The Priming Effect & Red Bull: Why sheer presence might be - but isn't sufficient.

Priming is an effect known in psychology since quite a while. Priming means: exposure to a certain stimulus facilitates the recall of/response to a later similar stimulus. In effect, priming "brings old thoughts close to the surface of the subconscious, thus making them more accessible and more likely to be used over less accessible (and possibly more relevant) thoughts." Priming is commonly seen as a pre-activation of a "node" in memory, making its re-activation (and that of connected memory elements) more likely.

An example would be a faster recognition of bird pictures vs non-bird pictures if a person was previously exposed to the "bird" notion.
Another example is this one: when people have been exposed to words related to "elder people" they move around more slowly than people who have not been primed.

One could say, that priming is simply a warming-up of certain concepts - making them more mentally available for being processed. There's no need for thoughts or beliefs to be involved in this process. It's really simply an increased mental availability. It even works if the initial priming stimulus was not consciously perceived or if it was not completely decoded. Basically, the brain is seen as a wired machine with some wires' conductivity being selectively increased by priming.

Well, while this concept of the psyche is not very welcome in our consumer-worshiping marketing rhetoric it nevertheless seems to be true to a great extent. Mere exposure to stimuli seems to pave the way for reactions to similar stimuli later on. All this without the person's awareness or consent. This potentially raises questions about the predominant conception of branding as something that works through provision of "sense" and through persuasion. Branding professionals tend to talk about "meaningful connections" and "brand belief systems" all the time. But there seem to be a lot of powerful effects going on far beneath this level of meaning. One of which is the priming effect.

In his book "How Brands Grow" Byron Sharp makes a strong case against the notion of meaningful branding. He rather argues that branding is simply about a facilitated recognition and mental availability vs other brands. So for him it's all about differentiation, but not meaningful differentiation. The more a brand gets correctly recognized and remembered in certain consumption and purchase situtations - the better. That's it. The only kind of "relevance" the brand needs is its connectedness to the category or occasion in question. So Coke's branding should be remembered when you are thirsty - or tired/unfresh, maybe. That's it. For him, the whole "Coke = Happiness" thing would be just marketing ideology (say, b*******). I highly recommend his book. It contains further very controversial but empirically backed claims. Here's a video of a lecture given by Mr. Sharp which features some of his findings:


Well, while this whole array of views seems to make "meaning" obsolete I believe that this is not the complete picture. I really do sympathize with the whole "less conscious" processing view of the consumer; but I also think that relevance, meaning and story do have their impact, too. And by this I don't mean that there are two types of processing - an conscious and a subconscious one - although such a theory definitely exists and is widely accepted (The Theory of Central vs. Peripheral Processing - also called the Elaboration Likelihood Model). What I rather mean is that - even assumed branding is ALL about priming and sheer mental availability - we as communicators still need ways to expose people to those stimuli and to make them process them. And we need to do this in a way we can afford.

My take on "meaningful brands" and "meaningful connections with consumers" is this:
It might well be that the meaning produced by brands is not directly causing people to buy. But it probably is a way to foster awareness and perception in the mediascape - hopefully for less money spent.

Let's take an example: Indeed, I do not actually believe that people drink Red Bull because it has this whole view on man's potential capabilities etc. (It's hard to accept this because marketers want to feel sincere about what they do and they want to feel like preacher men - that simply is the modern marketing habitus.) But, even if I don't believe in the actual direct effect of such a "brand ideology" on purchase I seriously do believe in its effect on communication clout. It's a way to integrate priming cues in a well packaged, retellable(!) narrative and most of all to legitimize the sheer communicative assault on the consumer. What often is forgotten is that consumers do not want to be advertised to. "Meaning", "emotional relevance", "storytelling" (and all the other alleged b*******) are ways to legitimize the intrusion in people's lives. Yes, a brand could get there by sheer pressure of stimuli exposure but is simply not clever and quite expensive.

Another important perspective is the one of the marketer herself. I believe that the mere creation of advertising and brand content needs "meaning" as a management tool. We need "internal narratives" to come up with ideas. And we need to persuade each other to employ certain cues. This might sound irrational, but actually it is quite efficient because a certain agreed on "meaningful ideology" helps everybody to meet decisions. And honestly, meeting decisions is the greatest problem in enterprises.

To sum this all up: Meaningful narrative is a lubricant for communications - internally and externally. Yes, it might well be that communication effect is all about priming brains with brand stimuli. But meaningful narratives are a smarter way to get to these effects. What needs to be challenged though is the euphoric and exaggerated rhetoric of "brand ideologies" as having real purpose and cultural value in this world. Marketing suffers from an excessive self-idealization.

