Signalling - Is your brand messaging being undermined by… | ...Gasp!


Is your brand messaging being undermined by the signals you are unwittingly giving off?

The Blogfather reminisces on a night at the theatre, which leads him to delve into the psychological curiosity that is signalling in marketing and advertising.

The peacock stumped Darwin, being at odds with his theory of evolution. How could such a cumbersome, flamboyant tail, the antithesis of camouflage, pass through evolution and survival of the fittest?

The Blogfather is partial to a bit of culture, on occasions. A few weeks ago I dusted down the cherry red slacks and cravat (that’s some signal in itself) and flounced my way over to the Old Vic to see Art. For those not familiar with the play, it consists of just one, long act with no interval, so don’t let your date have a bottle of Blue Nun before-hand. Seriously.

But anyway, the premise of the play is centred around one character’s purchase of a piece of art, and how it causes ructions between him and two very close friends. The reason why? He paid €110k for a plain white canvas. Can the lofty price paid be a guarantee of artistic merit and quality, placing the artwork beyond being dismissed merely as “shit” by his friends?

As we meandered out onto the street after the play had finished (and as my date proffered that, whilst she didn’t mind the play, it wasn’t as good as Gary Wilmot’s Jack & the Beanstalk at the Broadway Theatre, Catford), it struck me that there was a parallel in advertising. The fact that brands spend thousands, even millions, on advertising must be a reassurance to the consumer that the advertiser is a quality brand. Serge, in the play, is seeking to validate himself through his purchase of art. Large brands are doing similar via purchasing high end advertising.

There is a term for this; signalling. It needs a bit of explaining. It has parallels in nature: animals use wasteful characteristics to signal their exceptional biological fitness. The peacock is a great example. The peacock stumped Darwin, being at odds with his theory of evolution. How could such a cumbersome, flamboyant tail, the antithesis of camouflage, pass through evolution and survival of the fittest? But there is a fitness to it. A genetic fitness to attract a mate. This is the theory of costly signalling, which came along in the 70’s, well after Darwin.

But how is this applicable to advertising? Do you want the general public dry humping your sexy peacock billboard? Of course not. Unless, maybe, you are Lovehoney, and are going for a particular type of risqué, VR, experiential outdoor experience.

But moving on. Excesses in advertising work in a similar way by signalling ‘brand fitness’.

It’s becoming increasingly prevalent in this caught-up-by-the-term-digital age to hear people refer to TV advertising or large billboards as a waste of time and money, but it is that very “waste” which could be the most important part; the perceived extravagance of an advertisement contributes to its effectiveness by increasing credibility, and strengthening perceptions of brand quality. And, as Rory Sutherland states, brand reputation is a proxy for trust-worthiness; a significant amount of marketing activity involves the creation of costly signals, which are guarantees of the company's long term ambitions and confidence in its future.

“A consumer preference for buying advertised brands is perfectly rational. The manufacturer knows more about his product than you do, almost by definition. Therefore, the expensive act of advertising his own product is a reliable sign of his own confidence in it. It is like a race horse owner betting heavily on his own horse. Why would it be rational to disregard valuable information of that kind?” – Rory Sutherland.

So that costly sponsorship opportunity you are currently weighing up may be worth the expense.

But of course, signalling can work the other way; ‘Click Here’ display advertising just smacks of cheapness.

Rory Sutherland gives the great analogy of the receipt of two invites for two separate weddings to be held on the same day. In essence containing the same info, but one is sent by email, the other on gilt-edged, embossed, sumptuous stock. The inference you make (free bar and more fun at the latter wedding), is heavily influenced by the cost of the communication.

But it’s not just about spending money, the creative and the messaging needs to be right. You have a great message, and a great product, that you’ve put hours and hours into, but if you end up sending it via a spammy email, it will go unnoticed. But place it in the form of an impactful, personalised Direct Mail, maybe something like this, then it could be different.

An agency, at its heart, makes it way via the selling of ideas. Ideas that solve problems for clients in a way that may not have occurred to them. Signalling, and the larger picture of behavioural science, can help you understand your target market a little bit better, to allow you to be that little bit different. And you only need to be about 10% different, but achieving that little bit of difference is a lot harder than you think. Who would have thought sending a brick in the post could work? (Have a butchers at that link above).

I feel I should do more than just a tip of the hat, and do my further reading dues, as without chancing across these digital diamonds, this signalling piece would have taken significantly more effort:

• The blog that started me off on my signalling blog-jaunt, from Bob Hoffman
• A perfect nugget of a concise blog by the greatly titled ‘Deputy Head of Evidence’, Richard Shotton
• A podcast from The Echo Chamber PR Show, interviewing Rory Sutherland

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