Tagged: branding

Digital Glossolalia and Brand Power, or Why I Bought Some Nike Trainers

There’s a new book out about how people make purchasing decisions.

In Absolute Value, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen argue that social media has changed everything (again). Amid more reliable sources of information, branding is losing its value:

“How people buy things has changed profoundly—yet the fundamental thinking about consumer decision making and marketing has not. Most marketers still believe that they can shape consumers’ perception and drive their behavior. In this provocative book, Stanford professor Itamar Simonson and bestselling author Emanuel Rosen show why current mantras about branding and loyalty are losing their relevance. When consumers base their decisions on reviews from other users, easily accessed expert opinions, price comparison apps, and other emerging technologies, everything changes. Counter to what we frequently hear, consumers will (on average) make better choices and act more rationally.”

On first glance, it’s good news for market research: we still need to understand how people form opinions, and there may be life in the old ‘influencers’ chestnut yet:

“Today, products are being evaluated more on their “absolute value, their quality,” Dr. Simonson said. Brand names mean less. The results suggest that companies should spend less money trying to shape consumer opinions in traditional ads, he said, and more on understanding what and who are shaping those opinions.”

But it’s bad news for branding.  “…brands are less needed when consumers can assess product quality using better sources of information such as reviews from other users [or] expert opinion,” say Simonson & Rosen in HBR last month.

This is driving reaction from the plannersphere:

Twilight of the brand? Don’t bet on it – says Edward Boche. He argues in defence of branding: it’s not just a label and an advert, it’s the shaping of the whole product experience:

“A brand isn’t a mark or a logo or even an ad. It’s a combination of our expectations, past and anticipated experiences, and the promises the company makes and keeps. Branding is the way in which that story gets told and portrayed.”

Patricia McDonald, Chief Strategy Officer at Isobar UK, tweeted:

“I think the idea of “perfect competition” implies a lot higher interest in many categories than consumers have and ignores the fact that many purchases are impulsive/emotional.”
[1, 2]

Jens Martin Skibsted & Rasmus Bech Hansen helpfully put this idea in a longer context. Guess what? ‘Brand is over’ isn’t a new idea. In Brands Aren’t Dead, But Traditional Branding Tools Are Dying, they say:

“Back in the days when the internet was young, many believed that as it grew brands would become a thing of the past. Leading information economy thinkers propagated this view, including Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian, who published the highly influential book, Information Rules, in 1999. The book predicted that the power of brands would shrink as people had access to more and more free information. This has clearly turned out to be wrong. In fact, the web has become dominated by, yes, a few big brands.”

So why do brands matter?

“The role of a brand is—and never was—just about solving an information problem. It’s about providing meaning and satisfying emotional needs. These fundamental human needs have not changed. To the contrary as consumers experience information overload, there might be a tendency to gravitate toward what’s known and comforting.”


The flow space of digital media flirts with descending into glossolalia, an unending stream of syllables, a continuous babble of sound becoming noise. Babel. It moves too fast for the whole to be interpretable as meaning.  Instead we measure its parameters quantitatively: volume, velocity, and the network manifestations of power across tendrils of @s and follows and reblogs. Really it’s all one metric, pitch: the pitch of the hum of the servers, the pitch of digital fervour. The insect vitality of bees in the hive. You hear the intensity rising.

People are getting scared of this. Stream fatigue is rising. “It is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the internet. Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished,” says Alexis Madrigal. 

Thus brand.

The challenge for brands is that customers can access more information and thereby make purchase decisions based on criteria that those brands don’t control.

The challenge for customers is that they can access more information. Information alone isn’t enough. Then they’ve got to make sense of it. Trip Advisor reviews are gamed. Blog posts are bought through “influencer marketing”. So are Amazon reviews, with Vine Voice. Besides, everything’s got the same score. What’s the difference between 4.2 and 4.1 actually mean? Is it worth £5 or £50? Who can tell?

An excess of information leads to paralysis.

And paralysis doesn’t lead to purchase.

