Just last week, I wrote a post in which I argued that social media has changed the way marketers need to tell stories in advertising. The old story framework positioned the company as the hero slaying the dragon to save the customer’s day. Now, customers have the opportunity to instantaneously interact with the company and other customers, creating their own spin on the story. The new story, therefore, should position the customer as the hero and the company as the “weapon” the customer uses to slay the dragon.
But maybe I was wrong. Maybe there is still a place for the company-as-hero storytelling framework. Indeed, in the twenty-first century world of marketing and branding, “storytelling” isn’t the only buzzword that has resurfaced. There’s another concept companies are focusing upon rather heavily that falls more in line with the old way of telling stories…and that concept is “thought leadership”
So, what is “thought leadership?” Michael Brenner of SAP, in a post for Forbes, defines it like this: “Thought Leadership is simply about becoming an authority on relevant topics by delivering the answers to the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience.” Brian Clark of Copyblogger defines thought leadership in terms of possessing the capability to capture the attention of your audience, social media expert Dave Kerpen defines it as the means of building an audience, and content marketing proponent Marcus Sheridan defines it in terms taking a stand for something. I don’t know about you, but all of that sounds to me a whole lot like positioning the company as the hero of the story.
So, perhaps the right question after all isn’t, “Should you place yourself or the customer as the hero of the story?” Perhaps the appropriate question is instead, “Is your brand one which the customer considers a leader or a friend?” And, once you determine which category you fall into, how can you depict that positioning in your advertisements? Well, it turns out that there is academic research that addresses just that question…
Article Summary: How Physical Positioning Influences Brand Evaluation
Huang, X., Li, X., & Zhang, K. “Seeing” the social roles of brands: How physical positioning influences brand evaluation. Journal Of Consumer Psychology. October 2013; 23(4): 509-514.
The researchers begin by discussing the prior research on brands that position themselves as friends to their customers. For example, consumers of Coca Cola often describe the relationship with the brand as “best friends.” The researchers then introduce the possibility of an alternative brand identity to brand as friend–brand as leader. They use as an example Time Magazine, which has as its slogan, “When the Time speaks, the world listens.”
After establishing these two “brand identities,” the researchers transition into a discussion on the prior research behind spatial positioning of brands in advertising, citing studies that have shown a connection between the proximity of the brand image to the customer image and the emotional closeness of the customer to the brand perceived by those viewing the advertisements. From here, the researchers propose a relationship between the relative placement of the brand image to the customer image and whether the brand is perceived as a “leader” or a “friend.” More specifically, the researchers argue that:
- Brands perceived as “friends” will be aligned horizontally with and positioned closer to customers in advertisements.
- Brands perceived as “leaders” will be aligned vertically above and positioned further from customers in advertisents.
In the first study, 323 undergraduate students were recruited to participate in an experiment. All of the subjects were shown an advertisement for a fictitiously branded watch and asked to evaluate various components of the ad, on a scale of 1 to 9:
- Effectiveness of the layout
- The perceived intimacy of the brand
- The perceived powerfulness of the brand
Each subject viewed one of eight versions of the ad, with the relative image of brand to customer being manipulated in each–above, to the right, distant, and close. Additionally, the researchers used two different slogans to serve as a signal for the brand’s personality: “A Friend You Can Trust” and “A Leader that Always Inspires You.”
After tabulating the surveys of the subjects, the researchers found support for their initial hypotheses. First, when the slogan of the ad matched what the researchers proposed as the ideal brand positioning, subjects favored the ad substantially more. For example, subjects perceived ads as more favorable with the slogan “A Friend You Can Trust” (5.42 average response) and the brand positioned horizontally close to the customer than they did ads with the same brand positioning but containing the slogan “A Leader that Always Inspires You” (4.57 average response).
The researchers also found the perceptions of brand intimacy and brand powerfulness to be positively correlated with the brand positioning consistent with their hypotheses. For example, subjects perceived brands as more “intimate” when the brand image was placed closer and to the right of the customer (5.41 average) than when it was placed further and above the customer (4.55 average).
(Note: The researchers performed a second experiment to confirm and further explore the results).
This research is important for advertisers, copywriters, graphic designers, and anyone who is attempting to develop messaging for campaigns that effectively convey the appropriate message about his or her organization. If you are attempting to portray yourself primarily as a leader in your industry, placing your brand and your customer side-by-side and close together in an advertisement can be damaging to your credibility. If you are attempting to portray yourself as a friend, on the other hand, putting yourself above and far away from the customer in an ad can hurt you. So, if you are creating ad materials for yourself or your organization, here are the takeaways from the study:
- If you are a “leader,” place yourself high above customers in ads.
- If you are a “friend,” place yourself close beside your customers in ads.
Questions for Further Research
- The study was done with undergraduates, who typically aren’t in positions of authority? Would the results be different for older generations?
- Does it matter whether the brand is positioned to the right or to the left of the customer in the ad?
- Are there other potential “personalities” that should be considered, besides “friend” and “leader?”
- How does the perceived “gender” of the brand influence its personality and which gender should be used as the “customer” in the ad for different scenarios?
featured image courtesy of Christopher Koppes.