Customers Don’t Care As Much As We Wish They Did

If you work in marketing, media or advertising there are probably two academics you would know by name: Mark Ritson and Byron Sharp. Both have built a presence and following by debunking commonly held beliefs with data and evidence. So, when they say something, it tends to make an impact.

So, with that in mind, it’s no surprise that the latest research from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, written by Professor Sharp, has gotten quite a bit of coverage in the trade media. Are Big Brands Dying sets out to prove that, no, they are not. And in doing so it purports to debunk a number of other commonly held industry-myths.

The one that seems to have got the most attention is the dismissal of the assertion that ‘Digital media has given small brands a cheap way to reach consumers – “levelling the playing field”‘. The commentary around this focusses on Sharp’s own assertion that big brands have “wasted” money on digital.

Whilst this sort of misses the point of the original assertion – perhaps because it is hard to argue with the fact that platforms like Google & Facebook have given start-ups and small businesses access to global audiences that would never previously have been possible – this section actually contains very little evidence to back up Sharp’s own assertions of wastage (I counted just 4 external references for 305 words, only 1 of which directly proved wastage by big brands, and none of which disproved that online levels the field for smaller brands.)

However, that wasn’t the part of the research that really caught my eye. That was the part where Sharp uses actual data to prove a believe I have long had, often seemingly in contrast to much of the advertising and marketing industry.

This is the assertion that young people reject big brands and, more specifically, that “consumers are rejecting ‘corporate’ brands and seeking out eco/purpose/hipster brands.” Contrary to this particular piece of accepted industry wisdom, Sharp argues that:

While it is certainly a trend for brands to signal such virtues, the evidence that consumers are flocking to such brands is lacking.  Indeed Wheeler et al. (2013) examined the rejection rates of green brands and discovered a statistically significant higher rejection (47% compared with 30%) for green brands.  However, it is important to note that the dominant reason for rejection was unfamiliarity.

Another important finding was that non-green brands were practically never rejected for not being green: “Out of the reasons given for rejection of non-green brands, on average a brand not being ‘green’ attained only 1% incidence” (p.108).  The reasons for rejection of green and non-green brands were highly similar.

Stating as fact that people will buy brands based on their social responsibility has become such an accepted truth that it has recently felt like it is one of the mandatory entry requirements for Cannes Winners.

CMOs of major FMCG brands state it. Advertising agencies state it in their Future Trends presentations. Consumers say it whenever they are asked.

But, as Sharp points out, based on the data hardly any of these consumers actually seem to do what they say they are doing.

If they did, fast fashion stores wouldn’t still be using fire-traps in the developing world. If they did, our phones wouldn’t be built out of the technological equivalent of blood diamonds. If they did, people wouldn’t use companies that pay next to no tax. If they did, we wouldn’t still have battery eggs making up just under 50% of all sold. If they did, well, you can probably add another ten things people wouldn’t still be buying or doing.

None of this should really be a surprise; after all, the hippies of the 60s & 70s ended up voting for Regan and Thatcher. The ravers turned into David Cameron. No matter how much we might badge today’s young as Millenials and claim that they are radically different to everything that came before, it doesn’t make it true.

Obviously there are plenty of brands that do make a big deal of their beliefs, but saying that you support marriage equality is a lot easier than changing your supply chain or finance structure. And what seems clear is that CSR activity of that sort is actually pretty successful when directed inwards as much as outwards: designed to make people who work for a company feel better about that fact, rather than convincing people to buy their product.

So why did this myth take hold?

Well, I guess that it’s tough working in marketing. It’s not like Mad Men (though I doubt many of us would like it if it were) and many of us may feel ever so shamefaced about what we do, particularly if you believe that rampant consumerism is a zero-sum game where we’re all going to lose. So perhaps what we have all been doing is trying to make ourselves feel better by pretending that people will be better if only we give them the opportunity.

Unfortunately, whilst Sharp hasn’t (in my mind at least) proved categorically that big brands have been wasting money on digital, he’s done a pretty good job showing that whilst technology might change, people are still people.

Mad Men image: AMC

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