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Brand marketers often fall prey to a massively faulty assumption. They assume that consumers are rational. I’ve sat through many detailed client presentations, replete with volumes of data, wherein a brand platform is justified on the basis of a logical argument that will convince consumers the client’s brand is better than a competitor’s. They believe that touting the virtues of their brand attributes will persuade a consumer to try, switch or buy more. It makes logical sense, they say. When the consumer weighs the choice, we’ll come out ahead.
But consumers don’t really behave that way. I was reminded of this during a debate over photography with my 13 year-old son. We are both shutter bugs, but our brand affinities are divided. We both started shooting in grade school. I developed an affinity for the Nikon brand in high school, when I would skimp on other teenage luxuries to buy good Nikon glass. My son Luc’s affinity started a little earlier. His school uses Canon equipment in the photo lab, and as a result, he’s become quite a fan. In truth, there is very little difference between the brands. Both brands offer professional grade cameras. Both have legions of famous followers. But neither Luc nor I will concede this point. I will probably go to my grave believing that Nikon is the only brand for a serious craftsman. He’ll probably photograph that experience with a Canon camera.
The irrational consumer is more than a hypothesis. It’s a well-researched reality. In his excellent study, “Product Experience is Seductive”, first published in the in 2002, Stephen Hoch demonstrated that consumers are easily, and often erroneously, persuaded by their brand experience. Hoch describes four aspects of experience that color our brand preference:
- Experience is engaging
- Experience is nonpartisan
- Experience is pseudodiagnostic
- Experience is endogenous
It is the last two aspects of his study that I find most intriguing. Hoch showed that consumers have a tendency to distort their diagnosis of brand information. If they have a preference for a certain brand, they tend to color any brand comparisons with the preference in mind. This finding flies in the face of conventional branding wisdom, which argues that consumers rationally employ Bayesian logic to purchase decisions. Hoch cites a 1998 study that found that “when equivocal information about two brands is acquired attribute-by-attribute, the evaluation of the next attribute is distorted to support the emergent leader.”
Hoch also describes a fascinating consumer tendency—the tendency to prefer what one already has. “After a decision has been made, consumers engage in a variety of tactics including avoiding negative information and attitude change.” Therein lies the heart of the debate with my son. Despite evidence that might suggest the Canon platform is a viable alternative for me as I prepare to upgrade my camera body, I was unwilling to consider any brand other than Nikon. And Luc scoffed at my lack of sophistication. Surely, he argued, times had changed and Canon was the clear choice. Fathers and sons live for such debates. Brand marketers fail to recognize their underlying message. Brand loyalty often roots in experience, not price/value or quality differentials. Sometimes, the loyalty is tied to a consumer self concept that is validated through ongoing experience—an experience that seduces the consumer and frames their point of view.