Thus brand. Brand as shortcut. Brand as, If they’ve got this much money to spend on an ad campaign, the product is probably good enough. This is our first model, brand as satisficer. Perhaps that’s not quite right, but it’s good enough.

But something else is going on. Why did I just buy a pair of Nike trainers?

So I bought a pair of running trainers a while ago. There’s definitely too much information out there about running trainers, and friends’ opinions or consumer reviews aren’t much good because their feet are probably not the funny triangular shape mine are. So I went to a running shop, and they filmed my funny flat, triangular feet in a variety of shoes (more information – help!) and then they said “Buy these ones” (option narrowing – yes!), and so I did.

I have no idea what brand those trainers are, even though I wear them a couple of times a week. They’re sort of purple.

But last night I bought a pair of Nike trainers. Nike Airs. I’m pretty fucking cynical about brands, but I definitely wanted a pair of Nike Airs. I wanted Nike Airs because I had been wearing black jeans and a biker jacket and a pair of beaten up boots all weekend, running all over London with my silly asymmetric hair and internet friends – and while those internet friends were saying I looked good, I felt old. The look was old, 5-10 years old. 2003 rock’n’roll with a pair of pseudo All Saints boots. I looked as frozen in time as Russell sodding Brand. This was inadequate.

Nike Airs take that outfit and make it contemporary. They’re good enough for the Fashion Week street style superstars, at least for the SS’14 (and I’m keeping my eyes hooked on the current show season). They’re certainly a bit ubiquitous – I was people watching on Broadway Market on Saturday, and aiii it’s like Converse never existed – but by god that’s better than being 5-10 years late. So I bought a pair on ASOS last night.

I bought Nike because the brand is potent. It is white hot right now, reaching this radiant point of semiotic excess where the fanboards on Tumblr and Pinterest are this unreadable mix of brand-generated and user-gen content – underground campaigns, limited-run collaborations; fashion editorial, Photoshop and fan art by actual sodding artists.

I cannot parse my own “Brand Appropriations” board any more: what even is this stuff?

From http://durational.tumblr.com/post/67048212408, with 108,000 notes

I won’t call it “real vs. fake” because it is all real, that is the point:  all the homages only make Nike more real and more culturally powerful. There is an excess of meaning, a surplus of signification, a chaotically generative potency, that spills over beyond the brand itself…

…And allows us, the consumer, to write with it. Write, write – is that the right verb? More that it allows us to take this surplus of meaning and inscribe it on ourselves, for ourselves. There is so much to the brand that – beyond advertising itself – it is able to do work for us, too: to reinscribe the meanings we already carry on ourselves into sharp, contemporary cultural forms.

Aka Nikes will update my fucking outfit.

rizon parein’s neon light installation for NIKE sejamax campaign

“the ability to tell a meaningful story through actions and products, not words, is the only way to win.”
[Skibsted & Hansen]

It’s more than this, you know.

I started off talking about digital glossolalia, and how “It is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the Internet. Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge” (Madrigal).

This is what brands do, if they are working right: they provide edges. They’re points of disjunction in the ceaseless flow and thus distinction, difference. They’re focus points where multiple surfaces of meaning come together, and something novel is refracted. A holographic shattering of light.

via o-c-u-l-t-o.com/

It’s a kind of potency – and so messier, if you’re doing it right (like Nike are) than a “meaningful story”. It’s about meanings, plural and in excess – it’s about putting a lot of potential out there more than it’s about laying down anything definitive and fixed.

Brand content needs to be  fractal, self-similar enough to be recognisable, but yet different at every point. We’re turning to brands for points of meaning, yes, but meanings that enable us to communicate within the ceaseless dizzying rush of the stream. Meanings whose primary values have to be the values of the stream itself – speed, flex, relentlessness. Just Do It.

Is contemporaneity itself the real value that Nike’s selling?

2009 project by Marinus Looijenga – http://ontwerpzaamheden.nl/?p=218

I don’t know what the Nike story is, exactly – but it says NOW so very well.

So what I do know is that I can tell a story with it.