I believe that with this view I managed to mediate between the two extremes:
a) brands as the sum of priming cues simply increasing mental availability and
b) brands as meaningful ideologies playing a real role in people's lives.

Still, I will remain interested in this whole issue and try to follow up on this in upcoming posts.

Brand personality - Is it helpful to see brands as persons?

What is brand personality?

Well, first of all it's a metaphor. It's not exactly reality - it's a construct used by branding professionals to define brands and communication guidelines. The underlying assumption of what is called brand personality is that consumers perceive brands as persons. e.g. J. Aaker’s definition is: "brand personality is “the set of human characteristics associated to a brand”.
This would imply that what psychologists have found out about the perception of persons would apply to the perception of brands. This post will introduce some psychological models that could be used when thinking about brand personality.

But let's not feel all too safe about the concept brand personality as such. Another purpose of this post is to sensitize the readers for the difficulties the concept of brand personality comes with.
As quite often in branding - the scientific basis for the working concept in use is quite weak or even absent. In branding we tend to rely on metaphors as if they were reality. If it seems intuitively right that brands have personality, then it gets widely accepted. Nobody is really interested in real empirical science. Nowadays marketing conventions are taught in every college which seemingly makes them "scientific" enough for most people.

But let's back to personality. As far as I know, it could not be empirically proven that people really do perceive brands as persons. To be honest, it is far more plausible that they perceive brands as organizations or institutions. Say, people might think of Nike as "they at Nike" and not as "Nike, the rugged bastard". Actually, the latest developments in brand communications like social media communications or CSR rather strengthen this institutional view of brands as opposed to a person type of view. But let's assume brand personality exists - say, people actually do think of brands as persons. Why is it that branding professionals care so little about what psychology actually says about "impression formation"? (The latter being the psychological term for what's supposed to be going on when people attribute certain personality traits to a person/brand.) It's quite astonishing how little one hears of psychological research about people's actual social perceptions. In this post I would like to introduce one or two insights from social and personality psychology that might shed some light onto the concept of brand personality.

First of all it has to be acknowledged that in social impression formation people really do attribute personality traits to other people - and they also do this using words. E.g. people do write and understand texts about other people using certain "personality adjectives". (As I mentioned above this in not quite that sure when it comes to brands.) Such personality descriptives are the starting point for most of the impression formation research. It basically operates with certain words describing personality traits, like e.g. polite vs impolite, honest vs. dishonest, etc.

Well, what did they find out?

One thing Solomon Asch found out is that some personality traits seem to dominate others. This is to say, there are CENTRAL traits and PERIPHERAL TRAITS with central ones being far more decisive for how we perceive a person. Some of those central traits in his experiments were: warm vs. cold & intelligent vs. unintelligent. These two important traits have later been confirmed as very stable overarching factors used by people as the main dimensions to assess personalities. As you might notice this is somewhat insufficient when we try to define an actionable "brand personality". It is just too aggregated on the one hand and in the case of "warmth" it's quite generic for all brands - very little brands would deliberately describe themselves as "cold".

So how many factors would be "enough? Well, a more practicable number of dimensions seems to be by the next model to talk about: the so called "Big 5".

The Big 5 are an astonishingly rubust model. It was duplicated across cultures and generations over and over again. Basically, this is the model of personality and impression formation with the widest acceptance in among psychologists. You can see the 5 dimensions on the left. I believe one can easily see that it is also quite capable of describing and separating brands in a sensible manner.

Given the overwhelming acceptance and validity of this framework it is not instantly plausible why brand practitioners and researchers tend to develop brand personality frameworks of their own - often even in a similar 5-dimensional output format - like e.g. Aaker's brand personality model (see image below).
The only reason to develop frameworks specifically for the purpose of brand personality description would be that brands are NOT perceived the same way as persons. If they were - we would rather go for the Big 5 since they have a reliability and validity level Aaker's dimensions simply cannot have proven, yet.

What is furthermore interesting about Aaker's framework is the attempt to grasp "human"/"behavioral" type of traits like e.g. "honest", "reliable" AND also such that are more "aesthetical"/"cultural" like e.g. "outdoorsy" or "upper class". Such aesthetical descriptors might be the actual reason for having something like a brand personality in the first place. Brand management needs something to align their design with. At the same time, I am not at all sure, that personality traits would make up good guidelines for brand and communication design. Let's for instance take "openness to experience" from the Big 5 - how would this trait look and feel like? Yes, you could come up with some examples like e.g. "Google is very open to experience, that's why their logo is ever changing and multi-coloured". But that is all hindsight and probably not the way google arrived at their branding. It's much harder to get to a google logo using personality traits than it seems in hindsight. Actually, i would go so far to say it is merely impossible if brand personality is the main briefing tool used.

