Eat Your Greens: APG London book launch

I recently spoke at the Eat Your Greens book launch and thought I’d share the slides and write up my notes from the talk.

The APG asked me to do a 10 min precis of my chapter, which would be easier if I’d written a book, but is more of a challenge when it only takes about five minutes longer to read.

So, I tried to apply Raymond Lowey’s design principle of “most advanced, yet acceptable” to retain the thrust of the argument but with some fresh material.

A pernicious myth has taken a stranglehold over our industry in recent years and its grip appears to be tightening.

As Eaon Pritchard notes in his chapter, back in 1993, the bestseller The One To One Future was published.

It was hailed as a revolution in marketing, offering a way to increase profits by selling to fewer and more loyal customers.

The way to do this was to build relationships with one customer at a time.

And it quickly became the blueprint for new marketing thinking.

Never ones to miss a trick, the management consultants jumped on the trend, discarding the consistent patterns of buying behaviour Andrew Ehrenberg had been quietly documenting for several decades.

Fast forward to 2016 and McKinsey were describing “digital personalisation at scale’ as ‘marketing’s holy grail’”.

Bain & Company stated that the “segment-of-one is disrupting the conventional marketing and sales funnel”.

And PwC declared that: “Personalisation is critical for marketers seeking to enhance customer centricity and engagement.”

Elsewhere, Experian emphatically concluded that “to be effective, marketing communications should be tailored to individuals, regardless of channel”.

And the advent of digital, and the increasing amount of data available on people, appears to have finally placed this within the reach of marketers.

Keith Weed recently told Marketing Week that “for the first-time brand builders can have a direct relationship with consumers and mass personalisation is a possibility.”

The implication being all marketing communications would benefit from being more personalised.

Along the way, it’s caused a funny thing to happen to advertising.

We’ve started to confuse it with direct response marketing, which has always been data-driven, and has always aimed to get as personal as possible.

As co-author Doc Searls memorably writes, “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”

The more data-driven we become, the more we lose sight of the fundamentals: advertising creates demand and direct response marketing aims to fulfill it.

Returning to where this myth started, the conclusions drawn in The One to One Future are based on the success of “thousands of smaller enterprises”.

It’s always struck me as rather strange that marketers of brands that successfully sell to hundreds of millions, if not billions worldwide, feel they have more to learn from small companies that sell to a few thousand.

As Nassim Taleb states: “What works on a small scale almost never expands to a large scale”.

To paraphrase Rory Sutherland, small businesses grow by changing shape.

And lest we forget, most of the brands we work for are large, established ones.

As Charlie Ebdy discovered in his IPA Excellence Diploma paper, the average age of IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix winners is 85 years old.

We are primarily in the business of helping big brands stay big.

It was in reading a relatively obscure psychology paper that I really came to appreciate why the idea brands should aim to personalise all communications is wrong.

In it, a psychology professor called Harry Triandis talks about cultural syndromes, which he describes as the pattern of shared attitudes, beliefs, and norms organised around a theme.

In any culture, he demonstrates that complexity (in economic, political or social standards), individualism (prioritising autonomy and personal goals), and looseness (in rules and values) are always intertwined.

On the flip side, he shows that simplicity, collectivism, and tightness are equally connected. Any move towards one entails a corresponding shift towards the related syndromes.

We often forget when talking about brands finding a place in culture that they can never escape being part of it in the first place.

Coca-Cola is a quintessential American brand that shapes our view of the United States as much as it’s shaped by our view of the country and its people.

And so if mass market brands form an integral part of objective culture, like a society, we can use them as the organising theme to which this theory is applied.

I think the reason why the pursuit of personalisation at the expense of mass communications is wrong for larger brands to adopt starts to then become clearer.

Targeting individuals requires greater complexity in the approach and a looser range of contextual messaging.

To be relevant to the individual, the brand must relinquish control of a unifying idea to establish unique meaning.

And prioritising the individual inevitably means adopting a more complex and looser communications plan.

However, I believe mass market brands must always be:

1. Simple in making decision making easier.

2. Collective in creating shared associations and meaning.

3. Tight in their portfolio and positioning.

Unlike a society, where the starting point is individualism or collectivism, for a brand, I believe the starting point must always be simplicity.

And that’s because its primary role is to reduce the cognitive burden.

Risk expert Gerald Ashley makes a useful analogy when he describes “a watch as complicated but not complex”: “When we open it up there’s a whole heap of complicated gears and springs, but its outcome or objective is simplicity itself — it just tells the time.”

Whether it’s simplifying choice, signalling an identity, or communicating a position everyone can grasp, the brand is a tool for simplification.

