It’s true. I’ve been cheating. You might overhear me making passionate declarations of love for brand strategy, writing blogs about it or just generally, you know, being employed in the field. But it’s time to admit that I’ve been unfaithful to my first love: science. To me, science is modern day philosophy. It does more than ask bold questions; it often answers them. And strangely enough, the more we discover, the more we yearn to understand, perpetuating the unquenchable thirst for knowledge that makes us innately human. This, people, is why we stepped out of the cave.
Given that I write a brand strategy blog, not a science one, I thought I’d use my third love, writing, to attempt to bring these seemingly disparate subjects together. My hypothesis is that you can take almost any facet of science and find a way to pragmatically apply it to brand strategy. As I’m incapable of bending space-time to suit my needs, I’m going to focus on three big ones for today:
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect
The physicist Werner Heisenberg developed one of the most famous tenets of quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, in the late 1920s. ‘Uncertainty’, in this instance, refers to our inability to predict both the velocity and the position of a particle at once. The more precisely we measure one element, the less accurate our measure of the other becomes. Loosely tied to this principle is what scientists call the ‘observer effect’, which posits that by merely attempting to measure a particle, we affect change on that particle, thereby altering the measurement itself.
I believe that by attempting to measure a brand or campaign’s success though rigorous testing and research, we often overlook the bigger picture. Clients and agencies become far too focused on ROI and metrics, on short term wins. While we can measure response rates on eDMs or booming sales figures, we can’t accurately gauge brand equity and engagement (no matter what some agencies tell you).
How do you measure the subconscious emotional reaction a person experiences when they notice a familiar logo? Or how many people are humming a brand’s jingle as they do the housework or walk to work each day? While I’m not advocating that we should drop measurement altogether, I am suggesting that the act of measurement can skew our perception of what defines a successful brand. These seemingly small, everyday experiences actually contribute to a larger, more congruous brand awareness that, whilst immeasurable, is crucial to a brand’s success.
The Theory of Evolution
This one shouldn’t require too much explanation (unless you were educated in the American South). Darwin’s famous tome On the Origin of Species makes the case that all life has evolved over time through a process called natural selection, also known as ‘survival of the fittest’. This is a misnomer though, as it’s never been simply about the weak versus the strong, but about a species’s ability to adapt to its environment and pass on desirable traits to its young. Evolution answers questions previously reserved for religion and philosophy; it helps us understand where we came from and how we got this far.
People, as a rule, are resistant to change; we don’t like re-brands. When Gap in North America replaced its famous ‘blue box’ logo with a more modern interpretation, there was a large-scale social media backlash. Facebook and Twitter fired up to protest the switch and Gap responded by apologising to customers and reverting to their original logo. By attempting to evolve too quickly, Gap wasted millions of dollars of marketing spend and damaged their relationship with the consumer.
Brand evolution must be approached cautiously and undertaken stealthily - just look at how subtly Qantas refines its flying kangaroo every few years. If you’re reading this from Australia, I’d bet you have a trusty tub of NapiSan in your laundry. Or do you? If you take a close look at your tub of NapiSan right now, you might notice something a little different: it’s not called NapiSan anymore. It’s called Vanish NapiSan OxiAction.
You haven’t noticed because parent company Reckitt-Benckiser doesn’t want you to notice – it wants you to adapt. It’s spent millions of dollars and almost a decade slowly transitioning a well-loved Aussie brand into its global brand architecture without upsetting the status quo. And it’s working beautifully. Eventually the NapiSan name will disappear from the label entirely, but that won’t happen in the near future. Sometimes change takes a generation.
Occam’s razor is not a scientific proof or principle, but a heuristic (kind of like a rule of thumb) that helps guide scientists when developing a new theory. Named for William of Ockham, a logistician that frequently used this methodology but did not explicitly name it, Occam’s razor states that when there are multiple possible explanations to a problem, the simplest answer is almost always correct. This can be summed up by an old axiom, “When you hear hoof beats behind you, think horses, not zebras.”
You might find yourself at your GP’s office with fever, chills, vomiting and nausea, convinced you picked up a tropical disease on your recent trip to South America. You’ve Googled the symptoms and you could be dying from all manner of fatal infections. Your doctor, however, looks amused as he informs you that you’ve got a mild case of flu. This is Occam’s razor in action.
Brand strategists often delve too deeply into their work. Clients often come to us expecting a grand unified theory and we actually attempt to find one. We create diagrams and charts to show just how much thinking we’ve done about their brand. We look for meaning in numbers and try to apply it to our strategies.
But sometimes a number is just a number. A chart is just a chart. What really matters is a strategist’s ability to be intuitive, to grasp the emotional aspects of a brand and tease them out in a strategy. Sometimes we need to just sit back, ignore the science and use our instincts.
By Torie de Jong