Tuesday, January 1, 2019

On Hiatus

I'm going to take a one-year break from this blog to pursue other projects.

New posts should resume in 2020.

- J

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Six Perils of Partnership

Partnerships among brands are seldom a pairing of equals: they are most often parasitic.   Large, successful, and established brands seldom seek out partnerships with small, unknown upstarts – and when they do, it tends to be a tactical maneuver that is ultimately recognized as a strategic mistake. While partnering with a start-up can enable rapid development of products or expansion into new markets, there are a number of perils to the stronger brand.

The first peril is the denigration of the stronger brand.   It is inevitable that when an established brand is applied to new products or markets, its identity becomes split and diffused: the brand is compromised by partnering, and the short-term profit of the partnership is seldom worth the damage done to its perception by its established customer base.   The more incongruous the image of the weaker brand, the more damage will be done to the stronger one.

The second peril is loss of control over brand identity.  The weaker brand usually has a completely different culture and agenda, and seeks to feed on the equity of the stronger brand without maintaining or contributing to it.  Because the partnership, from the perspective of the weaker partner, constitutes growth, the brand equity of the stronger partner is of little consequence to the weaker partner – it will invariably seek to sacrifice the esteem of the stronger partner for its own benefit. 

A third peril is the damage done to quality control, as the weaker partner is weaker because it does not have the capability of maintaining the level of quality of the stronger one. Again, the compromise of partnership constitutes a step down for the stronger partner and a step up for the weaker, such that the quality of both the product and experience of the stronger partner is not preserved when it is handled by the weaker partner.

A fourth peril is risk to the supply chain, particularly distribution control over the retail outlets at which the joint product will be sold and the touch points of customer contact where the weaker partner’s operations are concerned.   There is a significant difference in the way that a company manages its own brand experience and the way in which a retailer manages the brand experience of the products it stocks – and the same difference exists when the weaker partner is in custody of the stronger partner’s brand.

A fifth peril is fragmentation and discord in the representation of the stronger brand. Consider that brand equity is not built by accident, but by careful management of the brand and its related experiences.    Where the weaker partner represents the stronger partner’s brand, less care is taken in the maintenance of the brand identity.  Because the weaker partner has made no investment and holds no stake in the establishment and growth of the brand prior to the partnership, it feels no commitment to represent the stronger brand appropriately.   This conflict will not only diminish the equity of the brand, but dilute its very identity.

A sixth peril is the risk to customer experience.   A strong brand is defined by its experience, more so than the qualities of the good or service it provides.  A weak brand tends to be defined by more practical matters more directly related to the quality of its product, as its brand is not strong.  It if were capable of building a strong brand, even of understanding what is required to build a strong brand, chances are its brand would not be weak.

There are likely other factors that jeopardize the value of the stronger brand, and certainly many more practical concerns that represent more functional detriments to the stronger partner in terms of tactical and operational factors.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Globalization of Demand

Demand for products is culturally derived: while human beings have certain universal biological needs for consumption, the manner in which these needs has historically been influenced greatly by culture.  All humans need to eat, but exactly what foods are eaten has been dictated by culture.  In the consumption of non-essential goods, culture plays an even greater role in determining what individuals will seek to consume.

And historically, culture has been highly diverse – but it is becoming less so.   Humanity once existed in the form of isolated tribes with little contact with one another, and each tribe developed its own culture.   But since the early twentieth century, and particularly during the last fifty years or so, humanity has become more interconnected.  Meeting someone from another culture is common, an almost daily occurrence to anyone living in an urbanized area of a developed economy – and globally, the population has become more developed and more urbanized.    There is less isolation and less insulation between cultures.

The result of this is cultural democratization: whenever a person witnesses a difference between his own culture and that of another person, there is the moment of evaluation in which he asks himself whether he should adopt the customs and consequential consumption patters of another – in smaller words, he wonders if only for a moment if “their” ways are better than his own.   And over time, this leads to the adoption of exocultural behaviors – first as a novelty, but eventually as a matter of course, until the cultural difference becomes a cultural commonality.  

