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Dr. Erica Carranza

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Buyer (and Seller!) Beware: The Emotional Bias in User Reviews

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Wed, Mar 04, 2020

In 2006, psychologist Daniel Gilbert published a book called Stumbling on Happiness. It posed a provocative question: “Think you know what makes you happy?”

Spoiler alert! You don’t.

SoH_book

The basic premise is that people are bad at predicting what will make them happy in the future. But they know when they’re happy now. In fact, scientists who study emotion generally agree that the best way to learn how someone is feeling at a given moment is not to scan their brain or read their face—it’s to ask.

So, according to Gilbert, the best way to predict whether something will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are experiencing it now: How does it them feel?

This speaks to the awesome utility of user reviews—some of which are also fun to read. (A special shout-out to the Amazon shoppers who’ve reviewed BiC’s Retractable Ball Pens “For Her”…)

Bic_review

But while user reviews can be quite helpful, most have a built-in bias: The people who write them tend to be experiencing emotions high in activation.

Emotional activation is one of two dimensions that underly all emotion; the other is valence.

  • Valence is the intensity of a positive or negative feeling
  • Activation is the amount of physical energy associated with it

They are often correlated, but they aren’t the same. Take, for example, feeling angry vs. feeling sad: Anger and sadness can feel equally and intensely bad in terms of valence. But anger is high in activation. It’s agitating and makes people want to act. By contrast, sadness is low in activation. It’s wearying and makes people want to withdraw.Core_emotion

Critical user reviews tend to come from customers feeling negative high activation emotions (e.g., anger, frustration or disgust) because they want to funnel that energy into something—like calling customer service, lodging a complaint, quitting the brand, or venting their feelings in other ways. Incidentally, that’s also the reason why stories about brands that spark moral outrage are particularly likely to go viral. (Don’t believe me? Just ask United Airlines.)

Negative low activation emotions (e.g., feeling disappointed or discouraged) can be damaging in their own ways—for example, when they lead customers to quietly lapse. But those customers are much less likely to raise a fuss or write a scathing review. 

The same goes for positive emotions: Inspiring high activation positive emotions (e.g., excitement, delight or pride) leads customers to do things like proactively recommend the brand or take time to write a glowing review. Positive low activation emotions can be good too—for example, in financial services, making customers feel comfortable and secure drives retention. Still, customers who feel comfortable and secure aren’t likely to shout it from the rooftops.

In short, user reviews only tend to capture extreme poles within the top two quadrants of emotional experience:  Customer_quad

But if we can’t rely on user reviews to give us the full picture, what can we do to predict how a brand will make us feel?

As luck would have it, at CMB, we just fielded a major study on the psychological benefits delivered by a range of brands. We had a nationally representative sample of over 20,000 people. And, to assess the emotional impact of using each brand, we applied our proprietary measures of valence and activation—so the results are perfect for (among other things!) identifying brands that make people feel great.

This brought to mind Stumbling on Happiness and got me wondering… What brands should I be considering? I can’t disclose all our results, but I can share a few things that I plan to do differently based on our findings:

  • First, I’m going to use PayPal more often. We found that, for most people, using PayPal inspires low activation positive emotions like security, peace and calm—and that’s exactly how I want to feel when I’m sharing my financial data. (Interestingly, Netflix also scores well on low activation positive emotions, bringing new meaning to the phrase “Netflix and chill”.)
  • I’m also going to surprise my kids with Mario Kart, which drives high activation positive emotions for players. But I’m sticking to my hard “no” on Fortnite. Fortnite makes players feel a whole host of negative emotions, and middle school is hard enough as it is…
  • It’s not just Fortnite! We identified many brands that trigger negative emotions—including specific financial institutions, tech brands, and media IPs like Game of Thrones. (The latter really resonated for me—the final season made me so mad I blogged about it.) There are even whole sub-industries that evoke negative emotions—like cable providers.
  • I can’t drop my cable provider. What I can do is spend more time managing my investments, which—under normal, non-epidemic circumstances—generates surprisingly strong positive emotions. In fact, we found that investing with companies like Fidelity and Vanguard feels as good as shopping Amazon or watching Star Wars, and better than checking Instagram—the top social media platform in terms of eliciting positive emotions. To quote my colleague Lori Vellucci, who discussed this in her blog Social Detox, Financial Retox: “If you want to feel really good in 2020, log off social media and invest with a financial services firm!”

