Brand beliefs and the Facebook factor

Last week I talked about the power of our beliefs to shape our view of the world around us. I also mentioned how our belief constructs impact our view of brands. As luck would have it, two separate pieces crossed my path this week and I think both provide excellent examples of how we may perceive brands, and how marketers often get it wrong when trying to shepherd a brand through the marketplace.

The first piece was Does Branding Need to be Rebranded by Mediapost’s Matt Straz in Online Spin. In it, Matt mentioned the backlash against Sir James Dyson (he of the cool vacuums) when he dared to mention that he doesn’t believe in branding. Now, to clarify, Dyson doesn’t believe in branding the way it’s practiced by many companies, where through sheer force of advertising, their heavily controlled (and often contrived) brand story is theoretically imprinted in your brain. This isn’t so much branding as brain washing. Let’s call it “brand-washing.”

But let’s go back to how our beliefs define our view of brands. We use beliefs as a heuristic short cut allowing us to operate efficiently in our world. We form beliefs so we don’t have to endlessly think through every single decision. Beliefs form based on our own experience, but they are also formed based on what we’re exposed to. All this input gets synthesized into a reasonably coherent and remarkably resilient belief. Once in place, this belief guides our action.

So, from our perspective, a brand can be defined as what the buyer believes a brand to be. In the ad community, there is much debate about the definition of a brand. But, in the final analysis, the only definition of brand that matters is the one that rests in the mind of the buyer. All else are simply inputs into that final mental model, which is created solely by the customer.

James Dyson believes the best of those paths is by producing great products and then to let them speak for themselves. If you create products that consistently exceed expectations, that is enough to build an authentic and enduring brand belief. It’s hard to argue with that logic, and, in fact, it’s what P&G called the Second Moment of Truth with the consumer – their experience when your product is in their hands. In this definition, brand is intimately coupled with the product itself.

But, if Dyson is right, why is there an advertising industry at all? Even Dyson buys ads to sell vacuum cleaners. This brings us to the second piece that I saw in the past week. It was a report out of Forrester called the Facebook Factor. This is a bit of a tangential detour, so bear with me.

The report posits that we can now quantify the value of a Facebook “Like”. The reasoning is fairly simple. If you add a few questions to a typical customer survey, you can start to quantify the correlation between someone liking you on Facebook and subsequent purchasing of your product. But, as Forrester points out in the report, there is a correlation/causation trap here that could lead to many marketers making the wrong conclusion.

If you try to equate people who felt motivated to “like” you on Facebook with likelihood to purchase, you run the risk of mistaking correlation for causation. People didn’t buy your product as a result of “liking” you on Facebook. The Facebook “like” came as a result of a positive “belief” about your brand. It was an effect, not a cause. At best, the Facebook Factor should be considered as nothing more than a leading indicator of brand preference.

But many marketers will confuse cause and effect. They will believe that by driving Facebook “likes”, they will drive higher brand loyalty. This is where brand and product can potentially become decoupled. Here, once marketers start assigning a value to a Facebook “like” based on Forrester’s methodology, they will start regarding Facebook “likes” as the end goal, trusting in the mistaken belief that a Facebook “like” will always correlate positively to purchase behavior.

Once this decoupling happens, the value of the Facebook “like” starts to erode. The motivation for the “like” often has little to do with a positive brand experience. It’s driven by a promotion or campaign that has just one aim – to drive as many likes as possible. From the customer’s perspective, it’s easy to hit the “Like” button. They have no skin in the game. There is no belief behind the action.

In the end, I believe Dyson’s definition of brand is the more authentic one. It goes back to the very roots of branding, which was a reassurance to the buyer that they were buying what they believed they were buying.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider May 17, 2012