In the same way humans have always created hierarchies to ensure we don’t waste time and energy learning how to treat each other, we also rely on brands as buying shortcuts based on shared knowledge and understanding.

Creating intersubjective meaning around the brand requires it to reach and affect people who may never consider buying it.

If it fails to demonstrate what it stands for amongst non-buyers, it risks losing the social dimension.

There’s no point buying a BMW to signal your social status, if no one else knows what a BMW stands for.

Part of the additional value of ‘wasting’ money advertising to non-buyers comes from signaling the brand’s superior quality to rivals who spend less on it.

People have never trusted advertising, but they’ve always trusted brands that advertise through mass media.

Advertising the brand’s name on TV to millions of people simultaneously is one of the most costly signals of a company’s belief in what it’s selling.

It’s also one of the most effective ways to establish implicit and immediate trust.

What other people think of a brand shapes what we think too.

Douglas Holt says that products acquire truths as they circulate through society. While Judie Lannon believes that brands are mosaics of meaning that must be shared.

As the IPA’s research into the importance of extra share of voice demonstrates, even long-established brands with widespread recognition must work hard to maintain collective meaning in order to retain market share.

It’s why I’ve always disliked the notion of awareness because it suggests it’s a task that can be completed.

In a 2009 psychology paper ‘From drugs to deprivation: a Bayesian framework for understanding models of psychosis’ the authors talk about perception as a handshake between top-down and bottom-up processing models.

Top-down models predict what we’ll see and bottom-up ones perceive the real world. The two meet in the middle to calculate a prediction error. Low enough, and it’s smoothed into a consensus view of the world. Too high, and it registers surprise, causing us to reconcile the two and adjust our priors.

Brands also act as a top-down processing model, guiding perceptions by predicting the experience we’ll have with the product or service based on our existing knowledge of it.

In that respect, the brand widens the confidence intervals, smoothing over any minor differences in our actual experiences. To achieve this, it must create a tight model of reality to anchor the brand.

Phil Knight believes that once you hit critical mass, “you can’t push it much further… otherwise the meaning gets fuzzy and confused, and before long, the brand is on the way out”.

As Nike’s 30 year old Just Do It campaign demonstrates, effective advertising must find new ways to repeat itself.

As well as a tight positioning, a company also benefits from having a tight portfolio.

As Steve Jobs famously warned Google’s Larry Page: “What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they’re dragging you down.”

Strategy requires sacrifice and that means keeping the focus of the brand tight in every respect.

In the same way a strategy is as much about what you shouldn’t do, as what you should, I think it’s when you examine what a Complex-Individual-Loose framework looks like, the implications start to become clearer.

So, for example, if the approach to measuring effectiveness needs to be shared across brands and categories, and needs to be simple and tight in how the measurement is undertaken, single source data should be prioritised ahead of market mix modelling, which requires bespoke models to be built each time.

Rather than go through each row, I thought I’d end by quickly touching on research, as I think it’s one of the more interesting suggestions.

A recent study in Nature Human Behaviour found that asking people how those in their social circle would vote beat asking how they themselves would vote in the recent French and US elections. It predicted Clinton would win 258 electoral votes versus the 232 she actually received. In contrast, Nate Silver’s preferred method of aggregating polls, predicted 323.

So, if we’re better at predicting what others will do than we are at predicting our own future behaviour, why don’t we focus on asking people what others will think and do?

If the associations attached to a brand are less about what the individual thinks, and more what they think others think, it makes more sense to track those too.

The Schelling salience hypothesis adds further weight to this: it demonstrates that when we’re coordinating our actions in any way, we ignore what’s salient to us and focus on what we think is salient to others.

In one study, students were asked to write down any year and number. With no incentive to match, the most common answers were selected by 8% and 11% of students respectively. When they were incentivised to do so, this proportion rose to 61% and 40%.

It shows that when we’re considering what other people think is salient, our response differs from what’s immediately salient to us. And so, for social goods like alcohol and clothing in particular, I think we should reconsider how we track brand equity.

I suspect we might find differentiation is more important than its been given credit for recently.

Human beings will not evolve in our lifetimes or the next. And so, what a brand must achieve, will not fundamentally change either. In fact, as more routes to market lead to a proliferation of choice, the need to reduce the cognitive burden becomes even more important.

Which is why I believe mass market brands must always:

  • Make buying as simple as possible.

And if simplicity is what a brand must achieve over complexity, then applying this framework it must also:

  • Establish collective meaning.
  • And be tight in its portfolio and positioning.

Recognising how entwined these three pillars are, and putting them into action, will always be critical to the long-term success of brands.

You can buy ‘Eat Your Greens’ here.