Our research also has implications for brands regarding the critical importance of understanding the emotions expected and experienced by their target consumers in terms of both valence and activation.

  • To motivate the kinds of actions that support customer acquisition—like trying the brand or recommending it to friends—brands need strategies that inspire positive, high activation
  • To improve retention, they need strategies that cultivate the comforting sense of inertia that flows from positive, low activation Particularly in industries, like financial services and tech, where peace of mind is key to customer satisfaction.
  • To minimize fallout from negative, high activation emotions, brands need channels that enable customers’ frustrations to be expressed privately, addressed efficiently, and tracked in order to see whether the same issuers are irritating others.
  • To prevent attrition from customers feeling negative, low activation emotions, bands need strategies for flagging them—since they may not be making much noise—and fixing the issues they find disappointing or draining.
  • To attract new customers, brands must also manage prospects’ emotional expectations. Anticipating negative emotions—whether high or low activation—is a strong barrier to brand consideration.

Understanding brand performance in each emotional quadrant is one of the ways we help our clients inform strategies that are high in consumer EQ. And that’s the real reason we do this research—to help our clients.

Implications for how to live life more joyfully are just the cherry on top!


Erica CarranzaErica is CMB’s VP of Consumer Psychology. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

Follow Chadwick Martin Bailey on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for the latest news and updates.

 

Topics: marketing strategy, brand health and positioning, BrandFx, consumer psychology

It’s Not Just About Baby Yoda

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Tue, Jan 14, 2020

Emotion, Identity & the Benefits of Disney+

Welcome to 2020! If you’re like me, you did at least three things over the holiday—visited family, ate too much, and read about the “decade in review.” Most articles looking back at the 2010’s mentioned the massive evolution in how we consume entertainment and the onset of the streaming wars. Disney+ and Apple TV+ have launched; HBO Max and Peacock are on the way. Analysts predict there will be too many subscription services to survive. Which will be among the last ones standing?

Netflix famously focuses on the customer, not the competition. But, if they’re going to learn to live with a major competitor, I suggest they focus on Disney+. Primarily because of how well Disney’s bastion of brands delivers emotional and identity benefits, and how important those benefits are to driving engagement—even compared to the functional benefits (like convenience) that helped Netflix upend the industry.

What are these different kinds of benefits? I’m so glad you asked! Here’s a bit of background…

At CMB, we identified four psychological benefits that drive brand engagement:

  • EMOTIONAL BENEFITS (e.g., positive feelings; enhanced joy; reduced frustration)
  • IDENTITY BENEFITS (e.g., strong self-esteem; pride; a positive self-image)
  • SOCIAL BENEFITS (e.g., conversation; social connection; a sense of belonging)
  • FUNCTIONAL BENEFITS (e.g., ability to accomplish tasks or goals; saving time or money)

Each plays a role in BrandFx, our approach to helping clients attract and retain their target audiences.

As a psychologist, I love our framework because it captures what drives people in all things—not just in how they spend their time and money. Each type of benefit fulfills a core human motivation. People strive to maximize good feelings and minimize bad ones (emotional benefits), enhance their self-image and self-esteem (identity benefits), connect and build relationships (social benefits), and efficiently achieve their goals (functional benefits).

In a recent study with over 20,000 consumers, we found that these benefits are important for brands across diverse industries. But the relative importance of each benefit does differ by industry, sub-industry, and even by brand. In the media space:  

  • For umbrella brands (e.g., Disney, Universal, Warner Bros.), emotional and identity benefits dominate importance, followed by social. So, to drive engagement, these brands must inspire positive feelings, bolster positive self-perceptions, and facilitate social bonds.
  • For franchises and IPs (e.g., The Simpsons, Harry Potter, Stranger Things), the same three benefits are key. Emotional and social are most important, followed by identity.
  • For streaming brands (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime), functional benefits are pretty important—so streaming brands should make things easy and affordable. But emotional and identity benefits still dominate.
StreamingWars_ImpDrivingBrandEng

And, while streaming brands score well on functional benefits, they lag Disney on emotion and identity. Among the many media brands we tested:

  • Disney brand Pixar wins on delivering emotional benefits to fans (by a large margin!)
  • …and Disney itself wins on identity.