“life suffocates within limits that are too close: it aspires in manifold ways to an impossible growth; it releases a steady flow of excess resources, possibly involving large squanderings of energy. The limit of growth being reached, life, without being in a closed container, at least enters into ebullition: without exploding, its extreme exuberance pours out in a movement always bordering on explosion.”
[Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share vol. 1, p.30]

Written by Comments Off on Digital Glossolalia and Brand Power, or Why I Bought Some Nike Trainers Posted in Blog Tagged with ,

What #WaitroseReasons Reveals About Why People Talk About Brands

First published here on the FACE company blog on 9th October 2012

Did the #WaitroseReasons Twitter promotion snatch success from the jaws of disaster – or the other way around?

Three weeks on, marketers are still talking about it: it’s clearly made impact on one group at least! But to us, as social media researchers immersed in hundreds of comments every day about how people talk about brands, much of the analysis seems naïve, based on an overly superficial understanding of what people are doing when they talk on social media. A hint: they’re not really talking about your brand…

But before we explain why, a summary of the Waitrose kerfuffle:

On 17th September, @Waitrose asked their customers to share their reasons for shopping at Waitrose, using the hashtag #WaitroseReasons. They got a lot of responses – probably not in quite the style they expected… Instead of an outpouring of brand love and affirmation, Twitter became a torrent of snark:


Oops. The runaway Twitter discussion produced a corresponding surge in digital industry & marketing press and blogs trying to make sense of the situation.

This followed a classic dialectic trajectory – first, the stern claims that “Waitrose was asking for trouble”, followed by enthusiastic rebuttals that all publicity is good publicity, and all ‘engagement’ is a sign of brand affection. But this hasn’t culminated in synthesis, but rather name-calling: specifically, Mark Ritson in Marketing Week arguing “Why marketers are socially stupid”. A bold claim: let’s examine it.

Ritson begins by making a very important point: situating Waitrose’s social media tactics in the context of their overall brand strategy:

“The ultimate purpose of Waitrose’s social media strategy is not to start conversations or increase the number of followers the brand has on Twitter. The purpose of Waitrose’s social media strategy is to build its brand and increase sales. Waitrose has had a successful strategy to do just that, built around two approaches – first, getting existing shoppers to shop more frequently at Waitrose and second, attracting new shoppers into the stores.”

This is really important, and not often enough done. We entirely agree – volumes of mentions or retweets are not a meaningful end in themselves, and social media metrics shouldn’t blind researchers or brands to the real goals.

What we disagree with is his next claim:

“But this campaign inadvertently positions the supermarket as posh, snobby, overpriced and reserved exclusively for the upper classes. That’s terrible news for Waitrose, because it has spent the past four years positioning its brand away from these stereotypes and towards a more accessible, value-based position to drive market share gains.

[…] Existing shoppers at Waitrose, the middle-class segment it targets, will feel sensitive and perhaps a little less enthusiastic about entering the store now, and store traffic will decline. Potential converts to Waitrose will have had their stereotypes confirmed and be less likely to consider the switch in future. Perhaps neither of these impacts will be huge, but they will be negative and they were self-inflicted.”

What’s Ritson’s thesis – that people will take the “butler” and child-called-Orlando comments literally, and conclude that Waitrose is not a place for people who don’t have these things? This is suggesting someone’s “socially stupid” – but not the marketer: the Waitrose shopper. Twitter might allow only 140-characters, but we argue there was a lot of social nuance encoded in those tweets.

Defining features of British humour and culture: self-deprecation. Sarcasm, irony. We refuse to take ourselves seriously, and we’re somewhat keen on a bit of understatement. As a result, every international guide to British culture puzzles over the way we never seem to say what we mean. “Your report was… quite good”, says your boss with a wince. Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely “scrubs up alright”.

