Build a brand, build on irrationality

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

We can blame the evolution of technology for a lot of societal evils, but nothing can take away its positive impact on our own development. On a similar vein, we blame technology for rising consumerism, increase in the complexity of life, decline in productivity and a constant state of restlessness. But all this blame game does not take away the fact that we are a supremely irrational species when it comes to behaviour.

The irrationality in our genes gets displayed in our wide spectrum behaviour. One of the biggest challenges of brand building is effectively straddling this spectrum with relevance and appeal. On the other hand, organisations or brands try to tap into the behavioural traits at extreme ends of this spectrum and emerge successful. Lets look at a relevant example:

In July 2017, British tech startup Provenance secured fresh funding to continue to work towards its vision of making the supply chains of the foods industry transparent, ethical, responsible and truthful by 2025. The startup is already working with more than 1000 businesses and wants to take its model beyond the United Kingdom:

Focusing on the other side of the behavioural spectrum, most supermarket chains in the United Kingdom seem to be getting away by launching food brands from non-existent farms. There is no single culprit but it seems everyone loves the allure of creating a fake farm that produces food products. This fake source or origin is then touted on the packaging to give a false sense of purity, sustainability and sourcing (or in short “provenance”). Legal threats is not making anyone budge, as these items seemed to have reached the bestseller lists of these chains.

So there we have a perfect example of how two organisations (and why am I not surprised that the startup thinks differently) can appeal to two ends of our behavioural traits. What are these two ends? One end involves high levels of consciousness, curiosity and intent to understand the source of our food and the impact of food production and supply on the environment. The other end involves a gullible, easily pleased, superficial and a lazy self, who does not bother whether the claims are true, till the time they read and sound different (or exotic).

One of the fundamental objectives of any serious and strategically designed segmentation study is to unearth these varying behavioural traits (and then identify opportunities for growth). Divergent consumer behaviour has reached a point wherein need segments from a segmentation study cannot be reconciled with a brand portfolio. In many instances a brand may never want to because the divergent needs cause conflicts with brand values and ethics.

Brands can ride the highest waves of our irrational and divergent behaviour. McDonald’s success in 2017 was primarily driven by promotions on its best-selling items, digital enhancements in-store and the expansion of the McDelivery programme in combination with UberEats. The key things to note — no significant menu innovations (McDonald’s actually bought back some old classics), no skews towards healthy menu options and no change in the brand’s core offering. Every forecaster of repute has predicted that the healthy foods category will be worth billions (if not a trillion) in the next 10 years.

Our irrational behaviours and the resultant choices are not made in a vacuum. They are all part of an interconnected system. Categorised as divergent thinking, these highly conflicting, downright puzzling and inconsistent set of behaviours define who we are. This is making marketing and branding focus on individual decision-making moments, rather than the consumer as an individual. There is divergent thinking also in terms of consumers are categorised:

  • In-depth understanding of individual purchase decisions = Accepting the irrationality and divergence of our behavioural traits
  • Categorising consumers as Millennials, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z = Believing in the hypothesis that after all our irrationality, specificity and variance in our behaviour, we are still all the same (especially if we are born in the same 10 year window period)

Divergent behaviour is everywhere. Our restaurant choices as we want to refresh our palette is one. Changing brands or a supermarket chain due to an ongoing promotion is another. The fact that credible innovations fail and useless ones get VC funding is another example. The fact that we drive a Tesla and buy our daughter a Mini Cooper is another. These are a few examples out of, probably, hundreds or thousands.

What do brands need to do to focus amidst divergent and irrational behaviour? Quite a few things, if done right, can set brands up for success in a world of uncertainty:

  1. Separate the brand from the underlying product — This is important to assess what the brand stands for (and should continue to) and not product innovations that are feasible. Mainstream positioning is not dead, but outliers / fads / one night trends need to be cut out
  2. Enhance the positioning of the brand to meet expanding need dimensions — Needs have expanded and have become more complex and multi-dimensional. In an irrational world, brands need to position against dimensions of a need, and not how they are acted out
  3. Maintaining consistency at the core and innovating at the edges — Success does not need to be exciting always, till the time it is achieved with discipline. Divergent consumer thinking is caused by indecisiveness and abundance. To be successful, a brand has to address the core set of needs, while innovating at the edges for new and evolving needs. This essentially means not adding to the abundance and managing the indecisiveness
  4. Letting go completely and effectively — The hardest part of discipline is letting go off low hanging fruits. Like the segmentation example above, managing divergent thinking requires letting go. For example, my brand will not get into organic jams because I want to maintain focus on organic juices. Or, my brand will not launch take away packs because I am building a brand around a sit-down experience
  5. Shaping and influencing behaviour — Always the hardest, but the most ambitious, thing to do is to shape and influence behaviour. To make that happen, a brand needs to assume a category leadership status. This leadership status has got nothing to do with market value or market share. It is all about bringing and driving change. Successfully influencing behaviour means that as a brand you are able to manage divergent decision-making

Irrational or divergent behaviours will continue to influence seemingly competing and conflicting categories. A McDonald’s will keep on growing and so will be the healthy fruit juices category. Brand success will be determined not by the quantity of decisions influenced, but the quality through which they were influenced. Big changes in consumer behaviour have happened through quality of experiences (and not quantity). The same is going to be true for managing divergent behaviours.

Strategy Consultant