Disney’s strength on identity benefits is linked to the strength of its brands, franchises and IPs—like Marvel, which also scores well with fans on identity. And, when people think of Disney, its IPs are top-of-mind. In analyzing over 10,000 responses to a free association question, we found that streaming brands call to mind generalities (e.g., “movies,” “shows,” “videos”), while the brands that line the top of the Disney+ homepage call to mind specifics—either specific characters, movies, shows or franchises (e.g., Mickey Mouse, Frozen, Iron Man, MCU, Yoda), or specific content elements (e.g., action, animation, space, superheroes, princesses).

StreamingWars_InitialReactions

This pattern holds even among streaming customers (e.g., Netflix or Hulu subscribers)—i.e., generalities are top-of-mind, not specifics. Arguably that’s good if the goal is to entertain the masses, but it limits the ability to enhance subscribers’ identities. For example, we found that pride in being a media brand’s fan is highly correlated with liking characters from its content.

I may be an outlier—and an ideal scenario—for a streaming brand like Netflix. When I think of Netflix, the first things that come to mind are Peaky Blinders, The Crown and Stranger Things. These are shows I’m proud to watch (identity benefit!), and all three are Netflix originals. Maybe I’m a sign of things to come. But there are yet more reasons to bet on staying power for Disney+, including:

  • Disney’s vast machinery devoted to helping fans experience emotional, identity and social benefits outside the platform. It handily beat other brands we tested on the many ways in which fans interact with its content (e.g., via consumer products, theatrical releases, theme parks and more).
  • Its strength with kids and families. Our study focused on adults, but it’s safe to assume Disney brands would perform well with kids. And today’s Descendants fans are tomorrow’s subscribers.

JediLikeMyFatherUnless-CroppedOn a related note, nostalgia is an emotional benefit that pulls double-duty for media IPs. Kids who are fans grow-up to be parents who bring their own kids into the fold. (This image captures my household dynamic pretty well...)

Then there are the strong social benefits that come with family co-viewing and bonding over shared interests.

Yes, Disney+ will have to succeed in delivering the functional benefits expected in the streaming space—like convenience and value for the money. So pricing Disney+ competitively was a smart move.

But, again, success in media isn’t about functional benefits. Not even for streaming brands. It’s about content that engages; that evokes strong feelings; that resonates, inspires and empowers; that sparks conversations and connects us with larger communities… In a way, the word “entertainment” trivializes the intense emotional, identity and social benefits we get from the content we love. (Why else would so many people be arguing online about Star Wars? They can’t all be Russian bots!)

I’m a sample of one, but my experience fits these findings. I got Disney+ the day it launched. They made the sign-up process easy. So far, so good with the functional benefits. But what really impressed me were the rows of recognizable, quality content I saw when I first logged in. I literally gasped. And I mean literally literally. Not literally in the way Millennials mean literally (i.e., not literally).

Compare that with my experience on other platforms. I tab through rows of shows and movies I’ve heard nothing about, rejecting lots of options before finding something of interest.

This suggests one more way in which Disney+ enters with an advantage: Its well-known franchises create a high ratio of familiar (vs. unfamiliar) content. This matters because…

  • People like the familiar! The comfort of the familiar feels good—it’s an emotional benefit in and of itself. The tendency to prefer things just because we know them even has a name in psychology: the “mere exposure effect.”
  • The glut of peak TV has created “too much choice” for viewers which, paradoxically, generates negative emotions. In this context, the reputable content on Disney+ makes it feel like a cultivated selection. Like Trader Joe’s vs. a grocery store.

To be clear, I’m not counting other subscription services out by any stretch. But they’ll want to carefully evaluate potential strategies for attracting and retaining customers in light of this shift in the competitive landscape (i.e., the giant mouse in the room). For example, by identifying:

  • Which of their original series inspire the strongest emotional and identity benefits for the broadest populations of viewers
  • Ways to market these series—both on and off their platforms—to harness the emotional perks of familiarity
  • Opportunities to help fans of these series express themselves and connect with each other (e.g., via licensed products), which boosts emotional, identity and social benefits

Meanwhile, Disney+ will need to keep delivering fresh content without saturating fans’ appetites. (Our analysis found that boredom is a death knell for media IPs.) But any brand that can showcase so much celebrated content is in a great position to survive—and even thrive—in the streaming wars.


