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  • Kevin K

Brands, Politics, Religion, and Sports: Is there a WE without a THEM?

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Increasingly, I worry the answer might be no. The image below is yet another piece of evidence as to why – one that I find deeply unsettling. Let me explain.

First, some background: the more I read the science, the more concerned I become about unconscious bias. Even if we conquer the institutionalized aspects of bias (an incredibly hard task), it seems that we just keep creating more ‘identities’ to keep ourselves divided. It’s as if part of our definition of Self is determined by contrasting ourselves with Others.

Scientists call this “In-Group / Out-Group Bias”. Basically, it results from a deep cognitive tendency to impart rich meaning to groups, even when they are completely meaningless. There are all sorts of reasons, including possible evolutionary traits (loyalty to tribes). What is striking is how readily we redirect this tendency to any grouping that comes along. In what evolutionary world does it make sense that Sports Teams or the Apple logo activate the same brain regions as religious imagery?

I have always been less troubled by the visible aspects of identity in politics and other domains than the invisible ones. Racism is real and institutionalized, but for all its cruelties today it was far worse in the 1960s. Gender bias is real and problematic, but I can’t even imagine living in a time when legitimate social organizations (sometimes led by women) campaigned against women’s suffrage.

What strikes me today is just how subtle identity has become. Use of identity is pervasive, even amongst those who campaign against identity, and so I ask myself whether humans can ever rise above this?

Now back to the image above…

This image was from an internal brand equity study we ran with consumers to validate some new techniques to get at brand meaning. We captured lots of other data, but our goal here was to cut through the conscious and non-conscious barriers to get at the 95% of decisions we make subconsciously. We used a new mobile technique to let people tell us which celebrities would be good spokespeople for body wash brands. We put in a range of celebrities, expecting the usual associations…

For example, we absolutely expected Simone Biles (the most decorated American gymnast in history who was shown in her Olympic uniform) to be associated with sports brands, like Dial and Zest. Amazingly, she wasn’t even in the top 3. Instead, she topped the charts on Shea Moisture. What was notable about Shea Moisture? All of the top 3 spokespeople were African American.

Dial and Zest were led by Megan Rapinoe (the soccer star) – that at least made sense. However, the second-leading spokesperson was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was represented in a business suit at her swearing in ceremony. Justice Sotomayor also lead the rankings for Softsoap. All three brands are noted for SKUs with antibacterial and deodorant qualities – the stereotype here is plainly obvious . By contrast, brands like Tom’s of Maine and St. Ives drew associations with Caucasian and/or Asian American celebrities.

Several other associations emerged – Olay with older women and Soap and Glory with younger women, for example. Both brands sell anti-aging products, so why is the association so strong?

Data like this present several challenges for brands. Once an association forms, it’s incredibly hard to change (one reason why brands have “lifecycles”). It’s not just CPG brands – nearly 70% of adults use Facebook regularly, but only 24% of teens. Teens, however, preferred Instagram to Facebook by more than 3 to 1. Once an association starts to form, brands then find themselves locked in as they increasingly direct marketing dollars to target preferred segments, effectively self-sorting the market.

These dynamics have been recognized in politics for years so it's no surprise that brands face the same dilemma. Yet as brands increasingly market themselves based on identity in addition to function, they will need to understand the implications of their choices and how they can use their power and platforms to bring people together instead of splitting them apart. Their challenge is that our brains create associations for those brands even when it’s completely unintended, and if they don’t take ownership of those associations then the associations will take ownership of the brands.

Fortunately, brands aren't powerless - and many have demonstrated that. Many have also committed financially to lofty goals (though CSR spending remains low relative to its growing importance). Simply throwing money into a pot does not necessarily help, however. Brands need to understand what they stand for - and what they want to stand for. For many reasons, this is not something that many people will (or even can) express until it's too late. Nor do conventional "brand tracking" studies really help.

For marketing insights to stay relevant - not just for brands, but for society in general - we need to develop tools to understand what people really think and feel. That's exactly what Intuify has been doing.

The next step is even harder - we need to help guide marketers to create brand identity and brand loyalty in a way that supports identity (US) without creating exclusion (THEM).


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