For years marketers have been arguing about whether brand attitudes lead to behavior, or behavior leads to attitudes, or whether attitudes matter at all. And when it comes to influencing future buyers, maybe brand attitudes do not matter. Instead, we should think in terms of brand impressions.
Do attitudes lead or follow behavior?
This post was prompted by a comment on last week's post
. Questioning my use of the sales funnel as being too linear a description of purchasing behavior in this post, Stanislaw Dzieduszycki referenced Byron Sharp's assertion that attitudes come after purchase
. In general, I am sure that this is true of CPG purchasing. Even if a brand of snack product, cooking sauce, or soft drink seemed so compelling that people immediately decided they wanted to try it, the lag between attitude creation and purchase would probably be days not weeks. There would be no apparent lag. Besides, how many CPG brands are that compelling? Very few.
However, as I suggested in my reply, my experience across hundreds of brands suggests that in many non-CPG categories brand attitudes can lead purchase. I have seen many cases where changes in consideration and other positive attitudes led changes in sales by weeks or even months. Unlike CPG categories, when the risk and cost attached to a brand choice are high people are likely research their purchases. They ask their friends, read reviews, and visit the dealership, and attitudes form as a result. However, are they really attitudes?
An attitude is bound up with experience
Here is a definition of "attitude" that Google served up,
"a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person's behavior"
The word "settled" is important. Whether attitudes lead or lag behavior they are integrally bound up with it. Brand users will always be more likely to agree with positive attitude statements. They have direct experience of the brand. They know its strengths and weaknesses. For good or ill, their attitudes are settled.
By contrast, the views of people who have not tried or researched a brand are going to be far less definitive. Most of their understanding will be gained passively by indirect learning. They will have a sense of what the brand stands for, an "impression" (not to be confused with a media impression). And those impressions will likely be more transient and more malleable than those of someone with direct experience. In other words, unless someone uses a brand, it is likely that their impressions are not settled.
Three types of impression
Here is a definition of "impression" that Google provided,
"an idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone, especially one formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little evidence."
To me, this definition seems entirely appropriate to the impressions people absorb over time
prior to researching a brand or shopping its product category. And I would divide brand impressions up into three types.
1) Associations related to relevant cues
In the last ten years, thanks to the Ehrenberg Bass Institute, the phrase Category Entry Points has become a popular way of saying, "make sure your brand is associated with why people might want to buy your category."
Nothing wrong with that, but surely, this is table stakes for any brand? If people do not quickly and easily associate a brand with relevant cues like needs, occasions, moods, or social settings, it is going to have little chance of being chosen. A more salient brand will be the most obvious choice. This does not preclude a brand being found during search or shopping, but to be chosen it must offer a clearly better option than its more salient competition.
However, in most categories, likely more than one brand will be salient in relation to a given cue. And that is why other associations, like being an innovator, caring about customers, or being more sustainable, become important. They offer an additional means to help potential buyers make a purchase decision. It is not just being salient that matters, when making a choice between brands, being associated with positive and motivating ideas also matters.
2) Expectations of the product experience
While it is commonly understood that experience needs to match, if not exceed, expectations, I suspect relatively few marketers think about how their activities might actively shape people's anticipation of the brand experience. However, rehearsing what it can be like to use a brand
can have a powerful influence on people's understanding and feelings at the time of usage. A lot of advertising does this inadvertently, but far better to do it deliberately and set up a positive anticipation of the usage experience.
3) Emotions that guide our intuitive response
The Google definition of "impression" uses the word feeling. In neuroscience, feelings are the conscious interpretation of an emotional response. So, people might know they feel good about a brand, but what matters more to marketers are the emotional markers that attach to the brand, the ones that will help guide future behavior. If the balance of emotional markers associated with a brand are positive, people will tend to be drawn toward it, if they are negative, they will tend to shy away.
Implications for marketers
The biggest growth potential for any brand lies in influencing future buyers. But if someone is not yet ready to buy your brand or category, it is unlikely that they will actively think about or seek out information about your brand. So, explicit messaging is unlikely to be remembered, but memorable impressions of what your brand stands for can influence future decision making. This is one of the reasons that evoking a positive response to your brand in its advertising is so important, and why intrusive and repetitive attempts to gain attention with explicit messaging are unlikely to pay off beyond influencing those with an immediate need for the category.
Implications for market researchers
For decades, even if we have known better, researchers have asked people for their attitudes about brands as if the respondent could be expected to have a firm opinion. Yes, scales are meant to capture a respondent's degree of certainty, but all too often the distinction between current and future buyers is ignored in favor of looking at overall patterns in the data. Maybe we should just be explicit in the way we frame our questions and ask people who have never experienced a brand for their impressions? Better yet, measure their intuitive response to the brand to see whether their attraction is getting stronger or weaker over time.
So, to return to my original question, do brand attitudes really matter. Yes, they reflect the mindset of the people that know your brand best. In some cases, people's attitudes will start forming before direct experience, in others, after. But when it comes to understanding whether your marketing is influencing future buyers we need a different standard, one that recognizes people's future purchase consideration will be based largely on impressions not attitudes.
But what do you think? Is the difference between attitudes and impressions a meaningful distinction? Please share your thoughts.