Who cares? It’s not that important anyway.

Who cares It’s not that important anyway

Brand managers are often frustrated by what seems to be a callous indifference on the part of consumers when it comes to how they choose brands in certain categories.  It is almost comically tragic. Imagine a brand manager spending the better part of his life living and breathing the brand only to be met with just a few seconds of thoughtless choice or even worse, complete disregard.

When some efforts at changing this situation proves futile, the category over a period of time gets branded as uninteresting, uninvolving, a commodity market that is only price driven etc. etc. That mindset leads to a negative spiral of under investing in the brand, which then leads to a situation where brands operate at the lowest common denominator, both on functional attributes as well as added values. The consumer just does not perceive any difference between the various brands in the category and the only basis of decision-making gets reduced to price. The category quickly degenerates into a marketing quagmire where all that matters to the consumer is lower price, price offs, offers, sweepstakes etc.  This mess gets further amplified by a self-serving trade (justifiably so) who begins to push brands based on the margins or commissions that they receive. The brand manager finds out to his/her dismay that he/she spends most of his/her time and energy contemplating higher price offs, better promotions and greater margins.  And that kind of work requires a calculator, not a qualified brand manager.

While submitting that each category has its own peculiarities and there cannot possibly be one point of view that can cut across them, there may still be quite a few categories where the reasons for low involvement and the resulting chaos have more to do with marketing neglect than with the inherent nature of the category.  There are lessons to be learnt from a host of marketing successes and failures in this area and this article attempts to capture a few key dimensions that brand managers could watch out for.

1. The source activity

It may be a fallacy to look at involvement levels only from the point of view of the category.  There may be a need to look beyond the category to what its source activity is or where it fits into the consumer’s lives.    

An understanding of the involvement that a consumer has with the source or the source activity is critical.  In other words, in the case of cooking salt, the source activity is eating food. In the case of painting one’s home or buying cement or sanitary ware, the source activity is home construction, restoration or decoration. Similarly the source for batteries or petrol or engine oil is a car, motorcycle etc.

The question then to be asked in many categories if one finds them to be one of low involvement is:  Is the involvement level with the source activity high at least relatively higher?   If the answer to that is yes, then very often there is a great chance that a well-devised plan of marketing action could be put in place to increase the involvement levels with the category and by implication the brand too. 

That begs the question, does cement have to be a low involvement, commoditized category driven by price differences by and large ? That begs the question, is enamel, a paint that is used on doors, windows, grills and gates a low involvement category driven primarily by price and retailer margins? That also begs the question, what did the marketers do right in the case of tiles, exterior emulsion paints, switches, car batteries, lubricants etc. etc.

In other words, if the involvement levels with the source/source activity is high, creating a credible and valuable connection between the category and its source and communicating it coherently and powerfully could very often kick start involvement levels both for the brand and the category

2. Time and attention

Involvement is essentially a function of time and attention.  But who has either the time or the attention?  As mentioned by David Lewis in his book ‘ The soul of the new consumer’ these are without doubt among the biggest scarcities that a consumer faces.  To ask for greater involvement is to ask for greater time and attention and the question that the brand manager needs to contemplate on is :  Is my brand and what it is offering worth that?

Clearly the competition between brands not just within categories but across them is for consumers’ time and attention.  And that’s not just what the brand has to contend with. There are traffic jams, credit card balances, home loans, illnesses, decisions on holidays etc. to deal with as well.  So what does the brand offer that makes a consumers’ time and attention worth it, every time he or she interacts with the brand? A minor improvement in the performance of a product, launching a few more variants, a fancy looking visual of a chemical molecule claiming better wash,  a standard drone of a product window message or a complicated 5 page leaflet saying how to use the product……Maybe none of the above. 

There has to be a damn good reason for the consumer to engage his time and attention in the decision making process and very often, paradoxically enough, this reason could be the brand’s ability to save the consumer’s time and emotional energy.  Another reason could be to mitigate the risk involved arising out of the complexity or the non-familiarity with a category.  Very often when a brand fails to do this, the consumer looks for a contact point who can save both his or her time and emotional energy as well as mitigate the risk involved. And this more often than not, this contact point happens to be an intermediary – a painter, a dealer, a contractor, a broker or maybe even a new business enterprise that offers this solution or fall back on a trusted brand.  What implications this would have for a brand is anyone’s guess. 

In other words, save the consumer as much time and attention as possible, where there is need to engage his or her time and attention, make it worth it, offer solutions that are simple rather than complex and chances are that there would be greater involvement and greater loyalty as well.

All this can eventually come only out of a genuine respect for the consumer, not an attitude of patronising or over-estimating the importance of the brand in the consumer’s lives. 

3. The evolution of involvement

Very often, the key question is who should bell the cat. In other words, who would be willing to pioneer greater involvement in an existing category that seems prima facie one of low involvement?

A look at the evolution of similar categories in more developed consumer markets,  a Delphi study with relevant experts, a clear understanding of where customers’ minds are currently along with a certain degree of intuition and judgment can help assess the timing of when to pioneer greater involvement in an existing category.  The pioneer suffers and profits from taking this call.  Very often a philosophy that true thought leaders take is,  ‘The timing is always right or it is never right’

So a whole host of commodities today enjoy relatively greater involvement from consumers than in the past – salt, cooking oil, petrol, switches, pens etc.  That sets one thinking : is there an Andrex waiting to happen to the toilet paper market in India,  is there a brand waiting to happen in bricks, sand and stones for the construction market or in gear oils and coolants etc..

In conclusion, in many categories, involvement levels have a strong correlation with marketing action.

Taking a very close look at various issues relating to the category and the consumer, some of  which have been outlined above could help a brand manager in choosing his or her course of action.  Figuring this out could well be the corner stone to addressing a host of other brand related issues as there is a correlation between involvement levels, brand loyalty and sometimes even brand advocacy. And that may well be the answer to the question that brand managers face while dealing with a ‘Who cares, it’s not that important anyway’ attitude from consumers in certain categories. 

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