Monday, November 29, 2010

Life, Marketing, and the Power of Context

“Never believe a rumor at face value, even when the person telling you is familiar and credible and the “evidence” they present appears factual.
-My Mother to me at age 13

We’ve all seen the power of context at play in our lives as high school students, or perhaps earlier. We’ve also seen how errors in judgment arise from misinterpretation of context, which can often result in missed opportunities, damaged reputations, and inaccurate conclusions. And it isn’t limited to teenagers or to the popular movie, Mean Girls. It’s brought to bear in many facets of adult life and runs rampant in offices and cubicles.

Would you think differently, for example, of the woman who cut you off in traffic if you came to know that her daughter had been hit by a car and she was racing to the ER to find out if she was OK? Most likely, you would. But rarely do we get a glimpse into the impetus for this type of action.

Character Plays a Role in Perception

A few years ago, I read The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, which explains how epidemics and wide-scale beliefs can result from the actions and influence of very few. Since then, I have observed the power of context and the law of the few at play in many situations, both personally and professionally.

“Character is..a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstances and context1.” How many times have you believed a story--or dismissed one--based on your historically predicated beliefs of the storyteller or the subject? While it is important to build a reputation of honest, credible, reliable character, we must be careful not to assume that past history alone will always yield consistent behavior.

Consider the high profile corporate scandals of the last 10 years. Those who were caught embezzling and committing fraud weren’t considered to be of ill character before these acts. In fact, many of their colleagues, family, and friends were shocked by their actions because they had known these people for years as honest professionals and never considered them capable of criminal activity. As a friend or relative, your loyalty may prohibit you from even considering such things about your loved ones, but as a business leader, you are called upon by your constituents to put assumptions aside and remain vigilant about the actions of your employees.

Life and the Power of Context
Consider the following scenarios:

Formed Perception:
“I’m going to beat the kids one more time and then we’ll meet you at the arena.”

Jane sends this text message to her husband, Mike, which accidentally landed in the inbox of her neighbor who bears the same first name. Neighbor Mike promptly called Child Protective Services, the action we’re all compelled to take when child abuse is suspect.

The Reality: Jane, her husband Mike, and their two children were planning to compete as a family in a video game competition at their local sports arena that evening. She was referring to a pre-game practice she was going to have with the children. Husband Mike would have had the proper context, however human error caused the message to be delivered to the wrong recipient. In this case, Mike the neighbor acted in accordance with his civic duty and would not be required to consider context before acting.

Formed Perception:
“Hey Tony- remember how I told you that I think of you like a brother? Well I was wrong. It’s much more than that. When you’re ready, I’ll fill you in.” -Steve

This was an email sent between two people with a business relationship who had become close friends, both having full contextual understanding. At a later date, Steve accidentally discovered a secret that Tony had been trying to keep hidden. Although Steve remained a loyal friend, Tony lashed out at him, using this email and portions of others as “evidence” to support the story he created that Steve was needy and had become obsessed with Tony. This was a fabrication (in fact, while Steve was visibly having a difficult time, it was really Tony who was dealing with a lot of issues which Steve had helped with behind the scenes, and the two rarely discussed Steve's struggles), however their mutual friends and colleagues believed this tale, taking the communications out of context as presented, causing damage to Steve’s reputation and career. Phone logs and other records easily cleared Steve of the accusation, proving Tony to have been slanderous, but the perception had already been formed in people’s minds.

The Reality: Steve had been studying metaphysics and came to believe that he and Tony had been brothers in a previous lifetime, which Tony found intriguing. Later, Steve stumbled upon information that caused him to believe he and Tony had known each other in many previous lives (“It’s much more than that.”). Regardless of whether or not you share their spiritual beliefs, Tony had deliberately manipulated context to further his malicious--and arguably narcissistic--intent.

In both of these rather extreme examples, context was misapplied. By sending a text to an unintended recipient, Jane made a common error that many of us have experienced and could not have prepared for misinterpretation of context. Steve forwent the need to frame context because he was communicating in response to an ongoing conversation he’d been having with his friend Tony, whom he’d trusted. We don’t know why Tony behaved inconsistently with the values his friends and colleagues had come to know as his character but there is certainly more going on with him that likely has nothing to do with Steve. When context isn’t applied, backstories are unclear, which can create further assumptive responses.

Using Context and Influence in Marketing
Unlike in life, where you often have prior personal experience with the people involved, in marketing, we rely on brand image and clever messaging to create initial impressions, designed to induce some sort of action--try, buy, tell your friends, etc. And unlike in life, we expect our customers and prospects to respond to our messages with a perception-is-reality mindset.

In acquisition marketing, we have just a few seconds to capture attention and elicit response to our messages. This is why brand building and customer community engagement through means such as social networking are such important aspects to any marketing effort. Much like our life examples, historical knowledge and multiple touch points with a brand create a foundational impression and enable us to proactively frame context.

Then, it is up to us to deliver on our promises and to keep delivering, both in terms of product quality and authentic interactions. Unlike our overly-trusting friend Steve in the example above, consumers will seek consistently positive experiences with our brand in every interaction, and although past performance may induce purchase in the present, the easy access of substitutes--particularly for low-touch purchases--can lure non-captives away following even one negative experience. A misinterpreted message counts as a negative experience.

As marketers, many of us are what Gladwell calls “connectors.” We have large, powerful networks that we leverage to bring people together and to coalesce ideas. We should feel free to use the power of context to our advantage, applying techniques such as whisper campaigns and teasers in our communications. Market testing (i.e. culture and other segmentation cuts) is an important step in ensuring that context will be understood. This is especially necessary in series communications in which campaign stories are built across multiple communications vehicles and media. Examples of successful application of series context are the California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk”, Mastercard’s “Priceless”, and Intel’s “Intel Inside” campaigns, to name a few.

Life and marketing come together when the power of context is applied at a human level. In both, you are dealing first and foremost with people, most of whom apply logic and rationalization to their decisions. Supportive context and frame of reference are imperative, as is the expectation that assumptions will guide some conclusions while individual experiences will guide others.

Oh, and in life as in marketing, authenticity rules. If you veer from it, you will be exposed. If you don’t believe me, just ask Tony.

Did I get that right, Mom?

1Malcolm Gladwell ,The Tipping Point, 2002.
Photo Credit