Thursday, January 18, 2018

Quotidian Consumption

It is theorized that habits are formed as a method of saving energy.  The mind attempts to find patterns in any activity, with the goal of creating a habit, and within a few repetitions is generally successful in so doing.   This is well-supported by the rat-maze experiments, in which the brain activity of rodents decreases with each repetition of the same exercise, and it’s evident in human begins as well through their daily habits.

Consider your own morning routine: there is very little decision-making effort in deciding what to do between the time you wake and the time you arrive at work: you do what you do every morning, in the same order, unless there is an intentional effort to change your patterns or something external prevents you from following your common routines.   It is as if you are on autopilot: these tasks require no thinking, and are generally not recorded in memory, so long as everything goes as usual.

Quotidian patterns lead to quotidian consumption, at least on the product level.   If you brush your teeth every morning, there is very little thought as to whether you will consume toothpaste – you simply will consume it, and repurchase it when you run out, as a means of perpetuating the routine and avoiding the expenditure of mental effort that would be required to question whether the task should be done differently, or at all.

On the level of brand, the consumption routine is less influential than the purchasing routine – another procedure that tends to run on autopilot.   The daily task of brushing one’s teeth requires the consumption of toothpaste as a product, and the monthly task of buying more toothpaste involves the selection of the brand of the product to be used.

Or more accurately, it often does not involve selection, but repeating previous behavior mindlessly in the environment of the store – going to the same store, going to the same aisle, reaching for the same space on the shelf where the brand is expected to be found.

There is, of course, and interrupt sequence: if the brand is not found in its usual spot, there’s a temporary need for mental engagement to locate it in a new location, which will become the patterned location after a few iterations.   But even then, the mind is focused on the task of finding the familiar brand, and both cognition and sensation are attuned to that task. 

While there is a chance this will provide an opportunity to consider a different brand, the more common behavior is to take the easiest route to success: to use superficial sensory input to find a known pattern in an unknown location, rather than the cognitive task required to select an entirely different brand.   Thus, even when there is an interrupt sequence that requires additional mental effort, the degree of effort expended is minimized by the nature of the decision undertaken to overcome the obstacle.

Particularly for products that are part of a quotidian consumption cycle, it is exceedingly difficult to become the brand of choice or to get the customer to change their preferred brand.   It is likewise difficult to accidentally disrupt brand loyalty unless a conscious effort is made to do so – which may, perhaps, support the notion of routinization-and-minimization pattern among vendors.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Six Core Detrimental Aspects of Technology

In my studies of technology, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: credible proponents of technology tend to concede its disadvantages.   Admittedly, this may be chicken-or-egg, in that it is their willingness to concede imperfections that creates a sense credibility as opposed to the fanatics who deny any possibility of imperfection.   But having noticed this tendency, I’ve gone back through my reading notes to find common themes, and have noticed nine themes that seem to be repeated:

1. Technology Debilitates the Mind

A common criticism of technology is that id debilitates the mind.   Because we have spreadsheet and word processing software, the literacy and numeracy of the general population has suffered greatly: distressingly many people cannot spell words or do simple addition in their heads because they have become reliant on technology to do it for them, so they do not practice or do not even develop the basic skills.

In one sense, being able to automate basic tasks and devote the mind to higher concerns is a benefit – but the loss of basic understanding can have catastrophic results when one has the ability to do something without the foundational knowledge to understand quite why it is done.   What occurs in that situation is paralysis rather than advancement: anyone can perform at a certain level, but the level cannot be advanced because the foundational knowledge has been lost.

2. Technology Makes Us Lose Touch with Reality

Technology depends on reducing reality to a simplistic mathematical model, ignoring what the creator of the technology does not know or does not understand.    There is a quality of unreality that comes with anything virtual, and those whose primary experiences are virtual form a foundational set of knowledge and believes that is relevant only to events that conform to the simplistic model on which the technology is based.

For practical purposes, this handicaps those who are dependent on technology with the notion that if their favored technology cannot do something, then it simple cannot be done.   For qualitative purposes, the reduction to a simple model creates blinders to factors that are not considered by that model, which may be of significant importance to the overall qualitative experience.   We lose touch with the richness of reality by accepting the limitations of technology.

3. Technology is Dehumanizing

In order to succeed in any system, a person must adopt the qualities of that system – and if a person does so for a long enough period of time, they do not merely adopt these qualities, but internalize them: they become the kind of person they pretend to be in order to be successful within a limited system defined by artificial rules – which may not be the kind of person they need to be to succeed in any other system without the limitations and rules.

This may seem abstract, but consider the impact of social media on the social skills, particularly of the younger generation: to be successful in social media, one must present a false-front in a system that has no restriction or discouragement for behavior that is not acceptable outside of that system: hence individuals whose primary socialization took place in the virtual world are often ill-suited to socializing in face-to-face encounters.   This has long ben true of a small number of isolates, considered “geeks” or “nerds:” by mainstream society, but has recently become evident in the general population.

