If you can’t be a handsome brand, take pride in being a handy one

A new study claims that it is usefulness, not being desired, liked or talked about, that will make your brand the one of choice.

I’ve just returned from a short fact-finding trip to New York. As the plane climbed out of JFK, I sank back into the shareholder-friendly luxury of my Premium Economy seat and mulled over what I’d seen, heard and learnt.

I was mostly reminded of the truism that everything is so much bigger in the US. As Stalin once said, quantity has a quality of its very own, and for the first time I think I understand exactly what he meant. Scale can give you the opportunity to do some quite exquisite things.

I met the strategy director of a large piece of credit card business. (When I say ’large’, I mean that it supports an agency analytics team of over 50.)

In my parochial way, I used to think that credit card businesses made their money from interest, charges and merchant fee income. Nowadays, the real action is in creating entirely new revenue streams from the data which the business generates. And I’m not talking about something as simple as selling it back to merchants.

The latest wheeze is to create macroeconomic models based on card transaction data. Among the clients for these products is the US Federal Reserve, which finds the analysis both more timely and more predictive than its own consumer demand studies.

However, perhaps the most interesting insight I picked up came from some new research into that most fundamental of marketing questions: what drives brand preference?

One of my favourite analogies about brands comes from Rory Sutherland, former IPA president, profound advertising thinker and thoroughly good egg.

According to the study, the most important driver of brand preference is not likeability, talkability or any of the rest. It is usefulness. When it comes down to usefulness, it certainly isn’t the matinee idols that score highest in this research. HP and Dell beat Apple. Amazon beats Nike. And top of the tree is Walmart.

Rory’s analogy asks us to imagine the consumer as the king in a Renaissance court. Brands compete for his patronage. Some adopt the role of the jester, winning his affection with a laugh. Others play the part of a courtesan, seducing him with a sultry glance. While still others position themselves as sage counsellors, earning his trust through information and advice.

However, I’ve always thought there was one figure missing from this picture.

Before he became a well-known media figure and earned himself the soubriquet ’the rudest man in Britain’, Professor David Starkey wrote a brilliant book about the Tudor court.

In it, he revealed that perhaps the most important figure at court was actually someone who went by the title ’Groom of the Stool’. As the label implies, this individual enjoyed very intimate and personal contact with the royal personage.

The Groom’s task was perhaps a little demeaning. But the upside was that in providing such a valuable service, he became highly trusted and privy to personal secrets. The Groom was thus in an excellent position to garner preference and patronage.

While it may be flattering to imagine your brand as a courtesan, a jester or a sage, there is strong evidence to suggest that you may be better advised to aspire to the position of Groom of the Stool.

Which brings me back to that research I mentioned.

The people behind this study hypothesised that brand preference is driven by any number of factors, from desirability and likability through to talkability and even cultural relevance. Next, they conducted a large-sample consumer survey to gather scores against these dimensions for a wide range of brands.

Finally, they analysed these results alongside a range of commercial indicators to gain a sense of which factor, if any, shows the greatest correlation with a brand’s commercial success.

The results would not be surprising to Dr Starkey. Because according to the study, the most important driver of brand preference is not likability, talkability or any of the rest. It is usefulness.

Now, I’ve never met a woman who doesn’t adore Colin Firth. But the rest of us men console ourselves with the fact that if women don’t find you handsome, they may at least find you handy.

When it comes down to usefulness, it certainly isn’t the matinee idols that score highest in this research. HP and Dell beat Apple. Amazon beats Nike. And top of the tree is Walmart.

It’s fair to say that the study is in its infancy, and I have some reservations about it in its current form. To begin with, there’s probably a bit of rational research bias at play here.

After all, respondents are perhaps more willing to describe a brand as ’useful’ than ’likeable’. (You do get some funny looks when you ask a focus group whether they’d prefer to spend a night on the town with Prudential or with Standard Life.)

Furthermore, the criteria of commercial success exclude things like the creation and preservation of a price premium, which many would argue is the main purpose of a brand.

However, the findings are certainly provocative, and they should give us pause for thought. How can we make our brands and not merely our products more useful to customers? What facet of useful do we want them to represent: ubiquity, ease, comprehensiveness?

They’re difficult questions. Especially for non-service brands (though, as a correspondent recently pointed out “products are merely distribution mechanisms for service”).

However, for those of us who most definitely aren’t Colin Firth, the insight this research provides isn’t just provocative. It’s also rather reassuring.

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