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How To Tap Into Social Norms to Build a Strong Brand
In recent years there has been a necessary shift in the way businesses advertise themselves to consumers, thanks to the increasingly common information overload experienced by the average person.
In 1945, just after WWII, the annual total ad spend in the United States was about $2.8 billion (that's around $36.8 million before the adjustment for inflation). In 2013, it was around $140 billion.
Don't forget that this is just paid media advertising; it doesn't include the many types of earned coverage like search, social, email, supermarket displays, direct mail and so on. Alongside the growth in media spends is a growth in the sheer volume of products available, which is made possible by increasingly sophisticated technologies for sales, inventory, delivery and so on.
What does this mean? Well, simply that the strategy of 'just buy some ads and sell the benefits' isn't enough anymore: you'll be lost in the noise. How can a brand retain customers and create loyalty in an atmosphere where everyone else has a better offer? Through tapping into the psychology of social relationships.
Imagine that you are at home for Thanksgiving, and your mother has pulled out all the stops to lovingly craft the most delicious, intricate dinner ever known to man. You and your family have enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of socializing and snacking on leftovers and watching football, and now it's time to leave. As you hug your parents goodbye, you take out your wallet. "How much do I owe you for all the love and time you put into this wonderful afternoon?" you ask. "$100 for the food? here, have $50 more as a thank you for the great hospitality!" How would your mother respond to such an offer? I don't know about your mother, but my mom would be deeply offended.
New scenario: You've gone to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. It's the most delicious dinner you've ever had, the atmosphere is great with the football playing in the background, and best of all, your server is attentive, warm, and maternal. You feel right at home. At the end of the meal, you give her a hug and thank her for the delicious meal before leaving. She calls the cops and has you arrested for a dine-and-dash.
And herein lies the difference between social norms and market norms.
The Thanksgiving dinner example is one which I've borrowed from a book by Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. Ariely discusses two ways in which humans interact: social norms and market norms.
Social norms, as Ariely explains, "are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required." Examples would be: helping a friend move house, babysitting your grandchild, having your parents over for dinner. There is an implied reciprocity on some level but it is not instantaneous nor is it expected that the action will be repaid on a financial level. These are the sort of relationships and interactions we expect to have with friends and family.
Market norms, on the other hand, are about the exchange of resources and in particular, money. Examples of this type of interaction would be any type of business transaction where goods or services are exchanged for money: wages, prices, rents, interest, and cost-and-benefit. These are the sort of relationships and interactions we expect to have with businesses.
I've drawn you a very rough illustration - it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing visual, but it gets the point across:
Social norms vs. market norms
Market norms come into play any time money enters into the equation, sometimes counter-intuitively! Ariely gives the example of a group of lawyers who were approached by the AARP and asked whether they would provide legal services to needy retirees at a drastically discounted rate of $30/hour. The lawyers said no. From a market norms perspective, the exchange didn't make sense. Later the same lawyers were asked whether they would consider donating their time free of charge to needy retirees. The vast majority of the lawyers said yes. The difference is that, when no money changes hands, the exchange shifts from a poor-value market exchange to an altruistic and therefore high-value social exchange. It is a strange psychological quirk that 'once market norms enter our considerations, the social norms depart.'
Mixed signals: when social and market norms collide
In a book called Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout (originally published in 1981), the authors describe the 1950s as the 'product era' of advertising, when 'advertising people focused their attention on product features and customer benefits.' It was all about the unique selling proposition (USP).
In this case, the USP is mildness: "not one single case of throat irritation!" (image Source)
However, as the sheer volume of products on the market increased, it became more difficult to sell a product simply by pointing out the benefits. As Ries and Trout put it, 'Your "better mousetrap" was quickly followed by two more just like it. Both claiming to be better than the first one.'
They describe the next phase of advertising (which hit its peak in the 1960s and 70s and which we can probably all relate to if we watch Mad Men) as the 'image era', pioneered by David Ogilvy. In this period, successful campaigns sold the reputation, or 'image' of a brand and a product rather than its features. Ries and Trout quote Ogilvy as saying that 'Every advertisement is a long-term investment in the image of a brand'. Examples include Hathaway shirts and Rolls-Royce.
Rather than the product benefits, this ad focuses on the 'image' of the man who smokes Viceroys: "Viceroy has a thinking man's filter and a smoking man's taste. (image source)
But yet again, as more and more brands imitate the strategy of these successful campaigns, the space gets more crowded and the consumer becomes more jaded and these techniques become less effective.
According to Ries and Trout, this brought the world of advertising into the 'positioning era' of the 80s, which is where they positioned (hehe) themselves. As they described this, "To succeed in our overcommunicated society, a company must create a position in the prospect's mind, a position that takes into consideration not only a company's own strengths and weaknesses, but those of its competitors as well."
This one's all about positioning Winston's in opposition to competitors: as the brand with real taste, as opposed to other brands which 'promise taste' but fail to deliver. (image source)
And yet, despite this evolution of advertising strategy over the course of the 20th century, all of these different approaches are ultimately based on market norms. The 'product era' sells you features and benefits in exchange for money; the 'image era' sells you on an image and a lifestyle in exchange for money, and the 'positioning era' sells you on why a particular company is the right one to supply your needs in exchange for money.
Social norms and loyalty
When does cheap not win? When it comes to social norms. Social norms are about relationships, community and loyalty. If your sister is getting married, you don't do a cost benefit analysis to decide whether or not you should go to her wedding or whether the food will be better and the travel cheaper if you go to your next door neighbor's BBQ instead. If anything, it's the opposite: some people take it to such an extreme that they will go into massive debt to attend friends' weddings and bring lavish gifts. That is certainly not a decision based on monetary considerations.
