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Branding theories under scrutiny in “Absolute Value”

24 Mar

To call advertising as the ‘art of relative persuasion‘ is sure to get the major advertising practitioners to put you on their black list.

I just completed the book Absolute Value, and found it to be a larger thesis than the title implied. In some ways it’s a systematic take-down of several sacred cows of marketing, branding, the role of persuasion and much more. But what’s impressive is how the authors (Ithamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen) do it in a calm, intellectual fashion, trying to assure readers they are not really picking a fight.

Book - absolutevalueThey observe how we customers have a hard time assessing the quality of products, so we typically use ‘quality proxies’ such as a brand name, prior satisfaction, country of origin, image of the store at which the purchase could be made etc. Oddly enough, we change these proxies over time. Think about this: There was a time when ‘made in China’ meant superior quality, but not anymore. There was a time our prior experience with a brand determined its replacement. Today? (I recently ditched another carrier for T-Mobile because prior experience wasn’t exactly great.)

Absolute Value gives you a three-part theoretical framework of how to promote brands –the P-O-M Influence Mix. I find it interesting how the authors steer clear of calling it the Marketing Mix. It stands for Prior Preferences (P), Other People (O), and Marketers (M).

Does this mean the death of branding? No! But it does reveal serious cracks in what is typically considered brand management –tied to Positioning theory, Segmentation etc. Today we are nearer to having perfect (or ‘absolute’) information about a brand we are considering because of the abundance of reviews, and websites dedicated to testing, comparing, or even disparaging brands. Bloggers and journalists prod and pry a brand’s claims to see if it is living up to it or the market hype, exposing the slightest flaw, or lesser-discussed breakthrough feature. Social media is a big part of this, obviously.and marketers should understand that their primary role is shifting from persuasion to (and this should not come as a shock!) communication!

In this scenario –this has to be troubling to ‘positionistas’ and those running loyalty programs—customers can evaluate a brand for what it is, rather than how it compares with other “choice-sets” they are allowed to see.

Sidenote: There’s a great story about Jonney Shih, who created a brand following with hardly any brand advertising. I was in the market for a laptop a few weeks back, so having sworn by a Toshiba for many years, guess what brand I bought?

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