Pigeon Superstition and Myth Marketing

B. F. Skinner - Thinking In The Box

Psychologists call a non-causal belief that an action leads to a reward a “pigeon superstition.”  The birds can be so suggestible that the last thing happening at the moment of a favorable outcome is strongly associated with the outcome.  If the bird was standing on one leg, cooing, flapping its wings, and accidentally food appears, it will repeat that behavior over and over assuming the action caused the reward.

Since the bird is now engaged in these behaviors more often, the random event of food appearing will eventually coincide with the ritual – reinforcing the association.  Eventually the bird is convinced that only the dance brings the food.

Corporations develop their own marketing rituals.    And evolve belief systems which can lead to a situation where the products and customers are less important that the act of marketing itself.   But without measurable performance criteria, it cannot be known if a good outcome is strategy or accident.

Never Bet Against Marketing, Or With Them

When you are a hammer, every problem is a nail.  And when you are a marketing person, its easy to think every problem is a branding issue, or a messaging issue,  or another buzz word from the marketeering play book issue.  But this tendency to cast reality in ones own image is not limited to those managing the message.

Similarly, I’m a customer, so I think every problem is solved by a product or vendor.  I’d like to think I already know why I buy stuff, and that these decisions are not the result of “Jedi mind tricks.”

"These ARE the Droids you are looking for."

“These ARE the Droids you have been looking for.  And now they are 20% off! Only at Verizon!”

When I recommend and buy products, it is because they address the needs of the organization and provide a measurable, competitive advantage.  That is because I try to be a good steward of the limited resources entrusted to my care.   Its rarely because of branding, especially in this day and age.  Most corporation have so widely varying levels of quality from one product to another, or even versions of the same products, that the brand is meaningless.  In fact, its laughable.

So what does guide my decision making process?   The experiences of others, and myself.   When introduced to a new vendor, the first thing I want to do is look at their support offerings and forums.   They fall into several stereotypical categories.   Marketing controlled “message mills” control the level of dissatisfaction with Orwellian editing practices.   Barren wastelands where nothing is offered at all.  Data valets where you are pointed to the already accessible documentation.   Black holes where there are 7 years of back messages without any replies.   And rarely, a well structured, effective self support community.

Brand Camp

So when it comes to the tweens, brands are very important.  They let people, without any life experience, rapidly ascertain if something is cool or not.   It will taste like blueberry if it is blue, cherry if red, orange if orange,  grape if purple.  But even my son, who is 9, is finding out that the expectations set forth by brands can be hollow, and downright frustrating.  He’s a smart kid.

So its interesting to see how us big kids deal with the same issues.   I don’t believe our choice of a certain $100K financial package makes me one of the cool kids, not do I expect it to taste cherry-licious.  When you are a niche player, its best not to play the brand card.

As an individual or small business owner you can do something that the big corporations can’t. You can build relationships with your clients and prospects. That’s important because strong relationships beat strong brands. A brand is simply a weaker type of relationship. The result of both done well is to build an emotional bond. That is the only purpose of branding. Relationships go further and deeper.

George Torok

But with the advent of social media, it is possible to build these relationships, even between individual consumers and large corporations.  Building a community of customers, and providing a bi-directional conduit for corporate representatives to engage the customers.  Those who manage these relationship with alacrity, and use them to gain agility, will have a huge advantage.

But if we destroy the brand, what do we have left?

Brands are, in a sense, a 1980′s invention to overcome the difficulty of being personal in an era when those tools did not exist.  But now they do. This is why we see brand focused corporations struggle with social media.   Managing your brand is always at odds with it being managed for you, by the worst of all possible populations: your customer!

Brands assume negative opinions about product design, functionality, and quality are diluted by a majority of happy, or at the least, ambivalent consumers.   “Yeah, so what if 1:10 customers is unhappy, when will 10 customers ever get together in the same room?”  With the Internet, that happens all the time, and on an unimaginable scale.   The self selecting nature of the Internet provides a venue for unhappy customers to congregate and focus their angst.   And search tool provide a means for prospects to see your dirty laundry.   Managing your brand is managing your message, as voiced by your customers. That is to say, managing customer satisfaction and expectation.   Social media has reduced brand management to plain, old fashioned, product quality and customer service.

Fire Brand

For some purchases, branding is largely irrelevant.   Do I care what brand of municipal water comes into my house?   What about the brand of natural gas?   Electricity?   Internet service?   Heating oil?   Commodities and utilities.

“I choose only the best municipal water for my home, the one being piped into it.”

At some point, slathering on the branding when you are a monopoly is just crass.   Wow, my computer has Intel Inside?   I was unaware of that!  Big shocker there.  Microsoft, the Standard Oil of software.   Branding matters when you have a choice.   And even the “brand confusion” strategy of having 38 different brands of dish soap all made by Proctor and Gamble serves to make their product more costly and less efficient to deliver.

The Lesson

Brands, being a substitute for building personal relationships with customers, are less powerful than building those relations via excellent customer service, product quality, and product design.  There are very few companies which can rely on their brand.   Perhaps companies like Apple are part of the more notable exceptions.   But there are very few Apples out there, and its likely your not one of them.

Social media enables customers to create their own brand narratives, in a much more rapid and effective way than advertising.  Marketing always likes to own good outcomes.  After a while, they can be convinced that their work is what is responsible.  But in this day and age things like vendor lock in, product quality, and customer opinion are the driving forces.

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