Branding As a Simple Science

Do you remember playing Broken Telephone as a kid? You whisper something in one person’s ear, she whispers it to another, and so on and so on. At the end of the game, the original story that has Bob going to the store, now has Bob vacationing with his neighbor’s wife on the beaches of Hawaii wearing pink bunny slippers. This predictable but hysterical outcome is similar to what happens when you ask people to define “branding.”

Branding may be the most misunderstood and misused term in marketing. Ask numerous “experts,” and you’ll wind up with as many interpretations of branding. The outcome can be as amusing as the results of Broken Telephone but have consequences when applied to real business and real money.

A colleague recalls a chat he had aboard an airplane. A marketing executive from a major computer manufacturer told him her company’s new $14 million branding campaign was “built upon the consistent use of the same three colors in all their brochures and magazine ads.” I’m not joking.

Rob Frankel, a branding expert who spouts advice, offers this definition (a good example of the broken-telephone spin): “Branding is not about getting your targets to choose you over your competition. Branding is about getting your prospects to see you as the only solution to their problem.” He’s not completely wrong — but he’s not completely right, either.

We can trace the origins of virtually every marketing concept to a scientific discipline, such as psychology, neuroscience, or anthropology. If we wanted to play Broken Telephone, we could trace the thread as far back as Aristotle, although “branding” or “conditioning” was not scientifically validated until Pavlov published his paper “The Experimental Psychology and Psychopathology of Animals” in 1903. You may recall Pavlov from high school science. He was the guy who made the dog salivate at the sound of a bell. He conditioned the dog to respond to a trigger (the sound of the bell) by associating it with the taste of meat. His experiment provides three key elements critical to understanding and implementing “branding”:

  • Consistency — Pavlov never offered food without ringing the bell and never rang the bell without offering food.

  • Frequency — The bell rang several times a day, day after day.
  • Anchoring — Pavlov tied the experiment to something about which the dog was emotional. Frequency and consistency create branding only when the message is associated with an emotional anchor. This is the most difficult and essential element to get correct.

When Pavlov tried the same experiment using dry bread or acid instead of meat, it didn’t work. The dog learned to salivate at the sound of the bell because the dog craved meat. That is what it loves most. With anything but meat, bell ringing only annoyed the dog.

My ClickZ colleague Jack Aaronson spent the last year researching the psychological underpinning of customer interactions. In his forthcoming book, he talks about “Pavlovian Marketing,” which he describes as “training users to be loyal to coupons.” He warns these customers will not make your company profitable in the long run nor will they be loyal to your brand. It simply makes them loyal to your discounts.

Before you invest in a “branding exercise,” make sure the associative memory you’re implanting makes your customers salivate and isn’t a thinly disguised gimmick or prop. All a gimmick does is annoy the customer and cost you money. When you talk to the customer , in her language, about what is in her heart you’re on the right track. Will you serve meat or dry bread to your customers?

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