Alan Mitchell: The brand exists in the mind of the consumer

Potential buyers now look for ‘possibility menus’ from brands, so that differentiation by feature begins to fall by the wayside.

In the early Twenties, physicist Erwin Schrödinger scrambled everyone’s brains with a thought experiment about an unfortunate cat stuck in a closed box with a radioactive particle enclosed in a phial of cyanide. We cannot predict when the radioactive particle will decay, causing a reaction which releases the cyanide and sends the poor beast to an agonising death, a fact which Schrödinger used to suggest that (at quantum level, at least) things exist as a set of possibilities (or probabilities) which collapse into a specific outcome only when they are observed.

Schrödinger was challenging scientists’ deepest assumption: that there is a single reality out there which we can get to know through our investigations. In place of this, he presented them with the dizzying notion that reality is contingent, that we help to create the reality we see.

Something similar is now happening in marketing. Traditionally, we think of brands as single, fixed entities, each with a carefully defined proposition and a unique set of attributes, a single reality which the consumer gets to know. But now, driven partly by consumer pressure and partly by new technologies, brands are becoming like Schrödinger’s wave function: a series of possibilities from which consumers effectively create their own particular brand reality.

Mass customisation is one obvious example. There, the consumer chooses from a range of options made possible by the brand. As Rapp Digital president J Sandom said last week, in initiatives like Procter & Gamble’s mass customisation experiment Reflect.com, the brand remains “virtual” and only becomes “real” when and if the consumer specifies what is wanted. From Internet banking (“when I want it”) to personalised news and music offerings (“exactly what I want”) the Internet means that the consumer as “specifier”, rather than “chooser” is here to stay.

But mass customisation is only one example. Until very recently, companies decided how they were going to market, effectively dictating the buying processes consumers had to go through. As marketers “it was our job to make that forcing as attractive as possible”, notes Michael Mesic of Brann Worldwide. But increasingly, the boot is on the other foot, with consumers dictating how they want do business with companies. “Do I want to use a physical store, the phone, the Internet, mobile phone or catalogue?” Like mass customisation, to do business in this world the brand has to create a set of possibilities which offer a range of different buying experiences.

Even within complete, fixed, physical offerings marketers are importing similar notions. Tesco, for example, is trying to use the same stores to deliver a wide range of different experiences created both for and by the customer: Tesco the discounter, Tesco the gourmand, Tesco the organic foods supplier, Tesco the convenience shop and so on. One store, many possible experiences. Product brands have tried to do something similar by offering an ever-broader range of product variants under the same brand umbrella.

Meanwhile, with established relationships, we can see the same trend, with consumers wanting to specify “rules of engagementí like what you will do with my data, how often you will contact me, how, and about what.”

How do you manage a brand as a set of possible experiences rather than a fixed proposition? Answer: with difficulty. Brand management as we know it is a control-freak profession designed to create and communicate fixed propositions. It’s all about making sure the right message gets sent out to the right people in the right way about the right propositions.

Now we need a subtle approach which revolves around creating a wide range of “branded possibilities” relating to product and service, channel, “rules of engagement” and so on: possibilities that let the consumer stamp his own desires on the brand and claim it as his own, but which also in some way encapsulate and express a unique and unifying common brand “feel”.

Once upon a time differentiation, segmentation and targeting were gratifying and clear concepts. You developed a specific proposition for a specific target group and then you went after them with a specific set of communications tools, offers and so on. But this becomes extremely difficult as consumer choice extends beyond choice between brands to asserting choice within what the brand does. Trying to use the sorts of options chosen by different consumers as a new basis for segmentation doesn’t work either. It’s either too complex, or consumers are too fickle.

So which way forward for brands? Responding to consumers’ desire to assert more control over their brand experiences won’t be easy. One challenge is to establish coherence at a new level. If you are a bank, for example, it may be at the level of relationship or “ease of use” rather than interest rate or product feature. In other words, as consumers look for “possibility menus” from brands, differentiation by feature begins to fall by the wayside. This makes the whole task of differentiation and communication much more complex.

Another challenge is the need for new levels of operational excellence capable of delivering the appropriate experience whatever the channel, the time, etc. Putting these two challenges together highlights a vital new skill: know your limitations and set firm boundaries, become excellent at offering the widest range of possibilities within these limits, and be disciplined about not straying beyond those limits (whether relating to service, range or distribution channel).

Consumers can then decide whether, within this array of possibilities, there is an experience which matches what they’re looking for. Think of it as a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles: the possibility space created by the brand and the set of experiences desired by the consumer. Where the two overlap is where the brand opportunity lies. The bigger the overlap, the bigger the brand’s potential.

Old-style control-freak brand management is declining. Ceding some control to expand the range of possibilities for consumers is now necessary. It’s also vital, however, to keep brands coherent. This brand balancing act is fast becoming a prized skill in the new era.

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