Erica CarranzaErica is CMB’s VP of Consumer Psychology. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

Follow Chadwick Martin Bailey on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for the latest news and updates.

Topics: digital media and entertainment research, BrandFx

Was a Gender-Neutral Doll the Right Move for Mattel?

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Fri, Oct 04, 2019

MattelCreatableWorldSized

Did I ever tell you about my dissertation…? Wait, don’t go! I promise it’s interesting.

It was 2002. My advisor and I had been studying gender stereotypes, which we found were still depressingly pervasive. Then, for my dissertation, I examined reactions to men and women who broke the mold. I thought that people would dislike stereotypically masculine (e.g., ambitious) women and feminine (e.g., sensitive) men, but try to hide it—so I measured their emotional reactions using facial EMG.

Facial EMG involves placing pairs of electrodes over muscles that contract when we frown or smile, as shown on the Mona Lisa. (My apologies to any art history majors out there.) People can’t mask the immediate, involuntary emotional reactions that register in their faces. Most of that muscular activity is too fast and too subtle to be captured by human or computer/AI-based facial coding, but EMG captures it well. At CMB, we have a method of measuring emotional reactions tailored to market research—it does an excellent job and doesn’t involve electrodes. But if you expect people to actively lie about their feelings, facial EMG is the way to go.

EMGmonaCrop2

What did I find in analyzing literally millions of milliseconds of facial activity? Feminine men elicited warm smiles from women—but were laughed at by other men. And masculine women were universally reviled. Lots of eyebrow furrowing. People didn’t even try to hide it.

Add this to the many other forces that encourage adherence to gender norms—like the manly men and womanly women portrayed in everything from blockbuster movies to local ads—and it’s no shock that kids learn gender roles early. Kids are perceptive. They see stereotypical male and female characters held-up as ideals in toys and on TV, and can easily infer what’s expected of them.

In this way, gender stereotypes are both pervasive and constraining, like invisible straightjackets we wear everyday—we don’t have to let them confine us, but the pressure is always there.

That leads me to Mattel and Creatable World, their new gender-neutral doll. According to their official tagline, it’s “designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in—giving kids the freedom to create their own customizable characters again and again.”

Here is a major toymaker refusing to communicate an expectation that “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls.” This is huge. Especially when we consider the crucial role of play for kids in imagining possibilities, exploring interests, connecting with others, and discovering oneself.

So did Mattel do the right thing from a moral perspective?

Yes. No doubt in my mind. When kids don’t feel the need to live-up to masculine and feminine ideals, they get to be who they are without pressure or fear of reprisal. They can be smart, compassionate, strong, expressive, ambitious, fashionable, funny—or all of the above. It’s up to them!

But Mattel is a publicly traded company looking for healthy profits. Particularly nowadays, when so many things—online and off—compete for kids’ time and attention. So it’s also worth asking:

Was a gender-neutral doll the right move from a brand perspective?

Again, I’d say yes. It’s exactly the right move. Why? Because of the crucial role identity benefits play in driving brand appeal.

At CMB, we’ve identified four key psychological benefits brands need to deliver in order to drive appeal:

  • Functional Benefits (e.g., “checking-off” goals or to-dos; saving time; saving money)
  • Social Benefits (e.g., sense of community; conversation; social connection)
  • Emotional Benefits (e.g., positive feelings; enhanced joy; reduced pain)
  • Identity Benefits (e.g., pride and self-esteem; self-expression; a positive self-image)

We leverage all four in BrandFx, our proprietary approach to helping clients achieve brand growth. In fact, we recently fielded a BrandFx study with over 20,000 U.S. consumers. In total, they provided nearly 40,000 evaluations of major brands across multiple industries. We’re still knee-deep in analysis (more blogs to come as we roll-out our results!), but so far this much is clear:

Identity benefits are particularly important.

That holds true across brands and industries—even “rational” industries like financial services. But it’s especially true for brands in the entertainment space, like Mattel. With Creatable World, Mattel is helping kids explore, express, and embrace their unique identities with a doll that offers more possibilities and imposes fewer constraints. This will pay off in kids’ interest and engagement.

Yes, many parents may be against it. But I have two things to say about that based on what we’ve seen across multiple studies:

First: Kids tend to drive toy purchase trends. They see, they like, they ask… and ask… and ask… And parents want their kids to be happy, so kids often get what they want—even when their parents feel ambivalent about it.

