We used to think of consumers as rational agents when they made purchases, particularly on big items like cars or mortgages – that they would know their needs, gather information and then choose wisely. Equally, we used to think business leaders would make important decisions after carefully weighing up a range of options.
Some 40 years of research in the field of behavioural science has found that neither of these ideas is quite true. Both consumers and managers are at the mercy of systematic social and cognitive biases that shape their decisions.
This means consumers routinely deviate from our assumptions about their purchasing behaviour while managers break our assumptions about how they set and implement strategies.
By developing a better understanding of the forces at play when people choose we can get closer to real-world decision-making.
So what does this mean for branding? Here are our five tips.
1. Understand or define a strategy before any implementation
If you have a branding problem, resist the temptation to make quick changes to how your brand is delivered. Do not start by reducing the price, or by trying to improve the experience in the flagship store, because these decisions are about implementation.
You should start with understanding (or defining) your strategy. Begin with the brand identity, the set of associations that makes the brand different from competitors and relevant to the target market. Ask yourself whether the current positioning is consistent with the original brand identity, and with what pops into people’s minds when they see a tangible element of the brand, such as its trademark. For a brand to remain strong, these associations need to be kept up and revitalised over time.
Then think about implementation, which relates to the actions that can be put in place to deliver the brand associations. Too often, branding takes place in isolated areas of the firm and doesn’t get diffused and shared through the company. We believe everyone within a company is responsible for brand delivery.
2. Gain insights from inside and outside the company
Marketers tend to put an emphasis on finding out what the customer wants. They research how consumers evaluate products and how they experience products and services.
While it’s important to understand consumers, it’s equally vital to look for managerial insights. You need to understand the company’s founders, owners, managers and employees, as these are the people who build and manage the brand. You also need to be aware of any biases that may prevent them from managing the brand effectively, such as overconfidence and reluctance to change.
Understanding the internal processes that drive branding will reveal the extent to which your brand remains credible. Sometimes a company might need to say: “No, we’re not going to enter that market with this brand”, or “We’re not going to co-brand with this partner”. But these responses are only possible if you’ve carried out both an external and an internal analysis to establish the strengths and limits of your brand.
3. Use indirect methods such as observation to gain insights
How can you gain internal and external insights? The most common approach for marketers is to ask consumers – in one-on-one interviews, focus groups or surveys. Yet we know these methods have limitations. For instance, people might not feel able to express their feelings, or they might respond in a way to please the group. A better way of understanding people’s motivations is through conducting online and offline observations and experiments that capture their behaviours, rather than directly asking them.
Experimentation (also known as A/B testing) in particular represents a powerful method that can inform many branding decisions and is increasingly being used in business, especially by leading online companies such as Amazon, Facebook and online travel agents. We emphasise that experimentation can be used for strategic purposes – to understand people’s needs – and for implementation purposes – to design different offerings, pricings, promotions and advertising messages.
4. Base decisions on a framework
It’s important to develop and follow a framework to address any branding challenges. On the Strategic Branding programme, we provide a framework that encompasses both strategy and implementation as well as consumer and managerial insights. We also discuss specific tools for each element of the framework that can structure and guide thoughts and actions. Brand managers should use evidence-based frameworks such as the one we propose to employ a consistent process for decision-making which overrides short-term temptations.
Frameworks are best grasped and internalised through implementation in real-life settings. In our programme we’ve used several London-based companies – including an art gallery, a fast-moving consumer goods company and a furniture maker ¬– as live cases to help participants test their understanding of the tools learned in class.
5. Think of the whole consumer experience
There’s a consumer journey to follow when consumers decide to buy a brand. It’s important to understand the journey steps, what people want and need during each of these steps and the behavioural obstacles moving from one step to the next. For instance, how much information should you offer consumers? How many choices should you give them? Is choice always beneficial? While standard theories of consumer decision-making suggest that information and choice can be, at worst, neutral, we know from behavioural research that this is not the case. Use these insights to determine the amount of information and choice beneficial in different settings.
Build a strong core for business growth
These five tips can help you build a strong brand. The elements of your company’s brand, how you deliver the brand internally and externally, and how you understand the consumer experience must all be aligned to generate brand equity. Value comes from the power of the brand name to influence the behaviour not only of consumers but also of employees, investors and everyone involved.
Soon, the brand becomes the core that you can build on and make the most of when you think about growing your business.