an instinctive explanation for this. Chocolate is a highly pleasurable thing – science says that chocolate releases the same pleasure chemicals in the brain as cannabis (I’ve heard it proposed that combining the two is the real motherlode) and hence draws a strongly positive instinctive reaction from us. In the kind of test Millward Brown have conducted, Cadbury is gaining from the very strong instinctive pleasure association we have with chocolate. Whilst owning and spending time on an iPhone might be pleasurable experience it does not flick the same immediate positive sensory pleasure buttons as a famous chocolate brand. Hence Cadbury is functioning as an interesting exception to the rule but only really one which can be used as an inspiration for brands that deliver the same kind of sensory and psychoactive pleasure rewards as cannabis and chocolate.
It is important to add, to the credit of the Cadbury marketing and advertising team, that the famous ads that brought to life the ‘joy’ of Cadbury though Gorilla outfits, Phil Collins and eyebrows, were probably therefore tapping into and reinforcing one of the most fundamental associations with the Cadbury brand. I can imagine that this has done nothing to harm Cadbury’s position as one of the few brands that makes us feel something positive. Clearly the next campaign needs to open on Hitler smoking a fag and stroking a snake in a dirty bathroom to then be covered in delicious milky chocolate to launch the new ‘scoff your hate’ range but we don’t want the research to write the ads now do we….