Monsters from the deep

Does your brand have what it takes to be unloved?

Carl Davidson and Duncan Stuart discuss brand’s obsession with being liked and whether this is really necessary to be successful.

It’s hard not to be taken by marketing’s turn toward purpose. Along with the Marketing Association’s MarketingForGoodinitiatives, there are any number of publications and consultants arguing that only brands with a clear social purpose will thrive in the future. The success of campaigns like Nike’s ‘Find Your Greatness’ and Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ have led others to double-down on what’s now known as ‘meaningful marketing’.

But even before we all went wild for purpose, marketers have long been focused on positive traits. Think of the energy spent on understanding customer loyalty, or affinity for our campaigns, or even, god help us all, ‘brand love’.

What do these two things – the clamour for purpose and the pursuit of positive traits – tell us about how we think about marketing? It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that marketing largely starts with the assumption that consumers will prefer brands that are trustworthy and likeable. Indeed, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘likeable’ are essential parts of how we define ‘reputation’.

Certainly the view from the insights’ world is that reputation is often seen as the Holy Grail by marketers. Just think of the work your insights partner does to measure changes in your brand’s reputation, how that reputation compares to your competitors, and what levers you might pull to increase your reputation score.

All of this seems relatively uncontroversial, except what if this pursuit of positivity is a delusion?

If you follow Mark Ritsons commentary then you know that the IPA’s research shows that, on average, for-purpose campaigns underperform when compared with traditional non-purpose campaigns.

But even more provocatively, many companies with abysmal reputations are doing just fine. The annual Axios Harris Reputation Survey, which gathers the opinions of 16,000 US consumers, provides a robust assessment of the least admired brands in the USA. Among the cellar dwellers are these behemoths: Fox News, BP, Meta, X (formerly Twitter) and Shein.

You may quickly dismiss Fox News, Meta, and X for different reasons but how to explain Shein? If you haven’t heard of Shein, they’re the Singaporean company that took Zara’s business model and turbocharged it: through designing and launching literally thousands of new fashion lines every month they leverage their customer volume to effectively crowdsource their fashion direction. They keep costs down through global sourcing of fabrics and labour. In 2022 Shein was the most searched fashion brand in the world. Their revenue grew from US$10 billion in sales in 2020 to US$100 billion by 2022? And, no,  you didn’t read that wrong – 10x growth in revenue in 24 months. And they achieved all of this while being one of the least admired brands in the market?

What’s going on? On one hand we do see consumers changing whole market categories by adopting healthier, ethical and more sustainable brands. Yet in the ocean of brands there are monsters of the deep – BP and Shein among them – that have poor reputations while at the same time they enjoy market growth and burgeoning profits. As businesses they are undeniably successful.

There are two potential explanations here – both which overlap to make causation harder to distinguish. The first is that at a certain scale substance really does become its own kind of style.  It’s like Linus’s Law but for organisations: given deep enough pockets all ESR problems become shallow.

Why this is the case might be explained by the second point – that the value of reputation might be outweighed by much more quotidian considerations such as low prices, convenience, or simple consumer inertia. Consider BP for a moment – where all the tweets in the world about the Deepwater Horizon disaster meant little when BP was the local station and your car was on empty. As all pyschologists know, people are great at dealing with disasters but terrible at adjusting to mild inconveniences.

But the BP example tells us something else too, and that is what the competitor set looks like. It’s hard to boycott BP when none of its competitors can really offer a a true ecological alternative.

This contextual distinction affirms Ritson’s view that the data on purpose reinforces the notion that marketers need to understand their customers well and target them accordingly. As he said, purpose is a choice, but it’s not always one you should choose. Sometimes, the smartest choice might be to act dumb.

Want to know more?

Try reading The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. This book has been described as “Marie Kondo, but for your brain”. And while it doesn’t have much to say about brand positioning, it will challenge you to think about where the quest for approval and veneration comes from. And despite being billed as “a Japanese phenomenon”, The Courage to Be Disliked is really about the value of Adlerian psychology in our lives. If nothing else, The Courage to Be Disliked is a great place to start arguing for more Adler and less Jung or Freud in your marketing approach.

Duncan Stuart and Carl Davidson are stalwarts of the insights world. Proponents of Research Noir, they explore the murky dark side of doubts and decisions. Together they have more than 60 years’ experience

About Carl Davidson and Duncan Stuart

Duncan Stuart and Carl Davidson are stalwarts of the insights world. Proponents of Research Noir, they explore the murky dark side of doubts and decisions. Together they have more than 60 years’ experience

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