Second: Most parents aren’t morally opposed to their kids playing with toys associated with the opposite gender. It’s that they’re afraid of other kids’ reactions. As a parent, I can relate. There are times I’ve steered my boys away from things that I thought might lead to the spirit-crushing, innocence-busting experience of being ridiculed by peers. But when parents see evidence of shifting norms and acceptance among kids, their fears will diminish—and the fact the Mattel has released a gender-neutral doll is evidence in itself. After all, Mattel knows kids, and they put a lot of money on the line. So, if my boys want a Creatable World doll, it’s theirs. Because what I really want is for them to be able to choose their paths—and feel valued for the amazing, unique individuals they are—without having to squeeze themselves into a narrow vision of what it means to be a man.

If change is on our doorstep, I’m ready to welcome it in, and I’m likely not the only parent who feels this way.

 


Erica CarranzaErica has a B.A. from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

Topics: marketing strategy, brand health and positioning, digital media and entertainment research, growth and innovation, Identity, emotion, BrandFx, consumer psychology

This Blog is Dark and Full of Emotional Turmoil

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Thu, May 16, 2019

Includes spoilers through season 8/episode 5.

My love affair with Game of Thrones developed gradually and, by season four, I’d fallen head-over-heels. Like most fans, I enjoyed watching it buck narrative conventions, leaving them littered along the way like so many torched wights. But what really captured my heart was its subtle feminism.

Finally, here was a show where the women were just as varied, complex, and important to the story as the men. They had goals of their own, well-developed personalities, and together they represented an impressive range of attributes—vulnerability, compassion, strategic thinking, naivete, cynicism, resilience, physical strength, and more. They fought the patriarchy, but each in her own way. And, by the time Daenerys met her war council in Westeros, her strongest allies were women. That could have felt like a heavy-handed attempt by the writers to give women roles traditionally held by men. Instead, it felt like the natural result of all that had happened up to that point.

What’s more, even the men of Game of Thrones subverted expectations. My favorites among them were smart and funny—but also kind and compassionate. And few of them had the pretty face or chiseled physique worn by typical epic heroes. In its first season, Game of Thrones inspired the term “sexposition”—yet somehow it had delivered a smorgasbord of compelling male and female characters. And the world was watching.

With all these reasons to love the show, I was worried about how it might end. A happily-ever-after would betray what had made it great. But, truth be told, I didn’t want a villain to win. I was sympathetic to the conundrum the showrunners must be in, and pessimistic about their finding a good way out.

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

Right before “The Long Night” aired (season 8/episode 3), we ran a survey among friends and colleagues. We asked them their predictions for how the series would end, and how they expected to feel about it. While the survey was just for fun—and hardly a representative sample—the results were revealing:

  • Less than a third (30%) thought they’d feel mostly good about how the series ended.
  • A third (34%) thought they’d feel ambivalent (i.e., good and bad in equal measure).
  • Nearly a quarter (23%) thought they’d feel mostly bad.

In total, over half (57%) predicted having strong negative emotional reactions to whatever would unfold in the final episodes (i.e., the 23% expecting to feel bad, plus the 34% expecting to feel ambivalent). Only 13% of viewers—whose lack of emotional investment in the show I’ve come to envy—thought they would end up feeling neutral.

got pie chart

Furthermore, viewers thought they would feel highly activated, energetic emotions.

A bit of background… At CMB, we use a method of measuring emotion (EMPACT) that we developed to capture its two core dimensions: valence (i.e., intensity of the positive or negative feelings) and activation (i.e., their level of energy).

For example, sadness and anger can feel equally negative in terms of valence. But sadness is low in activation, while anger is high. Sadness is low energy and makes people want to withdraw. Anger is agitating—it makes people want to act. Not surprisingly, online content is particularly likely to go viral when it evokes high activation emotions.

When viewers predicted how they’d feel about the way the series ends:

  • Half (49%) predicted highly activated negative reactions. Specifics included feeling frustrated, annoyed, anxious, stressed, angry, and even disgusted.
  • About half (46%) predicted highly activated positive reactions. Specifics included feeling entertained, amused, amazed, happy, and excited.
  • Relatively few (27%) predicted low activation negative reactions (e.g., feeling drained, depressed, disappointed, and discouraged).
  • Even fewer (11%) predicted low activation positive reactions (e.g., feeling pleased, satisfied, and nostalgic).