4. Technology is Always On, but People are Not

Human beings have a limited amount of time – the waking hours of the day at most, but even less given that our ability to maintain attentiveness is even more limited than that.   Where technology is constantly intruding, relentlessly prompting to mind to action, the quality of experience is considerably diminished.   We are not “always on” but “always zombified,” overdrawing our reserves of time and attention to do things in the most efficient and least effective manner.

The problem is compounded by the self-involvement of technology: each technology considers itself to be the most important need of the moment, and struggles to gain top-of-mind acceptance.  The human mind is unable to focus on or prioritize its own workload with so many technologies screaming “look at me” at every given moment.  Smartphone addiction is a common example: workers are texting with their friends when they ought to be giving attention to their work, and answering work-related emails when they ought to be giving attention to their families, because their priorities are structured by technology rather than common sense.

5. Technology Fragments Identity and Promotes Inauthenticity

It is only within the past few hundred years that humanity has been faced with the necessity of serving in multiple and distinct social roles and the awkwardness that occurs when those roles overlap – leading to the fragmentation of identity and personality.   That is, our success in a role depends on the adoption of a personal that is capable of being successful in that role – and while we have had limited success managing three or four core identities, technology is demanding that we adopt dozens, role-switch constantly, and often face the awkwardness of overlapping roles.

This will lead inexorably to an inexorable crisis of identity: when I must be so many different things to different people at different times, which of these personas represents my true self?   This existential crisis is already evident in popular culture, which has failed to evolve or produce anything new in two decades – it is simply adopting and adapting, trying to be many things at once, and failing in having an integral identity.

6. Technology is Fragmenting

The emergence and adoption of technology fragments social groups into the “haves” and “have-nots” of that technology, and it takes considerable time for a technology to achieve ubiquity.  Arguably, ubiquity is never achieved: even in the present day, there are households and communities that do not share in centuries-old technologies such as electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, and paved roads.   And in considering such things to be ubiquitous, the “haves” distance themselves further from the “have-nots”: anyone who does not “have” is not important, not worth considering even as a member of humanity.

The problem is that it’s not just one technology that creates such a schism, but every technology.  What results is a complex binary matrix that creates very small segments of society that have or have-not a specific subset of technologies that contribute to membership and participation in a given subset of culture.  And the result is a culture so fragmented that it makes very basic questions unanswerable: what is culture?  What is society?  Such things, once very basic to human identity, are absent in technologically advanced locations.

Other Detriments

Outside of those six, there remains a rather large list of detrimental factors – I have recorded a total of twenty-seven – but many of them seem trifling compared to those core six, or a subset of one of those categories.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Auditing Brand Performance

One of the most critical factors in strategic planning is aligning the brand to the demands of the market.  It is also one of the most neglected tasks: insiders believe that they know what is important, that the customer share their perspective, and that the brand is already associated to the qualities most desired by the market.   This is often done without auditing the brand’s performance in the mind of the market – and as a result, it is often tragically wrong.

Foundational Research

The foundational research for a brand performance begins with qualitative research: ask a balanced blend of individuals who purchase your brand, individuals who purchase other brands, and prospects who have not yet purchased the product, “what qualities are important to you when shopping for [product]?”   

Then, in a qualitative study, ask separate groups of people to answer the following questions:

How important is [quality] when you are shopping for [product]?
To what degree does [brand] deliver [quality]?

It’s important to ask separate groups these questions, as answering both in a single session will likely corrupt the study (their answer to the second question will be tainted by their desire to be consistent with the answer they gave to the first).

The Audit Graphic

Creating a meaningful graphic is a simple matter of plotting each quality on a graph: the horizontal placement of the quality corresponds to the degree to which respondents consider it important and the vertical placement corresponds to the degree they feel it is already associated to your brand.   Then, draw a line (in blue in the example) that marks the 75% point on both axes, splitting the graphic into four quadrants:

Quadrant A represents brand strengths.  These are the qualities that customers care about very much, and they already believe that your brand delivers upon them.   You have already achieved these goals, should spend a little as necessary to maintain them, and should be very cautious about any initiative that would jeopardize them.

Quadrant B represents brand weaknesses.  These are qualities that customers care about, but your brand does not deliver.   This should be the primary focus of strategic efforts – either to modify the product to deliver these qualities or focus advertising messages to convince the market that your brand already does deliver upon them.

Quadrant C represents waste.  These are qualities that are not important to the customer, but are highly associated to your brand.  Chances are that the firm undertook considerable effort and expense to deliver these qualities, and that their achievement does nothing for performance.   These are areas in which you can cut back and employ the budget in more productive ways.

Quadrant D represents potential misdirection.   The qualities are not important to the customer and not important to the brand, and it would be a mistake to pursue them.   Convincing the customer it is important will move them into quadrant B, investing in them will move them into quadrant C, and attempting to do both is perhaps overly ambitious.

