Are Your Prospects/Customers Ignoring You?

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

As marketers, we often talk about the importance of attention, and rightfully so. But we also need to talk about what might cause consumers to avoid paying attention to your message. Or what might cause them to switch their attention to another brand?  

Understanding Brand Avoidance

Brand avoidance, a deliberate choice by consumers to steer clear of certain brands, is influenced by psychological factors that encompass a spectrum of emotions and perceptions. Studies show that negative brand experiences, ethical differences, and doubts about quality or authenticity are the primary drivers of brand avoidance. Although, sometimes even things like including the wrong celebrity or an incompatible type of music in your advertising can fuel brand avoidance between you and your potential consumers. 

Strategies to Counter Brand Avoidance

Again, brand avoidance is often triggered by a negative brand experience, perceived ethical incongruence, and/or doubts about quality or authenticity. Marketers often can get ahead of these issues using two different primary strategies.

  1. Transparent Communication: Foster trust through transparent communication about brand values, practices, and quality. One way to do this is to address negative perceptions head-on. As a hypothetical, let’s say a popular coffee chain, faced with criticism about unsustainable sourcing practices, launched a comprehensive transparency campaign in response. Perhaps creating a dedicated webpage outlining their sourcing process, highlighting their fair-trade partnerships, and sharing videos of visits to supplying coffee farms. This approach would allow them to address any negative perceptions or concerns head-on, leading to increased trust and loyalty among their consumers by taking a perceived weakness and turning into a strength.
  2. Understand Your Target Demographic’s Values: This unfortunately often goes without saying, but it is paramount to tailor brand messages to resonate with the core ideals of your specific audience. For example, Generation Y, also known as Millennials, is a generation with unique values and characteristics that distinctly impact their brand-related decisions. This generation places a high value on authentic connections and meaningful experiences, making it vital for brands to resonate with those core values to avoid being brushed aside. By consistently highlighting the brand’s shared core values and telling authentic brand stories, marketers can successfully circumvent any potential brand avoidance.

Real-World Triumphs: Brands that Navigated Brand Avoidance

There are numerous real-world examples (and companies) that highlight the efficacy of these strategies. McDonald’s and Samsung are two brands that transparently addressed concerns and introduced innovative incentives to successfully mitigate brand avoidance.

McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food chain, is no stranger to facing criticism over its unhealthy food options. But significant backlash arose after the documentary Super Size Me aired in 2004, resulting in one of the most infamous examples of how quickly a brand’s image could decline. Directed by Morgan Spurlock, the documentary was a social experiment in how the chain’s products impact health outcomes. Spurlock solely ate McDonald’s for one month, and frequently “Supersized” meals at employee’s urging (including about 200 grams of french fries and 1.25 liters of soft drink.) Consequently, Spurlock gained 27 pounds, saw increased body mass and cholesterol, and received recommendations from doctors to cease the diet or potentially risk liver damage. 

McDonald’s UK sales dropped to abysmal levels after the documentary’s release.

However, the chain responded by phasing out its Supersize portions and revamping menus at 1,200 outlets across the UK, including healthier choices like salad, fruit and organic options alongside the popular Big Mac and fries. Representatives emphasized the need to eat fast-food in moderation, while the chain launched “Every Step Counts” – a campaign promoting the benefits of healthy exercise by giving away pedometers. McDonald’s even funded a drive to train community football coaches in communities across the U.S. By moderating its menu and taking actionable steps to align with consumers’ healthy values, McDonald’s rebounded from a PR crisis and averted brand avoidance.

Samsung is another brand that faced global backlash, but utilized transparency and public conversation to counter consumer avoidance and switching. In 2016, the company was forced to recall its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones after faulty batteries caused devices to explode.

The South Korean smartphone giant reacted by taking out full-page newspaper ads apologizing to users, then launched a series of campaigns where engineers explained the safety and quality tests their smartphones endure before being released.

To underline its commitment to transparency, Samsung also released the results of its investigation into the malfunctioning Note 7 devices, while publicizing its plans to introduce multi-layer safety measures through an eight-point battery safety check to prevent similar crises from reoccurring. Despite seeing a 7% drop in the number of smartphones it shipped during the fourth quarter of 2016 and a 3% fall in mobile handset sales, Samsung managed to bounce back. The company entered 2017 with operating profits of ÂŁ6.2bn ($7.89bn), its highest third quarter since 2013.

Brand Switching: A Countermove to Brand Avoidance

While brand avoidance might seem like a challenge for businesses, it often sparks brand switching behaviors, where consumers begin the process of actively exploring alternatives. This actually presents a great opportunity to convert naturally curious consumers into strong advocates. In other words, when/if the “switching” behavior is activated, consumers may happen to find that what they are looking for is right in front of them.

Recent studies highlight some of the main triggers and motivations behind brand switching. Specifically, they found that once avoidance was initiated, consumers tended to switch or be drawn to brands and products that better align with their current or desired lifestyles (e.g., activities, interests, opinions, and demography) and/or that fulfilled their natural need for variety. Variety seeking alone is a very powerful motivator, especially among younger consumers (e.g., Gens Y and Z). However, all of us, regardless of age, have the world at our fingertips (digitally speaking), making this deep-seated need for variety an increasingly powerful motivator for pretty much everyone.

Navigating the Possibilities of Brand Switching

  1. Personalization: Offering personalized recommendations and experiences, is a tried-and-true way of increasing the likelihood of conversion (or reconversion) to your brand. A classic example can be found in Henry Ford’s Model T. As one of the first mass production vehicles, the Model T had a lot going for it at the time. It was affordable, it had impressive off-roading capabilities, and it also had some pretty appealing amenities (like an available windshield). But what Ford didn’t offer its consumers was the choice of color, with the Model T only being available in the color black from 1914-1925. While this decision was on purpose and is likely the reason the Model T (and Ford) were able to achieve so much early success, it was also a weakness that competing auto companies were eventually able to exploit. By the mid 1920s the Model T quickly lost ground to Ford’s main competitor (General Motors) who had begun a new strategy of offering their cars in a wide variety of colors, allowing consumers to personalize their vehicles. Although the choice of a color might seem small, it played a pivotal role in automotive history, and it still is just as important when evaluating brand switching behaviors today.
  2. Loyalty Programs: Introducing loyalty programs or incentives for trying new products can help direct consumers in navigating their options. We humans have a strong desire to belong to something and loyalty programs are one way to help cement feelings of belonging and group affiliation. One example of this can be found in Starbucks Rewards program, where consumers can redeem “loyalty stars” for free drinks and food. This simple act helps reinforce consumers’ sense that they are building and maintaining a quality long-term relationship.  
  3. Differentiation: Finally, when navigating brand switching behaviors, it’s important to emphasize your brand’s unique selling points, showcasing what sets you apart from the avoided brands, products, and/or services. A great example is Airstream’s camping trailers. Referred to as the Iconic Travel Trailer, Airstream is known for its traditional classic look on the outside and its modern high-quality construction on the inside. Easily recognizable on the road, Airstream travel trailers are unmistakable to camping enthusiasts and novices alike. This level of clear differentiation is crucial if and when attention spans start to wander and brand avoidance/switching behaviors begin to take hold.

As these examples attest, demonstrating these strategies – even during a crisis – can help reinforce customer engagement, confidence, and loyalty by simultaneously reducing avoidance and spurring brand adoption.  We hope these tips help you consider how to navigate brand avoidance and switching with confidence.

Happy Marketing!
Dr. James