So nearly everyone expects to feel highly activated—but viewers were split in terms of positive vs. negative valence. That’s a precarious situation for a show as it approaches its series finale.

got valenceLinking viewers’ expected emotion to their predictions for the show also uncovered some interesting trends. For example, those expecting to feel activated positive emotions (e.g., happiness and excitement) were particularly likely to think the “good guys” would survive—including Jon, Arya, Sansa, Tyrion, Samwell, and even little Sam. Other viewers were less optimistic. But, regardless of their predictions, most shared an intensely emotional relationship to the show.

I can relate. In fact, the anxiety I felt about whether Game of Thrones could stick the landing is nothing compared to how I feel now, having watched it ruin most of its best characters:

  • Sansa expressed gratitude (!) for her worst abusers and is now (according to showrunner Dan Benioff) stealing moves from Littlefinger’s playbook. Plus she continually snipes at Dany despite Dany’s essential help in saving the North.
  • Last we saw Brienne—the first and only female Knight of the Seven Kingdoms—she was pathetically bawling in her bathrobe as Jaime rode out of her life.
  • Then Cersei, having finally proven herself her father’s equal, died crying in Jaime’s arms.
  • Varys is burned alive thanks to Tyrion, who continues his two-season track-record of making inexplicably poor decisions. (He used to drink and know things. Now I guess he just drinks.)
  • Grey Worm led the remaining allied forces into a wave of war crimes.
  • And Dany, who locked-up her dragons when Drogon killed a single innocent child, has brutally murdered a whole city full of innocent children. Why? Because she feels threatened by a man, hurt by his rejection, frustrated by the skepticism she met in Westeros, and enraged at the beheading of a friend.

Yes, Dany losing her mind may have been in the cards from the start. But to have flipped in that moment—and for those reasons—didn’t fit with most of what we’d learned about her. Game of Thrones never made excuses for the ascent of powerful women. Now it’s making-up excuses to tear them down.

So it looks like the show that reveled in subverting narrative conventions will end by validating the oldest tropes in the book…

  • The hero where all our sympathies and hopes should lie is a white man. He’s a stoic warrior with a noble heart—and, lo and behold, he’s of noble blood.
  • Women, on the other hand, are weak, petty, manipulative, and overly emotional.
  • Women who seek power are particularly bad. Two women vying for the Iron Throne is apparently worse for Westeros than the Night King and his army of undead.

How does this turn of events make me feel? Discouraged, disappointed, angry, aggrieved… The last Game of Thrones episode has yet to arrive, but my love affair with the show is already over.

And, again, I bet I’m not alone.

__

Erica is VP of Consumer Psychology at Chadwick Martin Bailey. She has over ten years of experience leading market research for major brands across a range of categories—including clients such as Disney, Viacom, Mattel, Instagram, Prudential and American Express. A PhD social psychologist, Erica applies this expertise to give her clients a unique edge in understanding and engaging their target audiences.


Erica CarranzaErica has a B.A. from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

For more insights, please follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Topics: EMPACT, emotional measurement, emotion

Competing on Image Isn't Enough: Why and How to Make Your Brand an Expression of Identity

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Wed, Jan 24, 2018

girl with coffee.jpeg

Brand image matters.

For marketers, that’s a truism—and for good reason. Brand image does matter. I see evidence of it every day, in the work we do at CMB, uncovering insights that help brands craft winning strategies. We spend a lot of time helping our clients decide how to fine-tune their brand image, market it effectively, support it with products and customer experiences, and track their progress. Some brands have been wildly successful in their pursuit of a brand image that has helped them maintain a competitive edge (e.g., Disney is “magical,” Apple is “innovative,” Walmart is “affordable”).

But the traditional focus on brand image hasn’t kept-up with people’s lives.

We live in a world where people are inundated with options. Are you looking for something to eat? Something to watch? Something to wear? Whatever it is, rest assured you’ll have lots of possibilities. Even something as mundane as shampoo yields over 100,000 hits on Amazon. It’s gotten to the point where scientists are studying the effects of “too much choice” on our wellbeing.

In a market this saturated, competing on brand image is no longer enough.

