For many big brands, investment in advertising is as big as the amounts spent in setting up factories and other infrastructure, says Madhukar Sabnavis.
The beverage station was located in a non-descript office in Newcastle in Northeastern England. It was not different from thousands of other office stations where tea, coffee and milk were dispensed using an honour system.
People assembled their beverages and dropped money in an honour box. An office maven sent out emails every six months or so, reminding people to pay for their beverages. This particular machine was located in a spot where people could not be observed. If they were honest and paid up, no one would give them a pat on the back; if they did not pay, no one caught them.
For ten weeks, unknown to its users, a researcher, Melissa Bateson, tracked how much beverage was dispensed and how much money was collected in the honour box. She discovered the average collection during the odd weeks (one, three, five, seven and nine) was three times as much as was collected during the even weeks (two, four, six, eight and ten).
The only difference between the odd and even weeks was the picture accompanying the price list on the machine. In the odd weeks, it was a pair of eyes staring into the user. In the even weeks, it was a picture of beautiful daisies. Interestingly, no one noticed the picture was different from week to week!
Melissa drew two lessons from this study. One, that people become more honest when they have a pair of eyes with a penetrating gaze staring at them; two, that people are powerfully influenced by things they never consciously register or remember.
Shankar Vedantam, the author of the book The Hidden Brain, postulates that many of human actions and decisions are driven by our hidden brains and we are rarely ever able to articulate the reasons. There can often be a big difference between what we say and what we do, because of this reason.
This brings up the question, can ads be actually researched. Are many of the current research techniques that attempt to understand messaging and its comprehension and persuasion limiting in understanding the real power of advertising?
For many big brands, investment in advertising is as big as the amounts spent in setting up factories and other infrastructure. So, it's natural to look for systems and processes that ensure that the money being invested is being used wisely.
Hence, the dependence on many qualitative and quantitative techniques that measure advertising effectiveness using many stimuli - from narramatics to animatics to finished executions. Big advertising decisions are made based on such results. So, while current methodologies provide reassurance, the above anecdote raises the question whether sub-optimal solutions may be going through.
Let's consider some interesting facts about consumers and the impact of Indian culture on them.
First, Gerald Zaltman, in his book How Consumers Think, postulates that consumers store most memories in visuals and pictures rather than words. However, in most researches they play back in words - that's the way people have been schooled to communicate.
The first question, how much is lost between the mind and the mouth.
Second, India is a brahminical culture where knowledge is revered. We have been taught from childhood to study by rote and play back - and that's an intelligent thing to do. So, in many forced exposure tests, consumers tend to pay extra attention to play back fully to appear intelligent.
The second question, does this mirror reality when the ad is finally beamed out to the consumer in an everyday environment.
Third, we are emotional people. Much of our decision-making is by the heart than by the mind. Many consumers may be buying "irrationally" and then striving to explain it away with some "rational" argument. While comprehension can happen on one viewing; emotional connects often happen from repeat viewership.
The one parameter often tested in research is "likeability". Most researches are done on one time viewership - rarely testing the ability of communication to grow on the viewer.
The third question, how do you measure the effect of repeated exposure of a piece of communication.
Fourth, we are a very affiliative race. Word of mouth is strong and we have a tendency of sharing whatever we enjoy. Lots of creative pieces - music, movies, fashion, etc - spread on the back of the buzz created.
Advertising may also be consumed in similar fashion. The "buzz" power of a communication often adds to its impact. No research model to my knowledge actually tests this dimension and its usefulness is unconsciously underestimated. So, the fourth question, what's the buzz power of the creative piece.
Finally, linked to the earlier point, India is a country of imitators rather than initiators. David Ogilvy said "never use popularity as a positioning platform" - in India, however, many brands have succeeded by using exactly that.
There is comfort in numbers - in lower income strata, consumers are more comfortable in hearing salesmen in groups rather than individually - to be psychologically reassured that they are not being hoodwinked! Imitators, by mindset, need to be "hard" sold to; but can be more easily influenced if the initiators have adopted the product.
So, the last question, how do you isolate the initiators in a category - the innovators - and influence them to most effectively move the market.
Some of the best advertising that has moved the Indian market (whether passed or not passed through traditional research) post facto seem to be the ones that have created high buzz in the market and have been high on emotional connect.
So, what's the way forward? Noted researcher Forrester once said, "The consumer is a rear-view mirror." Henry Ford said that if you asked the consumer what he wanted, he would have said a faster horse - and the automobile would never be invented. Steve Jobs said that a marketer's job is not to satisfy a consumer need but to inspire her. In a commoditised market, the task of advertising is also perhaps to inspire the consumer rather than fit in her mind.
There may be a lesson in the way Nike does things. Immerse yourself in the consumer -understand her brain (and her hidden brain). Soak into her life. And then emerge and create inspirational advertising that you believe can move her and use the real world as a testing ground.
A magical execution could make an impact as strong as the two eyes that got people to be more honest at the beverage station in Newcastle.
Something worth thinking about.
The author is Country Head-Planning, Ogilvy and Mather India. Views expressed are personal.