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When marketing common sense has reached its limits, call a Semiotician! | The Difference between Preference and Attachment

In marketing 101, we are taught that differentiation is crucial in building consumer preference for our brand(ed) product or service. If our product or service is similar or identical to that of the competition, why should a consumer choose us? We are then selling commodities which are bought on the basis of availability and price, and not out of preference.

If we are able to generate preference in the minds of consumers, then at the time of purchase, we are more likely to get bought. This is because preference cultivates an attitude of positive beliefs and feelings towards our brand(ed) product.

Preference for one product or service over another can arise from rational considerations such as added features, more benefits or greater value for money. So, a customer looking to purchase a motorcycle may prefer Yamaha for its faster pick-up and better racing capabilities. Another may prefer Hero MotoCorp for greater mileage, easy repair, and a smoother ride on bumpy rural roads.

Preference may also result from emotional considerations such as liking. For example, some people just like coffee better than tea, they like apples but not custard apples, crime shows but not horror movies, and so on.

Advertising and branding prove valuable for business because they aim to get consumers to bypass rational and economistic calculation of costs and benefits, as well as commoditisation, and choose on the basis of liking and preference.

However, many brand consultants have observed that people are capable of emotions much stronger than mere preference. In fact, they form deep attachments which feed loyalties.

Preference is emotion lite, whereas, attachments are the ultimate depth of emotion. Without attachments, there can be no loyalty.

Brand consultants have studied religious and political ideologies, fans and followers of celebrities, and observed that these evoke not just preference but deep attachments. Ardent supporters are not just willing to die for their leaders, but they are also willing to kill to defend their faith.

Consultants have wondered if such deep passions and attachments can be evoked in the hearts of buyers. Such questions and observations have led to the writing of books on Cult Brands, Emotional Branding and Brand Tribes; the goal is to not just create buyers and consumers, but advocates and champions who campaign tirelessly on behalf of the brand/company.

For instance, will Harley owners be willing to die for the brand? Will they campaign and protest if the company is sold to a non-American business group?

However, all this is rather old hat, and by now, received wisdom and common sense in marketing. So what can a Semiotician add by way of insight to this received wisdom?

A Semiotician, who studies meaning, symbols and representations more deeply, would point out that attachment arises and grows due to meanings established by culture. In the absence of culturally learned notions and representations/meanings, preference cannot convert to attachment.

In other words, cultural symbols, metaphors, myths, narratives and ideologies are absolutely necessary for attachment. Further, marketers and their brands cannot create these, they can only draw from what already exists in culture.

Let’s consider some common examples of attachment.

Most people claim to love their mother (the mother-child bond in Primates is biologically hard-wired, as evident from hundreds of animal videos available online). But deeper attachment arises culturally due to the elevation of the concept of the Mother.

However, in some cultures, it is perfectly acceptable to publish stories about horrible mothers who do untold damage to their children, whether due to selfish behaviour, narcissism, or some other mean trait.

Other cultures may consider such thinking unacceptable. It is a matter of deep faith that mothers are selfless, sacrificing, and would do anything to protect and care for their children. Conceptually, the mother is placed on a pedestal, and none dare knock her off.

Similarly, expression of attachment to the nation through patriotism is taught and learned. Considered rationally, a nation is just the land into which one is born. Moreover, territory also often passes through multiple hands during times of war.

For instance, Estonia, during and after World War II, was a part of the German empire, followed by the Russian empire. This begs the question: to which nation did Estonians feel attached?

Now that Estonia is a free country, but part of the European union, Estonians can feel free to express their attachment to their land, and indulge in exploring the notions of ‘nation’ and nationalistic pride.

Here’s another scenario: Immigrants often feel torn because they have chosen to live in a new country despite feeling attachment to their birthland. This truth about their conflicted emotions and loyalties is misused by locals to bash them, and to tell them to ‘go back to where they came from’.

An Englishman devised the Tebbit test to gauge the loyalty of British immigrants. In a match between England and India, or England and Pakistan, who would the British-Indians or British-Pakistanis cheer for?

Keeping such examples in mind, a Semiotician would say to marketers and consultants, if they wish for consumers to form deeper attachments to the brand as a symbolic entity, then that symbolic entity needs to be defined on the basis of a semiotic framework. That is, it needs to be anchored into culture, and it needs to cultivate and promote its own version of popularly known symbols, metaphors, myths and rituals.

Brand management, therefore, is not just about identity and awareness management; nor is it just about product or service quality management. It is about the management of a brand as a symbolic entity; an intangible, fictional character rooted in culture.

For the sceptics; fictional characters live much longer than their authors do, and they also evoke deeper attachments within their audience than the authors can. Think Ravana and Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra and Kaikeyi in our context. Or think James Bond vs Ian Fleming, and Hercule Poirot vs Agatha Christie in an international context.

And there you have it.