“Put the papaya down, Orlando!” has to be read through this lens – understanding its meaning through considering what is implied, what is inverted, and the shared tacit knowledge that’s referenced. This includes:

  • Orlando is a slightly silly & pretentious name for a child – and giving children slightly silly & pretentious names is a middle-class social trend
  • Recognising this shows familiarity with this class, and suggests the speaker is of this background or close to it – so it’s also a self-deprecating joke (which aren’t aggressive but rather inclusive – inviting recognition)
  • Recognising buying exotic fruit like papayas as another signifier of middle-class identity…
  • …and moreover the behaviour of talking loudly about specialist foods in order to demonstrate and assert middle-classness
  • Using irony and sarcasm to show that you’re not “taken in” by the brand’s marketing – (you believe) you’re subverting it
  • And by the way, the kind of person who does all these things would typically shop in Waitrose.

In fact, this is what almost all the #WaitroseReasons tweets were doing: making observations that demonstrate the author’s familiarity with and membership of a specific segment of the more comfortably-off middle class.

It went big on Twitter, because it was a way for people to talk about their favourite topic: themselves. The discussion around the hashtag wasn’t really about Waitrose as a retailer so much as a way for people to start talking about that great British obsession, social class, and where we fit into the hierarchy. It was a discussion about belonging: people were collectively & collaboratively playing with the boundaries of belonging to the middle class.Waitrose was just a signifier – a particularly rich and meaningful one, a national treasure whose meanings are owned by its customers (not just its marketers).

In fact, it mightn’t be something marketers want to hear, but people don’t really want to have relationships with brands as such. If you think about it, it’s pretty weird – a passionate love affair with the nexus of meanings encapsulated in your shampoo bottle? No: as Mark Earls argues in ‘Herd’ (and we discuss in Augmented Research), “We talk of the relationships consumers have with our brands as if they were primary, but consumers’ most valuable relationships are not with brands but with other consumers.”

#WaitroseReasons was a chance for people to demonstrate their social tribe allegiance and how witty & clever they could be – two very desirable social markers, hence the massive participation. It’s basically #MiddleClassProblems with a brand attached. Was this Waitrose’s strategy? It’s not clear. It certainly was Alan Sugar’s, though, who invited people to share #TheWayISeeIt for the launch of his book – gaining 390,000 tweets, celebrity involvement and major press coverage from giving people a chance to share who they were.

But what about Mark Ritson’s second point: that #WaitroseReasons was exclusionary, that it was sending too many people a message of “not for me”?

There’s a grain of truth in this. What Waitrose did was bold – it wasn’t an ‘everyman’ strategy but rather spurred discussion about group norms. As such, this is necessarily a “boundary policing” activity, one that defines who’s the “us” who share these norms, and by logical extension who’s the “them” who doesn’t. And yes, for some people kids called Orlando and fruit like papayas are pretty far from their lives.

But brands have to do this – they have to define their audiences and target markets, rather than hoping to be all things to all people. Waitrose is a middle-class brand, its locations, pricing, product range and marketing all make this clear. Its value strategy is merely about trying to appeal to a more budget-conscious middle class shopper who might have moved away – they were never staking their claim to Asda’s demographic. It’s about consolidating loyalty.

By participating in a discussion about social norms, then, Waitrose strengthens its identification with this middle-class group. By being able to “take a joke” and “keep their chin up” during a hazing ritual, Waitrose comes out of a social media pasting showing they can demonstrate English middle class values too.

And connecting social activity back to brand strategy, then hopefully we’ve made it clear that this isn’t just a win on awareness. No: it’s also a complex but powerful statement of identification – and thereby brand loyalty. And brand loyalty gets feet through the door and keeps the tills ringing.

Mapping the Brand Graph: a study of @O2’s Twitter audience

Another post via the FACE company blog – see the story in full here: Mapping the Brand Graph: a study of the O2 audience on Twitter (FACE and O2 @ Warc #Datacentric 2011, London).

This has been some of the most interesting research I’ve done all year and certainly the most technically challenging, so I wanted to share it here too.

In short, FACE and O2 presented at the WARC Datacentric conference in December 2011. To quote Fran’s write-up:

The objective of the O2 Brand Graph pilot was to mine social media data in a way that would allow us to connect it to audience studies. What follows is an initial exploration of how we can you use social media to augment a segmentation model with real-time data.

Whilst tracking social media by keywords allows us to get an understanding of how a specific topic is discussed online, tracking social media by users allows us to build a map of an audience, its hubs, its behaviours and its interests.