I have been talking about these issues with designers over and over again. The result of these inquiries: brand personality does not help brand design or tonality creation very much.  A bit, partly and sometimes - yes, but much less than one might think. Firstly, because creative briefs contain very unspecific, uninspiring, too long and often contradicting lists of adjectives. Secondly, and even more striking: even if those descriptions do express some kind of interesting and specific character there simply is no direct "translation" from personality traits into design or tonality features. More often than not personality descriptions even don't deliver sharp evaluation criteria for designs or tonalities.

This whole issue is not very overtly talked about in client meetings or discussions with strategists but behind closed atelier doors I believe designers don't look much into the "personality" paragraph. Astonishingly enough it's rather the "strategic" paragraphs like "What is the brand's purpose?" or "Why do we communicate?" or "What's the intended reaction?" that tend to spark creative solutions.

Now, what is wrong about the concept of brand personality? Is it completely useless?
I believe that the characteristic "look, feel and sound" of a brand is enormously important. It's maybe the most important thing when it comes to brand experience, affinity and loyalty. We need to create such experiential and aesthetic "soft factors". What's flawed is the underlying metaphor of "personality" - i.e. of brands being like humans. So we probably use the wrong tool to get something that we really need to create.
If brand and communications design is what we need brand personality for - wouldn't it be better to have a typology that uses the aesthetical, cultural & interactional vocabulary straight away? Or maybe vocabulary that describes intended reactions and feelings elicited; instead of taking the detour of describing an imaginary "brand as a person"? But we simply don't have a universal framework like the ones above that work on this kind of level, yet. Actually, we might need more of those seemingly inadequate dimensions like Aaker's "ruggedness" or "upper class" and less of traits like "open-mindedness" or "curious".

And in case you do not agree and regard the basic metaphor of brand personality as true and helpful, I would argue that we then should use the more scientific, validated frameworks discovered by psychologists. The Big 5 would be a very good starting point to do so.

Brands in the Digital Age? ...Overrated.

What is a brand? 
Classical marketing literature most often describes it as something like "the sum of consumers’ cognitions and emotions attached to a brand name, logo and the products carrying them". Often the cognitions and emotions the marketers want to achieve get organized around a "brand positioning" or a "brand essence". Most of us would probably more or less agree with this definition...more or less.

- Excursus: The Babylonian Confusion around "Brand". 
There are also some new conceptions of brands around .
E.g. the conception of a brand as a player that "does things" instead of "standing for things". Basically, often this means that "company" and "brand" are used more or less the synonymously. You recognize this kind of understanding of "brand" when you hear people say "people want to interact with brands" - which wouldn't make much sense if they thought of brands as the consumers’ own associations and emotions.
Or take for instance the conception of a brand as a belief or an ideal, instead of simple associations and benefits. And even apart from intellectual planning discussions, even in everyday marketing language most marketers say "brand" when they simply mean the products they have to market. That's why there are "brand managers" but actually don't manage the "consumers' cognitions and emotions". Instead, they manage everything that makes the products successful - including even production, sales promotions, etc.
Or take the following way of using the word "brand": "We have to do more brand now - we cannot always do sales".  Here "brand" seems to indicate a certain type of campaign and of campaign objectives - typically it's about sympathy or general preference towards the brand or other brand equity figures. -

Brands (in the initial sense of the word) are overrated.
During the 20th century the term "brand" has gained such a great dominance that even the digital age's marketing speak still tries to describe everything from a "brand" perspective - even if the initial meaning of "brand as the sum of cognitions and emotions" actually doesn't fit quite well any longer. In this post I would like to explain why I believe this is the case: why "brand" is such a strong (but overrated) concept and why at least the old conception of "brand" doesn't fit very well with the patterns of modern digital marketing.

Why is "brand" still such a dominant and sacrosanct concept?
Well, mainly: because there's money in the "brand business". From a strategists point of view it's quite simple: destroy the concept of "brand" and you destroy 60% of your brand planning projects. Or financially even more devastating: 60% of the research projects. Getting rid of brand measurements would kill research companies.
Secondly: It's in the college books. Destroy the concept of "brand" and you destroy 40% of the marketing curriculum.
Thirdly: because of the constant semantic confusion described above. The confusion of "brand as concept stored in consumers' memory", "brand as the products under a certain brand name a manager has to market", "brand as everything opposed to activation or promotion", etc. As long as there is such confusion - there are enough ways to keep brand on the top agenda, even if the people involved don't really mean "brand".
Fourthly: because it is a neat management tool to streamline what and how the marketing does. "Brand" is an operational tool. Thus, the brand creates a frame of self-similarity. It is a sort of a styleguide beyond mere style. It tells marketing teams what to do. Kill the concept of "brand" and lots of people simply won't know what to manage, what to measure and where to start.

