September 01, 2007

Salesmen & Sociologists

Has anyone else noticed that the increase in client dissatisfaction with advertising has coincided almost perfectly with the ascendancy of account planning? Maybe it’s just a coincidence. But, then again, how can it be that we have added the science and knowledge of these consumer insight experts into our repertoire and yet -- according to our clients -- our efforts are less effective than ever?

I think I know the answer.

I think we’re turning into a bunch of sociologists at exactly the time our clients need us to be salesmen.

One of America’s most successful agencies has someone called “Group Director, Cultural and Cognitive Studies”. I kid you not. I’m sure he’s a bright guy who does a nice job. But “Group Director, Cultural and Cognitive Studies?” It sounds like the freshman humanities requirement at a bad junior college.

Here’s what’s happening. First of all, we have substantially exaggerated the power of brands. Most consumers in most categories have little or no brand loyalty. They don’t care which bank they go to (they go to the one that’s across the street.) They don’t care which airline they fly (they fly the one that has the best deal at the best time.) They don’t care what auto insurance they buy as long as it’s cheap or what tomato sauce they buy as long as it tastes good.

They go to Target today and Wal-Mart tomorrow. They wear Nikes today and Adidas tomorrow. They sign up for Verizon today and Sprint tomorrow. Most of their buying decisions are for specific, immediate reasons. Not for mysterious sociological, cultural or emotional reasons.

Most brands are so similar, and their so-called brand personalities are so transparently contrived, that consumers have become immune to most “branding”. What consumers mostly are loyal to are excellent products that are clearly differentiated. I buy Heinz ketchup all the time, and nothing else that Heinz makes. I don’t even know what else they make, other than there are 57 of ‘em. I like the product, I’m not loyal to the brand.

According to Arjun Sen, president of Restaurant Marketing Group, only 8% to 10% of people are stubbornly brand loyal. Which, if my math is correct, means that 90-92% of the time a superior product trumps a brand personality. So much for all that baloney about consumers’ deep emotional attachment to brands. For more on this, check out this article from Forbes.

There are two different parts to consumer behavior. First, there’s the big part -- the part that’s perfectly obvious (“I bought it because it’s cheaper/tastes better/looks nicer.”) Second, there’s the small part -- the part that’s mysterious (see Brand Babble.) All the sociological claptrap being pedaled these days ignores the big and misunderstands the small. If you’re not in the alcoholic beverage, soft drink, cigaret or fashion business, you’d be way better off to focus on the obvious stuff.

However, the ethos of advertising these days does not recognize this. We want to focus on the mysterious part. The more mystery, the more leverage we have. If we are the ones who can properly interpret the arcane goings-on of the consumer mind, then we have vast power. If we can raise the everyday buying habits of people to the level of “cognitive studies” – whatever the hell that is – we have carved out a nice little business for ourselves.

If you believe that psychiatrists have a hard time understanding the mysteries of human behavior but account planners have it all figured out, well, good luck. I don’t. I think that to a small degree consumer behavior is mysterious, and to a very large degree it’s perfectly obvious. I’m sorry to strip us of our magical power but, there, I’ve said it and I’m not sorry.

By the way, have you ever bought anything from a sociologist?

Neither have I.


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