Extending the Use of the Audit Graphic

There are two other ways in which the brand performance audit can be used:

First, conduct a brand performance audit of a competitor – preferably one that is outperforming your firm in the mind of the market.   This will help to identify the reasons that customers value their brand over yours.

Second, conduct an internal brand performance audit – that is, ask insiders rather than customers what they think.   This will help to identify critical misperceptions within the culture of your own firm that are causing time and money to be spent on the wrong things.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Consistency, Value, and Brand

Brand is about consistency.   The value of a brand, from the very beginning, was that it indicated to customers what they could expect of a specific product from a specific vendor.   Later, when brand began to accrue nonfunctional qualities, customers were attracted to the brand because they expected those qualities to be delivered.

So the value of an established brand is that it delivers the same quality, experience after experience, year after year, decade after decade.   Brands that advertise they have been in business for a hundred years communicate a long history of consistent quality.  Consistency with expectations is critical.

This is because human beliefs about anything are based on repetition and consistency.   When two things occur at the same time, we believe it to be coincidence and attach no special value to the correlation.  But when two things occur at the same time, over and over, we create an association and expect the two to be correlated.  

This is as true of brands as everyday experiences: a brand must be consistent to be meaningful.  There cannot be the sense that what the customer gets the next time will be different from what they got the last time.   Any change causes the customer to question the correlation, and to doubt that the brand has the qualities they expect – and for that doubt to become more generalized.  If it packaging is different, there must be other things that are different about the product it contains.

Whenever a brand changes, it takes some time to adjust: customers are displeased when anything is different, and need to be reassured that the qualities they value about the brand have remained the same.   Or when an unpopular brand changes, they must then convince customers who were disappointed in the past that things are now different and they should give the brand a second chance.

Firms tend to assume they know why customers buy their brand and are indifferent to any other aspect.   But the concept of a brand, or any object, is the sensory stimulation.   The customer cares not only about the taste of a food product, but it’s scent and visual appearance as well – change any one thing, even an inessential quality, and customers cannot refrain from reconstructing their conception of the brand.

So in that sense, consistency itself is a value: knowing what to expect of a brand means that the customer doesn’t have to reevaluate it each time they purchase.   This reduces the effort (cost) of buying, and ensures that the benefit-to-cost ratio remains favorable to the brand.

To leverage this, consistency is critical.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Conformity and Sales

Consider the phenomenon of the stampede: one antelope on the fringe of a herd perceives a predator and runs away, and other join in until the entire herd is running at top speed.   Most of the herd never saw the predator, but are running because they trust that there must be some reason that the others are doing so.  When one animal tires and stops running, the herd slows down and comes to a halt.  Again, it is not because they know the threat has passed, but they are imitating the behavior of others.

And if you think that human beings are different and more sophisticated, then consider a common prank in which a person stares of into the distance as if he sees something interesting.  Other people stop and stare as well, trying to see what the original person saw – they did not see it, but are responding to the original person’s signals.   A group of people gathers, and continue to pause until someone suggests that there’s nothing there and wanders off, at which point others give up the attempt to see it – and again, they are reacting to the behavior of the person rather than to their own perceptions.

For all our pretenses at individuality, human beings are also social creatures who are prone to the same behavior: reacting to the actions of others, without evaluating environmental stimuli.    The effects of this cannot be underestimated – but neither can they be overestimated.  They apply where purchasing and consumption are social activities, not when they are individual activities.

Social conformity is often leveraged by advertisers.   An advert with a person is generally more effective than one that shows the product, because the person in the advertisement serves as a model to be imitated.   If the person in the advert is looking at an item, the tendency of the viewer is to follow their cues and focus their attention on the same thing the model seems to be looking at.  Eye-tracking software confirms that the most viewed portion of a page is the perceived focal point of the model – people look to the person first, then look at whatever that person is looking at.

But it goes even further than that: people do not simply tend to do what others do, but they feel what others feel.  If the model in an advertisement seems excited, the viewers of the advertisement tend to feel excitement as well.   If the model appears self-confident when using the product, people who use the product accept that this is the proper emotion to feel.

And while emotion can be a gimmick, the same applies to logic, as best demonstrated by the experiments conducted by Asch.   In these experiments, a test subject was placed in a room with stooges who would intentionally give the wrong answer to a question (generally comparing the length of two lines).  In most instances, the subject will go along with the answer given by the stooges, even when it is obvious to him that the answer is wrong.  This is not automatic, but it is significant: at least 75% of volunteers gave incorrect answers when asked in the company of stooges, whereas only 1% gave an incorrect answer when they were questioned alone.

So in the end, social influence may be stronger than an individual’s own inclinations, emotions, and logic.   The consume acts a s a puppet, imitating the puppet whose strings are pulled by the brand.   And in turn, the first imitator becomes a model for the second, the third, and so on, until the consumers are reduced to the mentality and behavior of a stampeding herd.