Why is "brand" overrated (nowadays)?
The most important reason is: because most planners and clients forgot that a brand itself is a means not an end. You can see this effect when people implicitly believe that the aim of communication is "to bring the brand alive" or "to make the brand stronger" or "to make people enthusiastic about the brand".
(We all know this kind of vocabulary and thinking. After several decades of such "brand jargon" marketing became the haven of loose, tautological talk where metaphors like "bring smth. alive" are used instead of clear-cut objectives and effects you can point at). 

These developments are in sharp contrast with how digital marketing is or can be carried out today. Let me explain why.

Digital Marketing Map                                           Digital Marketing Map Infographic
IMMEDIACY and shortcuts within purchase processes:  Classical "brand thinking" has been based on the notion of a division between the realm of communication and purchase. The brand served as a "bridge in memory" between the two worlds: You see a branded ad, then you recall the positive associations when you encounter the brand on the supermarket shelf. In many markets this intermediacy function of brands gets replaced by immediate technical connections between communication and purchase. And these are not just links on websites but also phenomena like "second screen" etc.

MEASURABILITY of marketing activities: The classical brand-based paradigm was happy with measuring ephemeral effects like "brand uniqueness" or "brand stature" etc. In the digital age measuring and controlling marketing effects gets more and more concrete and complex. In this kind of accountability paradigm "brand" becomes rather a black hole of unexplained effects. Let me quickly just namedrop "Big Data" in  this context - simply just to have the keyword on my blog. (no idea what this exactly is, but hey... it must be something with measurement.) The whole measurability issue is tightly related to the next factor - something I would call...

MECHANIZATION of marketing thinking: The computer is a machine. The internet is a mega-machine. And marketing, too, is increasingly thought of as a machine, a relay of many mechanisms. The fragmented touchpoints and their effects nowadays are not seen as some kind of "media magic" explained by W. Flusser,  M. McLuhan and semioticians but rather as mechanical marketing buttons and levers you can push, connect and optimize on-the-go. "We need 150 GRPs TV to raise click rate 180%.", "How many blogs can we acquire and professionalize to climb up 3 ranks on google?" etc. IN this kind of thinking there's just not much room for fuzzy "brand magic". A striking example of "mechanization" are CPC-pyament models and all kinds of performance online marketing: payment models or statistics are used to "buy traffic" - the content of the online ads is more or less irrelevant, especially when you pay for clicks only. Something similar happens with search based marketing: who needs a smart brand onion when you rank 1st on google? Another manifestation of "mechanization" are apps: little machines making certain processes easier or more fun. Not exactly classical brand thinking - something far more operational and distributional.

"Brand" could become just a means to ensure self-similarity in a concert of many un-magical mechanisms used.  Brand Planners should consciously learn to employ "mechanical" thinking. That is basically what's new about the whole "new marketing". And by mechanical I do not necessarily mean technical. What I mean is: thinking of everything as levers to reach multiple and concrete objectives. A more mechanical thinking implies questions like: "which barriers do we need to overcome?", "where in the consumer processes can we intervene?" etc. Within such a thinking pattern "brand" will have the role of a glue holding the multiple levers together not the end of all the undertakings.  Basically this is where brands actually originate from: it's the name and symbol, recognizably burned into the cattle, so that everyone instantly knows: "This is ours". So in the end maybe it's just about "branding" as one of the must-have levers among others - and not any longer about "brand" as an overarching master-solution and to everything.

Classifying what a piece of communication actually does - in linguistic terms.

I was wondering: what do linguistics think about communication acts when it comes to describe communication intentions? I mean - if brands sort of "talk" with consumers - there must be certain intentions of such "speech acts". Marketers would describe them in their terms ("generate awareness", "create buzz", bla-bla). But how do linguists or language philosophers think about "speech acts" and their intentions?

According to Searle and his famous "How to Do Things With Words" there are these 5 types of "speech acts" - differing by what they actually want to bring about:

Assertives :
They commit the speaker to something being the case. The different kinds are: suggesting, putting forward, swearing, boasting, concluding. Example: ``No one makes a better cake than me''.
Directives :
They try to make the addressee perform an action. The different kinds are: asking, ordering, requesting, inviting, advising, begging. Example: ``Could you close the window?''.
Commisives :
They commit the speaker to doing something in the future. The different kinds are:, planning, vowing, betting, opposing. Example: ``I'm going to Paris tomorrow''.
Expressives :
They express how the speaker feels about the situation. The different kinds are: thanking, apologising, welcoming, deploring. Example: ``I am sorry that I lied to you''
Declarations :
They change the state of the world in an immediate way. Example: "You are fired":