What brands can learn from fish (or, why changing context changes everything)

A fish is a fish, or is it?

I imagine you feel you have a pretty good handle on what a fish is. It’s a pretty clear and discrete category. There’s even a proper biological definition that Wikipedia says goes something like:

“Fish are aquatic, craniate, gill-bearing animals that lack limbs with digits.”

Knowing this definition, you would think your understanding of “fish” as a concept is pretty fixed. But it almost certainly isn’t.

As Professor Lisa Feldman-Barrett  explains in How Emotions are Made, our brains don’t store information tidily. There is no “fish” section of our brain where all relevant fish information is neatly labelled and filed away. Rather, our brains store information in a messy, interconnected network of associations, the strength of the association determined by our past experience.

So, if I say “fish” to you when you are in a fancy restaurant you might think of a confit salmon or a dover sole roasted on the bone. It will be battered cod or haddock if you’re in a chippy. On a snorkelling trip somewhere tropical, it will be an array of fancy angel fish.

“Fish” is not a fixed category at all. No category is.

The Overstocked Cupboard

In The Advertised Mind, Erik Du Plessis suggests that we think of the mind as an overstocked cupboard. When something triggers a need to open the cupboard (you are choosing between fish in a restaurant, say) a whole set of things your brain thinks might be useful to you in that situation come tumbling out.

But as you reach for different things in different parts of the cupboard, of course, out fall a different set of items.

This is because in different contexts, you have different goals. Your brain tries to predict which things will be most useful in achieving your goal in that situation. It bases it on what’s been useful in similar situations in the past. These are the things that spring to mind (or fall out of your mental cupboard, if you prefer.)

There are likely lots of other things you know about fish, but these stay hidden-away at the back of the cupboard. They may as well not exist to you in that moment. Kahneman describes this principle as “what you see is all there is” or WYSIATI, which isn’t the snappiest initialisation, but take that up with him.

Things your brain doesn’t associate with helping you achieve your goal in a  given situation are banished, unseen, irrelevant. 

Your brain doesn’t just do this for serving up useful concepts and information either; this is the exact same process that it uses to direct your attention and to determine your emotions.

The context you find yourself in determines what you think of, where you look and even how you feel in a given moment.

How tidy is your “brand cupboard”?

Now imagine that the category in question is not “fish” but “cars”.

Context is critical in understanding what this means to people. Different brands will come to mind for different people at different times depending on their goals. A “secure transport bubble for my family” is very different from “something sporty to impress my peers”. For some goals like “the most efficient way from A to B” car brands won’t be the only solution, it may be a bus, a bike, a train, an Uber or an e-scooter.

Research and marketing often doesn’t account for this reality. It assumes people see categories in the fixed way that those of us in the industry see them, conveniently organised by shelf-space, by the domain of the retail buyer, or in discrete definitions like the biological definition for fish.

Researchers will ask “what brands of car come to mind?” and “which of these brands would you consider?” without saying “when?” and “for what?”.

They develop one set of “decision drivers” for fixed categories despite the fact both will change (sometimes wildly) as circumstances change and we plan our comms around them. We merchandise products based on which buyer they sit under, not based on things consumers buy together. And so it goes on.

Marketing is about organising the overstocked cupboard. Making sure your brand is first to tumble out and easiest to grab in any context where it could be useful to the person opening it. About making sure it’s not banished to the back with the nigella seeds and the tins of black-eyed beans.

To do that you must understand the contexts in which your brand is bought and used. That is, when and where the cupboard will be opened, by whom and what they hope to do with what they find.

At Flume, that’s exactly what we help our clients to discover. Give us a shout  if you want us to help tidy up your cupboards.