The same can be said of the social classes, which across all societies are becoming leveled.  There are still the “haves” and “have-nots” but this tends to be in terms of quantity and frequency rather than in the identity.   The rich consume more than the poor, but when they have the means to consume, the social classes tend to consume essentially the same things.  There are very few luxuries for the rich that are not available, in a cheaper and more vulgarized manner, to the poor. The wealthier classes consume an upscale version – better quality of the same thing.

International trade provides markets easy access to products that were previously unavailable – but it is the democratization of culture that causes these products to be demanded, and demanded on such scale that they can be effectively commoditized and mass-produced to capture every market segment that is demanding them.    It is no longer the ability to obtain a good that distinguishes one culture or class from another, but the desire to obtain it – and that desire is becoming less distinctive across classes and cultures.

Whether the loss of cultural distinctions is to be celebrated or mourned is a separate matter, and one that seems to be largely subjective based on the appetite for diversity and the sense of which cultural artifacts are “winning” the market.  The point here is that fifty years ago, exposure to the artifacts of other cultures was practically unheard of; today it has become commonplace; and perhaps another fifty years hence, it may be of little relevance: global culture will likely have become largely commoditized, with the differences among cultures being few and superficial. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Brand and Social Identity

It is suggested that the desire for a brand is a desire for identity – that a person (usually) chooses to consume a product to satisfy a functional need, but selects a brand based on a need to achieve or maintain a given social identity.   Internally, they wish to be the kind of person who uses that brand; externally, they wish to associate with the kind of people who use that brand – to maintain social affiliation with a group.

This is arguable, and it’s certainly not the sole reason for brand selection – but the point of the present meditation is not to argue that point, but to consider the importance of social acceptance.   Man is a creature that is capable of autonomy, but who often chooses a social existence – and this is not often explored.   It is taken for granted that a person wishes to belong to a group, but why is this so?

In all, it seems that very little attention has been given to the psychology of isolation, but it has been observed that prisoners who are kept in solitary become psychologically dysfunctional.   It is speculated that social interaction is “interesting” and a necessary part of our mental health – that people alone undergo completely different processes, and tend to focus on negative emotions and anxieties.

For a time, there was a fascination with sensory deprivation that lead to experiments in which subjects are deprived not only of social interaction, but all sensory stimuli – and it’s suggested that that they enter a kind of hallucinatory hypnotic state.  While prisoners in isolation are not completely deprived of sensory stimulation, their isolation causes their thoughts to turn inward and for their perspective to be dominated by “the hell hounds of the mind” and there is ample observational accounts of the severe mental changes that prisoners undergo.

In terms of manipulation, an isolated prisoner finds that the only social contact he has is with his captors, and he becomes dependent on them and willing to accept them as authority figures to whom the prisoner is inferior and upon whom he is dependent, and whom he must please in order to avoid further hardship or gain comfort.   Relegated to this position for an extended period of time, an individual is easily controlled and manipulated.

It’s suggested that the same effects can be seen to a lesser degree even for prisoners who live in the company of others, where discord is sown.  If the guards can cause prisoners to distrust one another prisoners will cut themselves off from one another out of suspicion and distrust, even without physically isolating them.  They then avoid forming social bonds with other prisoners and become connected to and dependent on the guards.  The same can be seen in civilians in society, which is the reason politicians are fond of divisive issues that fracture their people and prevent a sense of a united community – when everyone is an enemy, the politician is their only friend.

It’s also significant that this is a common tactic in interrogation – to break down a prisoner’s sense of belonging to his own army (or country) by suggesting that they are alone.   They do not have any friends among their fellow inmates, their commanders and even their country does not care about them, and the only people who will help them are the guards.   A person who feels deserted and alone, betrayed by his old friends, will embrace the offer of friendship from his captors and do what they ask of him.

