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Creating and Activating Brand Meaning in Consumer Decisions

By: Anthony Grimes, Rob Barker and David Elliott
Posted: November 6, 2012, from the May 2013 issue of GCI Magazine.

Editor’s note: This article was originally presented at Making Cosmetics in Birmingham, U.K., March 28–29, 2012, as a paper titled “Creating and activating brand meaning in consumer decisions: Integrating critical brand stimuli through-the-line.”

Contesting the premise that the great majority of consumer decision-making takes place at the point-of-purchase (POP) and arguing that the nature and extent of POP information processing is primed by explicit and implicit memory representations of brand stimuli and meaning, this article addresses how beauty brands should stress the need for an integrated perspective of above-the-line (directed at mass audiences; ATL) and below-the-line (directed at niche audiences; BTL) communications that better reflect the rapid, holistic and continuous decision-making processes of low involvement consumers. Here, the authors present an approach for identifying those elements of brand stimuli that are critical to both developing and activating semantic memory networks, via both ATL and BTL communications.

The Impetus for Consumer Decision-making

In 2003, Pira International highlighted a significant shift in focus and investment toward POP communications activity on the grounds that 70% of customer purchasing decisions are undertaken at the point of purchase.1

As the authors believe this POP decision-making is often not the case, it is argued that the nature and extent of POP information processing is primed by memory representations of brand stimuli and meaning. The continuous processing of communications stimuli in the external media environment leads to the creation of semantic memory networks (engrams) that provide a context for the processing of POP stimuli. Much of this processing may be automatic, preconscious and not available to explicit memory—hence consumers’ belief that the processing of new external material is solely responsible for their decision-making at POP.

This article is based on the premise that brand meaning is represented in semantic memory networks, and that these are continuously created, by both conscious, elaborative processing2 and preconscious, automatic processing of brand stimuli.3–5 Secondly, it is stressed that these networks, or engrams2,6, are triggered in-store by key elements of brand-related stimuli, and it is this integrated processing that drives decision-making. These concepts are discussed to build a fairly detailed picture of consumer decision-making under conditions of low attention and low involvement, a scenario that is prevalent throughout fast-moving consumer goods categories.7

The Need for an Integrated Approach

The main implication of this scenario is that organizations and brand owners need to take a holistic view of how marketing communications can shape consumer decision-making. In particular, brand owners and marketing and sales directors are faced with two questions that, taken together, may be seen to drive purchase decisions:

  1. How do we create, change and reinforce brand engrams through continuous exposure in the media environment?
  2. How do we ensure these engrams are triggered by stimuli at POP?

In turn, this gives rise to two key problems for market researchers to address:

  1. How do we identify and understand the engrams that currently exist for the brand?
  2. How do we identify the elements of the brand stimuli that most effectively trigger these engrams at POP?

Within marketing research literature, it is evident that a number of methodological approaches have been developed to address these questions. For example, traditional qualitative methods and questioning techniques have historically been used in brand image research. More detailed and rigorous attempts to elicit brand meaning, perceptions and attitudes are often characterized by the use of projective techniques, such as word association, sentence completion, scene description and third-party observation, and the psychological research technique known as priming.8 Discussed in some detail here, the authors come to the conclusion that the state of methodological development with regard to identifying, developing and activating brand engrams is relatively advanced.

However, one of the notable themes throughout the development of market research in this area is the tendency to focus on one element of the communication and decision-making process. For example, many studies focus on the effects of advertising or the effectiveness of packaging, often using qualitative techniques supported by quantitative data. To the authors’ knowledge, there have been few, if any, attempts to develop methodologies that are specifically designed to identify the extent to which brand-related stimuli are effective throughout the integrated communication and decision-making process; i.e., the extent to which these stimulus effects might be seen to cut through ATL and BTL communications.