by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

If there's a single lesson we brand marketers can learn from the world of politics, it might be that people make choices less because they like something, and more so because they dislike something else.

Sure, politicians wax poetic about themes of justice, strength, fairness, progress, and all those things that nobody could ever argue against. This is the corollary of lifestyle branding...shiny, happy people cavorting on beaches could be enjoying better razor blades, erectile performance, or a political candidate's promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But do these pleasant thoughts motivate voting or purchase? 

I think no is the answer, just as it's the operant trigger for pulling the lever at polling stations. 

What usually prompts voting is a desire to stop, protest, or disapprove something. Stop gay people from getting married. Protest illegal immigration, whether what the government is doing about it, or what the other candidates say about it. Declare your disapproval of the way you feel other people think or act. 

In elections, choice isn’t based on approving a position as much as disapproving another one.

The corollary of this motivational prompt in commerce? Need, not want, within a solid context of relevance.

Personally, I have very fond feelings about Coke. The company gave us a Santa Claus with rosy cheeks, not to mention a cup of sparkling sugar and caffeine that's consistently uplifting, whether I order it in Des Moines or Delhi.

But I have to be thirsty in order to actually buy a cup. Or, in political terms, I need to make a gesture against thirst.

Maybe that seems like a bit of an abstraction when it comes to choosing a soda pop, but now apply it to more complex purchase decisions, like computers or cars. While branding focuses mostly on presenting emotional or associative attributes, actual purchase decisions are prompted and supported by a particular need in a certain context. 

You need to get rid of a vehicle, or get better gas mileage. You wish a computer would let you play your music. One option doesn't let you do what you need to do, so you buy the other one.

Of course, lots of choices are satisfying in and of themselves: people feel a need to make a decision, or to buy something, pure and simple. This is why so many of us make choices, and buy things we really don’t need or want. 

After that, the prompt is usually answering a question like "I need this because it will help me avoid/skip/deny/whatever (fill in the blank)," whether it's articulated like that or not. And answering this sort of question is far more related to the context of an individual's life -- time, place, etc. -- versus the abstractions of branding. 

All purchases, like politics, is local, to misquote the great Tip O'Neill.

So what's the more important activity: presenting the general lifestyle, or prompting the specific choice? 

The easy answer is that both activities are important. But the measures of proof on the value of branding are mostly qualitative; the metrics for choices are objectively obvious -- they're behaviors -- just as the triggers of those choices similarly measurable. 

And, if the way to get people to say yes to your business is to find ways for them to say no to someone else's, perhaps the methodology for doing this consistently has something to do with consistently giving them ways to do so. We could deliver it, and then truly measure our results.

Branding as a series of choices. Actions. Opportunities to make decisions that are relevant to purchasers' lives. Moments that give people chances to push off, take away, or rise above things they want to push off, away, or improve.

Politics are limited to a single voting moment, so the vast majority of political branding amounts to extended foreplay. Associations and emotions and intangibles fill the airwaves, only to be rendered meaningless the moment votes are cast. What drives engagement along the way are advocacy and financial contributing...i.e., choices, and the actions.

Businesses have far more chances to prompt choices. Vote, review, contribute, advise, register, compare, sample, and a host of other behaviors can be woven into a chronology that gets people from initial awareness through purchase and into repeat buying. While voting is one in a while, commerce is ongoing and real-time.

I'm still musing on this idea. But I'd posit:

  • Behaviors matter more than thoughts, and actions can be used as a tool to affirm brand
  • Choices are much more about saying no to something than they are about saying yes

No?

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/02/just-say-no-if.html

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