Brand Misattribution: The Wrecker of Marketing Investments

CS: In the last two conversations that we had, you had described two problems that are often categorized as brand perception problems, whereas, in reality they are problems of poor semiotics.  This included fuzzy brand image (lack of distinctiveness) and cultural misalignment.  Is there a third problem that is misclassified as a perception problem, when it is actually a semiotics problem.

FT:  The third problem that I would like to highlight is Brand misattribution as picked up in brand tracking studies.  The problem often arises when there is an established and dominant market leader brand which dominates consumers’ mind space.  When the new brands and challenger brands advertise, consumers assign or attribute the ads to the Leader brand.  When asked which brand is this ad for?  Or which ads of ____(category) do you remember seeing?  The consumer says the name of the leader brand instead of the challenger brand.  This is the problem of Brand Misattribution.

This brand misattribution poses a serious problem for new and challenger brands in two-three ways.

  1. Ad spends are wasted because they benefit the market leader and once again re-inforce its dominant position in consumer mind space
  2. The challenger is unable to break the dominance of the leader brand through its spends.
  3. Hence, it is unable to achieve its growth targets.

CS: Could you give some examples so that I can understand this problem better?

FT: I can cite one example to elaborate upon the problem.  The Paints category is dominated by market leader, Asian Paints.  New challenger brands have been launched recently such as JSW Paints and Grasim Paints from the Aditya Birla Group.

JSW Paints launched a series of ads/long form videos on digital channels, under the positioning platform, “Think Beautiful”.

These ads are all based on emotional and compelling stories of family and community life.  The brand logo is eased in, in the last frame.  Evidently, this is not sufficiently strong branding.

CS: Got it. How and why does brand misattribution happen?  After all, the teams have spent many hours discussing and debating where, when and how the brand logo should be introduced and highlighted in the story telling?

FT: Let me explain the misattribution problem, first from a consumer perception lens.  And then move to the semiotic lens.  From a consumer perception lens, there could be problems of:

Attention: Audiences don’t pay attention to the brand logo when it appears at the end of the ad.

Connection: Audiences don’t connect the domains correctly to form a logical concept that is new or different from what they make with the leader brand.

Memory:  Audiences don’t retain the symbols in their long term semantic memory.

In the paints category, this perception & cognition problem could be the outcome of the viewing situation. 

  1. Most members of the audience are not shopping for paints. Unless they are painters or contractors or architects or people building homes.  So they view paint ads with very low attention levels.
  2. We are all cognitive misers, we learn the minimum information necessary for us to navigate the world successfully. Since audiences are not in the “buying frame of mind” they don’t make the mental effort needed to relearn, form new cognitive connections in the mind.

CS:You have elaborated on the psychology aspect very well and very clearly.  And it makes logical sense.  But, what does Semiotics have to do with this?  If the Receivers / Audience are not in a receptive frame-of-mind, what can the Senders do?

FT: A Semiotician team would describe brand misattribution as a failure of interpretation or a failure of Semiosis.  How does this come about?

a.  Semiosis or the ability to interpret accurately for all practical purposes, is the outcome of past learning and habit. Branding, communication, narrative codes of the paints category learnt from prior exposure to paints ads, leads to automatic associations and interpretations that work in favour of the leader brand and against the challenger brands.


b.  Lack of Distinctiveness in the way the paint and paint brand/logo are brought into the story. There is a lot of emphasis given to finding a “new” and “different” human interest story that will engage the audience and make them continue watching the ad from beginning to end. So, the storyline sticks in memory.  But, those frames and sequences in which the paint and painting are shown as well as in the way the pack/brand logo are brought in, could be based on category codes or category cliches. Thus, familiarity takes over, the mind fills in the blanks and the brand that is connected with the ad, is the leader brand.


c.  Weak Connectors:  The connector signs that establish the link between the storyline, the product and the brand could also be weak.  So, the source brand doesn’t register, the default brand, the market leader, is ascribed to the story.


CS:Fascinating to see how a simple problem of brand misattribution can be diagnosed differently, depending upon the lens through which it is addressed.  The semiotic problem in the ads themselves could be based on sameness, lack of distinctiveness and weak connectors.  These are the problems to be addressed by way of re-editing or thinking much harder about integrating the brand logo into the storytelling. The perception problem could be the outcome of low attention, poor memory and the effect of learning and habits. So, back to my favourite question, where does the solution lie?

FT:The perception problem arising from viewing contexts cannot really be addressed directly by the advertiser.  No advertiser has the power to alter the audience’s viewing context.  What they can do is to change the ad itself, improving its embedded signs and symbols to make the branding more effective. 

CS:So what exactly will the Semiotician team do in this case?  How is this different from what the current best practice is?

FT:The Semiotician team will study in depth, detail and nuance, the video ads in the category, from all brands, including the Leader brand.  They will figure out all the normative signs, symbols and visuals in the category communication, the codes.  They will compare the brand’s comms with the category codes to identify the points of difference or lack thereof.  From a Semiotician’s lens, the answers lie within the category texts and how they can be altered.  Solutions are found in a structured and systematic way, not just by creative leaps.

CS:OK, so here are my three takeaways and action points from this discussion with you.

  1. Brand misattribution could be a more widespread problem than is acknowledged or acted upon.
  2. Common sense solutions based on ‘perception’ diagnosis may not be good enough.
  3. A deeper study of semiosis or sign interpretation from the ad, by a team of semioticians with their proposed solutions would show the way out of the problem.

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