Therefore, if the average brand wants to get out of the vicious cycle of undercutting competitors in order to gain business, they need to start focusing on relationships and community building instead of 'SUPER CHEAP BEST LOW LOW PRICES!!®' and sneaky upsells at the point of sale. This is something my colleague Tim Allen spoke about in a presentation called "Make Me Love Your Brand, Not Just Tolerate It". And this is what a large number of recent 'advertising success stories' are based on and it's the whole premise behind many of the more recent trends in marketing: email marketing, personalization, SMS marketing, good social media marketing, and so on.
Ariely uses the example of a bank when describing the danger of bringing social norms into a business relationship:
"What happens if a customer's check bounces? If the relationship is based on market norms, the bank charges a fee, and the customer shakes it off. Business is business. While the fee is annoying, it's nonetheless acceptable. In a social relationship, however, a hefty late fee--rather than a friendly call from the manager or an automatic fee waiver--is not only a relationship-killer; it's a stab in the back. Consumers will take personal offense. They'll leave the bank angry and spend hours complaining to their friends about this awful bank.“
Richard Fergie also summed this issue up nicely in this G+ post about the recent outrage over Facebook manipulating users' emotions; in this case, the back-stab effect was due to the fact that the implicit agreement between the users and the company about what was being 'sold' and therefore 'valued' in the exchange changed without warning.
The basic rule of thumb is that whether you choose to emphasize market norms or social norms, you can't arbitrarily change the rules.
A side note about social media and brands: Act like a normal person
In a time when the average American aged 18-64 spends 2-3 hours a day on social media, it is only logical that we would start to see brands and the advertising industry follow suit. But if this is your only strategy for building relationships and interacting with your customers socially, it's not good enough. Instead, in this new 'relationship era' of advertising (as I've just pretentiously dubbed it, in true Ries-and-Trout fashion), the brands who will successfully merge market and social norms in their advertising will be the brands which are able to develop the sort of reciprocal relationships that we see with our friends and family. I wrote a post over on the Distilled blog about what social media marketers can learn from weddings. That was just one example, butthe TL;DR is: as a brand, you still need to use social media the way that normal people do. Otherwise you risk becoming a Condescending Corporate Brand on Facebook. On Twitter too.
Social norms and authenticity: Why you actually do need to care
Another way in which brands tap into social norms are through their brand values. My colleague Hannah Smith talked about this in her post on The Future of Marketing. Moz themselves are a great example of a brand with strong values: for them it's TAGFEE. Hannah also gives the examples of Innocent Drinks (sustainability), Patagonia (environmentalism) and Nike (whose strapline 'Find Your Greatness' is about their brand values of everyone being able to 'achieve their own defining moment of greatness').
Havas Media have been doing some interesting work around trying to 'measure' brand sentiment with something call the 'Meaningful Brands Index' (MBi), based on how much a brand is perceived as making a meaningful difference in people's lives, both for personal wellbeing and collective wellbeing. Whether or not you like their approach, they have some interesting stats: apparently only 20% of brands worldwide are seen to 'meaningfully positively impact peoples' lives', but the brands that rank high on the MBi also tend to outperform other brands significantly (120%).
Now there may be a 'correlation vs causation' argument here, and I don't have space to explore it. But regardless of whether you like the MBi as a metric or not, countless case studies demonstrate that it's valuable for a brand to have strong brand values.
There are two basic rules of thumb when it comes to choosing brand values:
It has to be relevant to what you do. If a bingo site is running an environmentalism campaign, it might seem a bit weird and it won't resonate well with your audience. You also need to watch out for accidental irony. For example, McDonalds and Coca-Cola came in for some flak when they sponsored the Olympics, due to their reputation as purveyors of unhealthy food/drink products.
Nike's #FindYourGreatness campaign, on the other hand, is a great example of how to tie in your values with your product. Another example is one of our clients at Distilled, SimplyBusiness, a business insurance company whose brand values include being 'the small business champion'. This has informed their content strategy, leading them to develop in-depth resources for small businesses, and it has served them very well.
2) It can't be so closely connected to what you do that it comes across as self-serving. For example, NatWest's NatYes campaign claims to be about enabling people to become homeowners, but ultimately (in no small part thanks to the scary legal compliance small print about foreclosure) the authenticity of the message is undermined.
The most important thing when it comes to brand values: it's very easy for people to be cynical about brands and whether they 'care'. Havas did a survey that found that only 32% of people feel that brands communicate honestly about commitments and promises. So choose values that you do feel strongly about and follow through even if it means potentially alienating some people. The recent OKCupidvs Mozilla Firefox episode is an illustration of standing up for brand values (regardless of where you stand on this particular example, it got them a lot of positive publicity).
So what can we take away from these basic principles of social norms and market norms? If you want to build a brand based on social relationships, here's 3 things to remember.
Your brand needs to provide something besides just a low price. In order to have a social relationship with your customers, your brand needs a personality, a tone of voice, and you need to do nice things for your customers without the expectation of immediate payback.
You need to keep your mix of social and market norms consistent at every stage of the customer lifecycle. Don't pull the rug out from under your loyal fans by hitting them with surprise costs after they checkout or other tricks. And don't give new customers significantly better benefits. What you gain in the short term you will lose in the long term resentment they will feel about having been fooled. Instead, treat them with transparency and fairness and be responsive to customer service issues.
You need brand values that make sense for your brand and that you (personally and as a company) really believe in. Don't have values that don't relate to your core business. Don't have values which are obviously self-serving. Don't be accidentally ironic like McDonalds.
Source : http://moz.com/blog/social-norms-build-a-strong-brand
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