The Unimportance Of Brands And Why All Good Marketing Content Has Utility


“Do it faster, makes us stronger"

Daft Punk

The false distinction

There seems to be a suggestion that there exists a divide between creative content that is useful to people. And creative content that is merely useful to the marketer.

Digital content - whether accessed through mobile devices, tablets or PCs - the argument goes, has a monopoly on the former.

This is because it delivers information, connects people through applications to what they want, encourages conversations and enables transactions.

This makes it useful to people. And this is why they seek it out, and why it doesn’t need to interrupt them.

Advertising on the other hand, the argument goes, holds little or no value for the consumer. It might seek to entertain, but that is merely in order to get past the consumer’s defenses. Its agenda is entirely that of the marketer’s interests. For its audience, advertising it is claimed, has no usefulness.

So according to this argument, for the consumer there is stuff that has utility. And stuff that does not.

The problem with all this is that it naively forgets the most fundamental role of brands. It encourages an entirely erroneous view on how people feel about brands, how they choose between brands, and the role of advertising in influencing purchase decisions.

It’s a distinction that needs dismantling.

The unimportance of brands

One only need look at the top search terms as reported by Google to see that in the grand scheme of things brands really don’t count very highly as the things we want to know more about.

The myth and rhetoric of the loyal consumer (and its language of fandom and zealotry) obscures the inescapable fact that the vast majority of any brand’s buyers are in fact light buyers. The so-called '80:20' actually turns out to be closer to a 50:20 rule. Most people's relationships with brands are not passionate and devoted.

So it's not very surprising that we don't devote much time and attention to learning about brands. As Robert Heath - who introduced us to the notion of low involvement processing - reminds us, “learning about brands is generally not seen as being very important. As a result we tend to process anything to do with brands at very low attention levels, using a process called Low Involvement Processing.”

For most of of the time and for much of our needs, we do not actively scan and research the market. Not only is this because it just isn’t that important to us, but it isn’t practical. Conducting a cost-benefit analysis of every breakfast cereal brand and SKU available with screaming children in tow and a whole shopping list to accomplish is not only not fun, but unfeasible.

‘Decision-making’ is a poor description of what happens in real life when it comes to choosing which brand to buy because it overstates the degree of conscious evaluation involved. As Byron Sharp puts it: “Marketing theory pays insufficient attention to this coping behaviour. Instead, theories about buyer behavior are obsessed with brand evaluation.”

He reminds us that the most important part of any buyer’s purchasing process actually occurs before buyers consciously evaluate which brand to choose. It’s the part in which people ‘decide’ not to consider the vast majority of the market.

We are built to screen out complexity and reduce the world to something manageable. Every single second of our lives, millions of bits of information enter through our senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Yet our consciousness processes only a miniscule fraction of this input. The total information bandwidth of our eyes is 10,000,000 bits per second - yet our conscious experience compresses and reduces this, to contain only 40 bits per second, or 0.0004% of the total input. Similarly, our consciousness perceives only 0.0005% of the total information input from our skin.

Our approach to brands too, is characterized by the act of reduction. And so the most important part of our decision-making is electing to ignore most of the available brands.

And that doesn’t really matter to us. We don’t mind ignoring most brands. Because as Sharp puts it, the ones that we do choose “perform well enough”, we’re not exactly missing out on much.

Give the propensity of people to screen stuff out, and given the oversupply of competing offers, being noticed and considered is vital. As Sharp puts it: “Given how small buyers’ consideration sets are a brand has more than a ‘sporting chance’ of being bought if it is noticed and considered. So, a brand’s sales are primarily determined by how many consideration sets it failed to enter.”

And this is where advertising comes in. And can be useful. Yes, useful.

The usefulness of advertising

As Heath puts it, “Brand are defined in our memories by 'engrams' – a network of connections in our brains which link together everything we know about the brand. Any brand signal or message sent from working memory is attached to the engram via a pathway.” The evidence from neuroscience is that the more frequently a pathway is used, the better defined it becomes. It is in the development and maintenance of these memory structures that advertising plays a key roles.

These memory structures make brands noticeable, interesting and relevant as they sit on there on the shelf. They allow us to bypass brands that aren’t noticeable and interesting, making the ‘decision-making’ quick and intuitive, rather than painstakingly linear and rational.

It means we don’t have to stand in front of the supermarket shelf undertaking a cost-benefit analysis each time we go shopping. It means we can devote our finite supplies of time, energy, and cognitive resources to things that really do matter to us.

So, is advertising useful to people? Most definitely. It helps us ignore the vast majority of offers that fill the marketplace. It makes some stuff more noticeable and interesting than other. And in so doing it helps to simplify and accelerate decision-making. Which given the relative unimportance of brands in our lives, is something very useful.

The real difference

So the suggestion that there exists a divide between creative content that is useful to people, and creative content that is merely useful to the marketer is simply nonsense. What’s worrying is that it rather misunderstands the most fundamental role of branding. And advertising. That being to make decision-making easy for us.

The difference is patently not between content that has utility for the consumer, and content that does not. Done well, all marketing content has utility.

The difference is between content that is consciously processed by people as utility. And content that is not consciously consumed as having utility.

Being useful

Most people are not brand loyalists but are light buyers who aren't thinking about you very often. The TNS Impulse Panel shows for example, that the typical (as opposed to the average) Coca-Cola buyer in the UK buys just one or two cans or bottles for him or herself a year.

If our advertising is to be useful to them then it’s critical that we consider what we are doing to sustain and reinforce their existing memory structures. Given that most of your buyers aren’t that close to you and don’t purchase you that often, having a thread of continuity of some kind is vital.

Equally, ensuring that these memory structures are refreshed is vital if the brand is to remain salient and interesting and not be edited out of the consideration set.

Be both consistent and fresh? Well that’s about the oldest creative challenge there is.


Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know