In modern society is it observed that religious cults and extremist political groups often seek to recruit “misfits” because they are easily manipulated - being alone and feeling hated by others, their desperation to find a society that accepts and supports them makes them highly susceptible to recruitment and highly loyal once recruited.

While the studies focus on authority and domination in a controlled environment, the same can be observed in the wild.   When an advertiser seeks to establish an affiliation to the brand, his tactics are not much different to that of a prison guard or charismatic leader: to cause the individual to feel a sense of isolation and dissatisfaction with their social affiliation, to propose that allegiance to the brand is a means to re-establish social identity and connectedness, and to depend on their mindless acceptance of this proposition.

Perhaps this is a bit melodramatic or extreme, but I have the sense there is some truth to it.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Desire for Autonomy

Any practical consideration of human behavior tends to lead to an ethical quagmire: when we attempt to influence a person to do something, we cannot be certain that what we are doing is truly in that person’s best interest.   Even when it can be objectively and mathematically demonstrated that the person is better off for taking the action that we have persuaded him to undertake, there is still the question of ethics because, outcome aside, we have interfered with his autonomy.

This comes from the implicit assumption that people wish to be autonomous – to exercise their free will and enjoy the benefits of so doing.  Even when the exercise of free will would have negative consequences, it is argued that suffering the consequences of liberty is also of value in the long term.   In this sense, any attempt to interfere with autonomy, even for beneficent reasons, is considered ethically shady.

But this rests upon the assumption that people wish to be autonomous – and while this is assumed to be universal, it certainly is not:  there are personality types and even entire cultures in which there is an obvious desire to be controlled – people who would rather be told what to do than to decide for themselves, and who will gladly surrender themselves to the dominion of others. Whence this urge to be conditioned, to conform, and to obey?

Essentially, it is an escape from having personal responsibility – of making difficult choices and accepting the blame for any unfortunate consequences.  Even people who are quite autonomous and strong-willed will eagerly seek out authorities to tell them what to do in specific instances – to see a doctor when they are sick is to yield to the doctor’s authority.  Those who are less intelligent and strong seek out authorities more often, for less significant things.   Anyone who undertakes to diet is essentially admitting they are not competent to choose the foods they eat, and has placed themselves in the hands of an authority, and is glad to be told what to do.   Life is so much easier when one is relieved of the burden of thinking and can simply obey orders – and even if the outcome is bad, there is someone else to blame.

The willingness to compromise is the basis of human society.    While living with others is beneficial in many regards, it is also detrimental in others – and man chooses to participate in society because the good outweighs the bad.   The same can be said of an individual who submits to any system of control: so long as he perceives that the benefits of obedience outweigh the costs, he will remain obedient.   In many instances, this is faith in institutions that, like religious fervor, is based on belief rather than any evidence that can be presented – life in a totalitarian regime may be miserable, but if it is perceived to be better than the past, or hoped that it will be better in future, people will accept and support the authoritarian state.

It is not accurate to state that such people have been conditioned – they are voluntary participants and coercion and deception are unnecessary.   Those who need conditioning are the ones who do not perceive that the benefits of obedience outweigh the costs – and if the state cannot change the balance by its actions (providing greater benefits at lesser costs), then it may attempt to change the perception of such individuals: to convince them that the benefits are greater than they are, or the cost is less than it is.

To the autonomous individual, the greatest cost of subordination is his own dignity and humanity, hence the most common technique for gaining is compliance is to abolish both: one he has been dehumanized and stripped of his dignity, he has nothing to lose by cooperating with those who wish to control him.   If freedom is not an option, he can only choose which master to whom he will enslave himself.   If thinking for himself is not possible, he can only choose who will do his thinking for him.  And this is the basis of all forms of conditioning – to adjust an individual’s perception of cost and benefit – and its ultimate end is to produce the malleable man, whose perception of authority is positive regardless of cost or benefit.

And at this point, it seems I’ve strayed a bit too far from my intended subject (advertising)  - and should come to a close.