Most brands already strive to communicate a positive brand image and a well-defined set of brand benefits. In every industry, many brands are vying for the same customers and claiming the same (or similar) attributes. People are quick to say that Apple is “innovative”—but they say the same thing about Samsung. So, when they’re choosing their next smartphone, “innovative” won’t be a deciding factor.

Furthermore, competing on brand benefits (like service, cost, and convenience) isn’t always practical. I witnessed that firsthand in my time at American Express. Great customer service and Membership Rewards were once part of a unique value proposition. But, nowadays, card benefits offered by one brand are quickly copied by others, and the industry is stuck in a “race to the bottom.” In their efforts to beat competitors and increase share, brands are undercutting profitability to offer ever richer card rewards.

What’s a brand to do in a world where it’s gotten this hard to compete on brand image and benefits?

The answer: Compete on brand tribe.

People love brands that help them express their identities. And, thanks to the explosion of options for consumers, every choice is now a chance to express who we are.

Yet decades of scientific research have shown that our identities are social—they are shaped by our social groups, norms, and connections. Who we are depends on our real and aspirational relationships with other people. So truly strategic brands lead people to equate using the brand with joining a tribe that expresses an identity. And the secret to creating that connection is a clear, compelling brand customer image. After all, brands aren’t people. But brand customers are.

Your brand’s customer image is the mental picture people have of the kind of person who typically buys or uses your brand. It’s related to brand image, but it’s not the same. To take one of my favorite examples, consider Subaru. When we ask people to describe the brand Subaru, they say “safe” and “reliable.” But when we ask them to describe the typical Subaru owner, they say “middleclass,” “family-focused,” and “outdoorsy.” They picture someone with kids and a dog, who likes to hike, and who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries. There’s a lot of nuance to their image of the typical Subaru customer—including attributes a person can embody, but a brand cannot.

Of course no image of your brand’s typical customer will truly capture your actual customer base. Your brand’s customer image is more like a stereotype: A set of overgeneralized assumptions about typical members of your brand tribe. But people tend to rely on stereotypes—often unconsciously—in order to navigate our complex world. Accordingly, brand customer image has powerful effects on consumer behavior.

For example, at CMB we’ve found that:

  • When people identify with their image of a brand customer, they are 14-times more likely to choose that brand, and 15-times more likely to recommend it.
  • As predictors of brand engagement, our measures of identification with the perceived customer routinely beat perceptions of the brand—even on dimensions as important as quality, price, value, service, convenience, authenticity, reputability, and innovation.

Taking all this into account, it’s no surprise that many of the most iconic ad campaigns have invoked a clear, compelling customer image. Remember “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC”? Dove’s “Real Beauty”? Or the insidiously cliquey “Choosy moms choose Jif”?

To effectively compete on brand tribe, make sure that you have answers to these three questions:

  1. What is your brand’s current customer image? Does your target audience already have an image of the kind of person who uses the brand? If so, how clear is it? What attributes define that image (e.g., what demographics, motives, and values)? And what (if anything) makes it unique compared to competitors’ customer images?
  1. How compelling is that image? Is it an image of a person your target audience can relate to? Is it a kind of person they know and like, or would like to know? Does it represent an “ingroup” or an “outgroup” tribe—and how appealing is it compared to their images of competitor brand tribes?
  1. How can you optimize that image? What’s working about the image, and what isn’t? Which assumptions should you reinforce—and which should you work to change—to own a customer image that is compelling and unique for your audience, and realistically attainable for your brand?

If we want to influence consumer behavior, we must remember that consumers are people, and that people are social animals. Show them a group that they want to belong to, and they’ll adopt the attitudes and behaviors they believe to be normative (i.e., typical) for that group—including choosing the same brand.

Yet most brands today are not leveraging this powerful insight in a truly disciplined, quantitatively-validated, systematic way. 

And in the current competitive context—across industries—it’s more important than ever. Brands assume that consumers are asking themselves, “What brand do I want to use?” But, at a deeper and more decisive level, they are really asking: “Who do I want to be? Do I want to be the kind of person who uses this brand?”

Interested in learning more about how CMB leverages consumer psychology, advanced analytics, and market strategy to help clients build customer-centric brands? Watch out latest webinar on BrandFx and the three critical pieces to the brand engagement puzzle:

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Topics: brand health and positioning, Identity, AffinID