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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Licking Liking

Sorry but I couldn’t stay schtum – last month’s survey into Britain’s favourite and most hated brands commissioned by Joshua and promoted by Marketing magazine was sufficient provocation that I had to say something about this huge topic which is a regular source of angst for communicators. What difference does liking make? To brands and to advertising? If you’re a brand manager and your brand is 5% worse liked should you shoot yourself? If you’re 5 points better off should you pat yourself on the back?

Like: the obesity issue

Like is a FAT word. That is to say it has many meanings. When people say they like something they mean a number of different things – at the same time. Which makes like a very dangerous word to put into a research survey. Because it will generate ambiguity and duplication and lazy coding. OK let’s start with brands. When people say they like a brand they will mean at least one of the following –

  • that the brand is acceptable, known by everybody and in general use
  • that the brand is popular or fashionable (these days)
  • that this is a brand they feel passionate about – and as a corollary to this
  • that this is a brand they would recommend

And frankly getting agreement with these statements would be more revealing than getting people to say whether they like the brand.

The acceptable face of success

OK let’s start with meaning number 1: acceptance – what commercial use is universality of acceptance and usefulness? Not a lot and not a good reason for promoting either using advertising – the reason for promoting acceptance is when you don’t have it and one of the key worries is when you have near univeral acceptance – and if you start losing it for goodness sake don’t let on. Give people a reason for using the brand – fame and familiarity breed not contempt but worse complacency getting a high liking score is NOT good news. To quote the brilliant unnamed spokesman for Virgin Atlantic emerging from a court case against BA “Calling British Airways the world’s favourite airline is like calling the M25 Britain’s favourite motorway.” And calling Google the UK’s favourite brand – is this about preference or ubiquity?

9 out of 10 cats…

We then come on to meaning number 2 – the perceived popularity of a brand. This is one area where new brands can outpunch their weight to create the impression that they are particularly popular and are more popular than they really are. But again fashionability or the appeal of the brand to opinion formers or leaders is a much more useful measure than liking – as in very popular these days. Perceived popularity is an inducement to trial and adoption. But of course that doesn’t mean your brand will have a big liking score – because most may not have heard of you yet – it’s assumptive.

My fave

And now meaning number 3: how passionately people feel about a brand. A normal distribution curve would mean that 20% of the users of any given brand ought to be reasonably positive (and knowledgeable about the brand). And these are normative – I’m sure it is possible for a brand to get more than its fair share of passionate users. And this doesn’t necessarily mean they are the most frequent or spend the most. Some of the most loyal brand users are passionate because they don’t use the category very often so are disproportionately dependent on the brand for quality or guarantee of delivery – by contrast the most frequent may be so experienced in using the category that they may not ‘like’ the brand that much. Of course the operative word here is users. Another problem with the survey is that it seemed to make no discrimination between users and non users. If you have been told for years that BA is the world’s favourite airline and you have no reason to doubt this (because you don’t fly) you may say you ‘like’ BA but I wouldn’t suggest BA hold their breath waiting for you to buy a ticket. Even with users you can run into difficulties. When I developed advertising for Uncle Ben’s rice they used to do a survey every year which established conclusively that even at a 100% price premium Uncle Ben’s was the best rice and I’m sure there was a measure which claimed it was their favourite. Only the Neilsen figures showed this wasn’t true – despite universal popularity and respect – Tilda and own label tore into market share – being the best wasn’t good enough at that price point.

Brands you love to hate

And what about unpopularity? What does it mean to call Pot Noodle and QVC the UK’s most unpopular brands? If only a few people use a brand, and it is seen to be a minority interest then the overall liking score will of course be lower – but that means absolutely nothing because the brand may be very successful and may indeed be loved by those who use it – which is why QVC’s spokesperson claimed to beglad of the attention. Being unpopular was well irrelevant. And Pot Noodle has specifically gone about turning itself into an unsavoury (no pun intended) brand. So perhaps being so popular is a sign of branding success? You can see how confusing this liking business gets – it really doesn’t explain anything. Again it’s passion which makes the difference.


Turn to advertising and the heat is really on. You see there’s a whole school of advertising in the USA who say that the more people like your advertising the more effective your advertising will be whether in getting your brand noticed, considered, being forgotten more slowly or even getting people to go and buy. Only when you investigate it a little more it turns out that ‘liking’ needs to be deconstructed into different drivers and varies significantly by product category – all of which would persuade me to argue for calling it something else other than liking. For example Alex Biel’s Admap paper which apparently establishes a connection between liked advertising and brand consideration if the ad was particularly meaningful in the food and beverages category. Doesn’t this just mean that people like ads which are relevant to them and in the case of mouthwashes don’t always perceive the immediate relevance as they would with food and drink? Even Biel – puts a big caveat around liking as a solitary predictor for advertising success. Aside from the US school the predominant view in the UK is that liking has to be taken with an extreme pinch of salt as an indicator of popularity.

Did the group like it?

And what of advertising development – and focus groups? If respondents like the ads how much is it worth? Well not a lot. In fact there have been agencies such as Red Cell who have been known to bin creative ideas because respondents were favourable towards them. The argument goes something like this – if they like it then it’s because they’re used to it which means they’ve seen the idea somewhere before and think it looks like advertising ought to. In other words it is liking in our first definition of the word – it fits and it’s acceptable. All of which makes it derivative and on the way to being tolerated and ignored. When you watch people being exposed to advertising ideas don’t listen to what they say before you look at their body language – you’re looking for engagement, signs that they are internalising the idea and understand it. Which idea is their favourite isn’t that important. Quallies get very upset with those of their number who run beauty contests in discussion groups and come back with the group’s stated preferred advertising idea. They jump up and down on their tape recorders when they’re not looking. We’re not in the business of entertaining people but of communicating with them.

Like – the end

Everybody wants to be liked. My son wants to be really popular – though he’s got enough political nous to want be the most popular AFTER the class bully. It’s hard to convince him that popularity won’t make him more successfull or get him better friends or help him do better at school – it’s just not relevant. And popularity isn’t much more helpful when we consider brands and advertising because it’s not a reliable indicator of value. It’s too fickle, too liable to be distracted by what everybody else thinks, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to people reaching for their wallets.









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