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What can brands learn from post-truth politics?

In Post Truth, Matthew d’Ancona lays out the ways in which modern politics, and life, show the increasing importance of emotional resonance over the inconvenient details of facts and realities.  After recent events around the world, no one should doubt that emotional resonance has the power to beat facts and arguments in the realm of politics, but are there lessons for businesses and brands?Post-truth was Oxford dictionaries word of the year in 2016 defining it as, “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In 1984, George Orwell wrote that, “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else”.

Are there no facts, and only interpretations? George Lakoff has long argued that voting decisions are about the “frames” that people use, reflecting their deep-seated live values, rather than the merits of specific policies and arguments. When Lakoff talks about framing, he is referring to the overall conceptual framework that people use to organise information, the over-arching ideas that allow us to organise our experiences into a coherent whole. Language helps us give names to those concepts, but they are experiential rather than language-bound.

Voters vote their values, which reflects their self-identity. Values don’t always coincide with people’s self-interest and are often unrelated to specific policy positions and arguments. So when voting people will align their policy positions with their overall values (which come first), rather than deciding on the merits of specific policies and then choosing a frame that first best with them.

Daniel Kahneman agrees with this saying that people vote based on general beliefs, not specific policies. However, Kahneman goes a step further in arguing that support for a specific argument will be based more on the conclusion (and whether it resonates with someone’s overall beliefs) than on the merits of the argument itself.

That is, whether we like the consequences of an argument (or policy) is more important than the strength of the argument itself. He uses the example of the high correlation between beliefs on gay marriage and those on climate change. Logically, they have absolutely no connection to each other, so there is no reason that views on the two would coincide to such a degree.

The fact that there is such a strong correlation reflects the overall directions of people’s beliefs and not the specifics of either topic and the policies that are associated with them. Put another way, each of us has a sense of personal identity, a sense of who we are as a person. At the centre of that is a moral sense, telling us what is right and wrong and justifying the actions that we take.

In a completely different sphere, much of the work conducted on human values and cross-cultural differences points to the same conclusion. Durkheim and Weber first talked about the importance of values in explaining social and personal organisation and change, and they always played a role in sociology, psychology and anthropology.

When we think of values we think of what is important to us in life, and we hold many different values which are more or less important to us (and to other people). Shalom Schwartz has codified these values and interestingly proposes that there are six main features to them:

  1. Values are beliefs linked inextricably to affect. When values are activated, they become infused with feeling. People for whom independence is important become aroused if their independence is threatened, despair when helpless to protect it and are happy when they enjoy it.
  2. Values refer to desirable goals that motivate action.
  3. Values can transcend specific actions and situations.
  4. Values serve as standards or criteria, guiding the selection or evaluation of actions, policies, people and events. People decide what is bad or good, worth doing or avoiding, based on the possible consequences for their values, mostly implicitly.
  5. Values are ordered by importance relative to one another.
  6. The relative importance of multiple values guides action. Values influence action when they are relevant in the context and important to the person.

If this is true, then values should be important to businesses and brands, as they influence the decisions we make. Schwartz’s framework sees two overall dimensions that separate values into those with:

1)    Personal focus versus social focus

2)    Potential to maintain (i.e., loss aversion, self-protection) versus potential to grow (i.e., gain goals, self-expression)

These two dimensions define four quadrants of self-enhancement (personal and maintain), openness to change (personal and growth), self-transcendence (social and growth) and conservation (social and maintain). In these quadrants he defines 10 overall values of self-direction, stimulation, hedonism, achievement, power, security, conformity, tradition and benevolence.

These dimensions, quadrants and values correspond very closely with other motivational models and with recent understanding of emotion and behaviour from evolutionary biology and psychology. They also correspond closely to the archetypes of human mythology and more recently branding (Mark & Pearson) and the StoryWorks model is a synthesis of these, combining human and cultural psychology into a single framework.

George Lakoff talks of frames, Daniel Kahneman of beliefs, Shalom Schwartz of values, and Pearson & Mark of archetypes, but all are aligned in agreeing on the dominance of emotional resonance over facts and values over specific proscriptions. Much of TapestryWorks’ work is in motivational research, understanding the emotional jobs that brands, products and services are doing for their customers. In large part, the emotional goal of any activity is strongly correlated with people’s values, filtered through the specifics of the context and category (some goals are simply not relevant to some people in some contexts).

Powerful marketing, emotional branding and cultural identity are all shaped by what people value, and the most successful brands understand how those values are made relevant for the specific context and job that they serve. This is where a good understanding of cultural values and personal motivations helps brands become and stay relevant.

This doesn’t mean that all brands should be claiming a purpose of bringing world peace. Values are important, but they have to be relevant to the goal that people are trying to achieve. Businesses should think about emotional resonance before specific features and benefits, and create a brand story (based on fact not fiction) to support this.

Values are strongly reflective of culture, and Shalom Schwartz’s work has shown a high degree of consistency in the relative importance of values (with more than 80 countries tested). In a piece called “Ads don’t work that way” (hat tip to the Ad Contrarian), Kevin Simler argues that advertising is more about “cultural imprinting” than about persuasion.

He argues that advertising works by changing the landscape of cultural meanings, in turn changing how consumers are perceived by others when they use the brand. Thus, self-identity and values are strongly wrapped up with how brands are chosen and how advertising links certain brands to certain values. An evolutionary psychologist would call this “signalling”.

This is different from the standard model of advertising working through persuasion.  As Kevin Simler says, “cultural imprinting relies on the principle of common knowledge. For a fact to be common knowledge among a group, it’s not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it – and know that they know that they know it … and so on.” In a digital world, when you stare at an ad on your (personal) phone, only you are seeing that particular ad. How would you know that anyone else has seen it? Especially when ads are so obviously targeted very specifically at you as a person, then that would make the message only relevant to you, and not something that would be relevant for others.

Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian, argued persuasively recently that this may explain why so much digital advertising doesn’t work. Digital advertising, by focusing on micro-targeting and personalisation, is not increasing effectiveness but decreasing it. Targeted ads are not effective, because they are not common knowledge (as well as often being quite creepy).

Arguably, targeting should have always been about targeting values, motivations and emotions and not about targeting specific demographic and behavioural niches. Values are more universal than specific age groups or even life stages. More importantly, we don’t choose to buy a specific brand because it is designed for our age group, we buy it because it represents values that we identify with and want others to identify with us.

What does all this mean for businesses and brands? Put simply, don’t sweat the functional benefits of your brand, or the clever arguments that you think can persuade people to buy it. Get your values right from the start, and make sure everyone knows about them. Embody your brand’s values in the experience it brings to your customers and let your values do the hard work.

Recommended Reading

Post Truth by Matthew d’Ancona

Brand Seduction by Daryl Weber

Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff

“In Politics, Progressives Need to Frame Their Values” by George Lakoff at www.georgelakoff.com

“Ads Don’t Work That Way” by Kevin Simler (www.meltingasphalt.com)

“An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values” by Shalom H. Schwartz (Online Readings in Psychology and Culture)

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