We called it the Brand Graph: the conjunction of the Social Graph (defined here as the network of people who are within 2 degrees of separation from the brand through social media channels) and the Interest Graph (the network of interests, topics, activities and behaviours associated with the nodes of the social graph).

What can you do with it?

  • Dynamically understand who your audience is and how is it changing, in real-time;
  • Dynamically understand what your audience is about, what makes an interesting topic and how broader cultural conversations affect it;
  • Segment your audience in clusters based on topics of interest, passions, life stages, professions, online behaviours etc.;
  • Plan and fine tune the content of your social media strategy;
  • Engage with your audience in the right way (channels, mechanics, times of the day, tone of voice etc.);
  • Assess the impact of your strategies in real-time.
  • Going forward, we see the brand graph becoming one of the key tools to build a seamless connection between your brand and its audience

So, how did we go about building the O2 Brand Graph?

Sample: We defined our sample as the entire audience of O2 on Twitter, i.e. 58.339+ Twitter users who were following @O2 (as of November 2011).

Methodologies: Statistical analysis, Semantic analysis, Network analysis, Netnography and Content analysis.
We then analysed the static data of 58,339 profiles on Twitter gathering insights around 10 key dimensions:

  • To get this information we had to map 58,339 users following @O2 and who was following each of the 58.339 users.
  • We ended up plotting a graph of 1 million nodes, 1 million primary connections and 574,278 horizontal connections within the graph.
  • We then analysed the static data of 58,339 profiles on Twitter gathering insights around 10 key dimensions.
  • Finally, we analysed 3,120,371 public tweets, 122,220 tweets/day (avg), generated by the @O2 followers over one month (November 2011).

[Source: Mapping the Brand Graph: a study of the O2 audience on Twitter (FACE and O2 @ Warc #Datacentric 2011, London).]

Here’s the conference presentation:

Fair & not so Lovely: when individual product branding fails

People have talked about the conflicting messages from Dove and Vaseline Fair & Lovely as being a perfectly reasonable strategy – Unilever tailoring its brands’ advertising so it addresses different beauty trends in two different markets.

It’s still a problem for Unilever, however, because those marketing campaigns haven’t stayed safely confined to their own markets – instead, Vaseline Fair & Lovely is getting a lot of coverage on the Anglo-American parts of the internet. A bunch of Westerners not liking the ads doesn’t just mean they’re not going to buy the Fair & Lovely product – obviously enough we were unlikely to do that anyway. Rather it does two things:

  1. Make Unilever look nasty for preying on the caste-driven pressures on young people in India, where skintone can affect employability and marriage options
  2. Makes the ‘niceness’ of Dove visible as nothing more than a branding trick.

It’s this latter that’s the main problem for Unilever. While anyone seeing the Dove adverts should be aware that, simply enough, they are adverts and therefore they’re trying to sell you something, the ads were good enough and played well enough off an anti-size-zero zeitgeist that they felt quite sincere. They did a really good job of making people like the brand and seeing it as something that’d make them feel good about themselves.

Awareness of what Unilever are doing in other markets, however, makes their brands in this one – i.e. Dove – look very hollow. The success of the Dove campaign was predicated on a kind of cognitive dissonance: consumers could only swallow what it was saying about ‘real women’ and self-acceptance if they didn’t think too hard about it being an advert designed to sell stuff. The Fair & Lovely marketing, though, shows the depths of manipulation that Unilever will sink to in order to sell their beauty products, and as such I would argue it’s damaging to other brands in the portfolio.

Maybe that’s the problem with individual product branding… In February my then-colleague Sue Burden said in Marketing Week that, “With the Individual product brand model, the benefits are mainly an absence of possible negatives – no great fear of negative news about a parent or sibling brand affecting them.”

This only works, though, if consumers don’t ‘join the the dots’ between individual brands (Dove; Vaseline Fair & Lovely) and the parent company (Unilever). As this episode would indicate, that can be quite an easy thing for consumers or the media to do – and as such it’s not a very strong advantage.