The brand paradox - what you see is not always what you get

Editor’s note: Sam Salama is senior research executive at Basis, London. 

While marketers are obsessed with logical and linear frameworks, all brands must face an inconvenient truth: much like the consumers they appeal to, brands are inconsistent and elusive entities with an existence driven more by paradoxes and contradictions than any reliable measure.

Advertising: weak force with huge business impact

Effective advertising can be transformative – econometric data shows that on average, ads (across all media) deliver a total profit ROI of £3.24 in the long term.

Yet on the individual level advertising rarely persuades or converts consumers. And much to the dismay of marketers, it struggles to create brand advocates who buy the brand and nothing else. 

Imagine a world where advertising did have this magical persuasive ability. Brand growth would come from buyers who were extremely frequent, 100% loyal and who considered it to be highly differentiated among the competition.

In the real world we see the exact opposite. Brands rely on lots of very infrequent buyers to grow. These buyers purchase multiple brands in a given category. And they see brands in the category as largely similar. 

So, what does advertising do? Its role is to provide a gentle nudge. It slightly increases consumers’ willingness to buy a brand at the moment of purchase by reminding them the brand exists and building memorable associations in their head. 

Humble work for such a transformative tool.

Nurturing a brand requires you to be consistent and inventive at the same time

A central principle of neuroscience is that the brain is hardwired to save energy. It operates mostly on autopilot – ignoring most information and noticing only the unexpected and out of the ordinary. This means that for advertising to cut through, it needs to break expectations, showing something surprising or different. 

But for ads to be processed by consumers they must reinforce existing brand associations: they must stay the same. More consistent associations mean a greater chance of the brand being identified in the advertising, and a greater chance of the brand being thought of in a buying situation.

McDonald’s, for example, has used the same branding associations (golden arches, Ronald McDonald, etc.) relentlessly for over five decades. It is now instantly recognizable and the biggest restaurant chain in the world. Tropicana, on the other hand, lost an estimated $30 million in sales when an existing association (the orange) was suddenly removed from the packaging and communications.

Advertisers must walk a tricky tightrope: create an ad that is unfamiliar enough to be noticed, but familiar enough to be processed.

Brands unite humanity more than almost any other cultural currency

As a rule, people don’t think or care much about brands. They spend little time choosing between brands; they see brands as highly substitutable; they often don’t assign a single personality trait to brands in the categories they buy. Overall – and especially compared to friends, families and work – brands play a minor role in most people’s lives.

Yet these seemingly insignificant entities are human unifiers. Colgate is bought by 60% of households worldwide and known to many more. Visa is used in over 200 countries, connecting countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. Coca Cola is enjoyed in even more countries than Visa, and available in the most remote places. Its presence is so universal that the Zambian Health Minister complained that his country’s small villages stocked the brand but not lifesaving medicines.

It’s hard to find another type of cultural icon – actor, musician, athlete – that is more widely recognized than brands. George Clooney might be known by everyone in America, but his fame quickly diminishes across continents. Billie Eilish might be known to every teenager, but the chances of your grandparents knowing her are slim.

Brands, by contrast, transcend barriers and borders. They even trample social status. Andy Warhol recognized this and said, “All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it and you know it.” 

Not bad for a soft drink.

Brand research depends on valuing something that’s inherently difficult to value

Marketers are in the business of building brands. A strong brand is seen as a success. A weak brand is seen as a failure. Brand growth is desirable, brand decline is undesirable. In short, measuring marketing success requires us to be able to measure brands. 

And yet measuring brands is extremely difficult to do. It’s not enough to look at price, distribution or the efficacy of the product. These are objective measures that the company can (for the most part) control. Brands, on the other hand, are managed exclusively by the minds of consumers. They are continually shaped by every interaction that consumers have with the product. Even the most fleeting and unintended encounter alters the brand.

It is this slippery nature of brands that explains why it’s so hard to define them. Even among industry experts, there is little consensus as to what a brand really is. David Ogilvy defined a brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” For David Aaker it is “a set of assets linked to a brand’s name and symbol that adds to the value provided by a product or service.” According to Dan Pallotta, “brand is everything, and everything is brand.” 

And this disagreement is reflected in the fact that marketers use the word brand to mean three completely different things. 

  1. The company. “Brands need to have a more positive impact on society.”
  2. The controllable input. “The brand has strong distinctive assets.”
  3. The uncontrollable output. “The cultural meaning of the brand.”

Embracing paradoxes

Given the centrality of paradoxes to brands, it’s no wonder people find the idea of them confusing. This is not just a minor annoyance – it presents a huge challenge to brand managers, who are required to convince CMOs to invest money into what seems to be no more than an intangible perception.

The obvious question is what to do about this challenge. One response might be to play it down and carry on as normal – hoping that the elusiveness of brands doesn’t cause problems in the future.

Another response would be to try and solve the paradoxes, for example by doubling down on technology. By improving measurement tools and using new data sources, maybe we can make brands more logical and coherent? 

But instead of trying to change the paradoxes, or outright rejecting them, what if we decided to embrace them?

What if we accepted that paradoxes are here to stay, and actively looked for more of them? Might we get a better understanding of our consumers and our brands?

After all, as Rory Sutherland says, there’s no point looking for insights in logical places, because someone else has already looked there.