Marketers occasionally decide to associate the brand they are entrusted to manage with a social cause expecting their virtue signaling will result in positive behavior towards the brand 1. For example, Bud Light wishes to attract a younger, more socially conscious consumer by enlisting influencers to “speak” to that demographic/psychographic.
The inspiration for injecting a social cause into a brand is not just limited to marketers. Afterall, from a consumers’ perspective, you may be better to be known for your social endeavors than your profit maximizing ones. The challenge is social principles and behavior consistent with those principles are not always in unison.
The mesearch fallacy
This issue is compounded when the brand owner lives in the echo chamber of “mesearch.” Mesearch is when the brand owner mistakenly believes that their opinion and perhaps the opinions of those closest to them are representative of the broader population. For example, everyone respects and celebrates all forms of gender identity and expression.
Things can go horribly wrong when marketers use brands to project their mesearch based beliefs. As was the case when one such marketer shared their intention to elevate Bud Light beyond “a brand of fratty, kind of out-of-touch humor” by “having a campaign that’s truly inclusive and feels lighter and brighter and different.”2 The subsequent campaign with Dylan Mulvaney (Exhibit One), an openly trans influencer received extreme backlash.
Bud Light earnings fell by a staggering 28.2 percent whilst competitor Molson Coors recorded its best quarter since 2005.3 At fault was an absence of a fundamental understanding of the category drivers of choice for mainstream beer amongst the target market – predominantly males from rural and conservative parts of the US. Absent also was an understanding that the social issues of marginalized groups do not exist to be exploited for brand building.
Category divers of growth provide the bumper rails
Exhibit Two is an extract from a Forethought beer category study. These category drivers are the guidelines for growth and the bumper rails for containing “intuitive” marketers (not shown is the emotional driver accounting for 35.7% and price driver, 33.5% of choice).
Which driver do you imagine most aligns with this influencer campaign? Is it the second top reputation driver – ‘Being a brand, you are proud to be seen drinking?’ A brands primary task is to serve its market. It is not a brand’s role to change society and at any rate, a brand can only move at the pace of its core constituency.
Exhibit Two. Category Drivers – Mainstream Beer
This is certainly not to say that marketing research would have necessarily saved the day. David Ogilvy was right when he said, “The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.” Social desirability bias is most likely to impact on respondents in focus groups and person-to-person interviews. Whilst the relative anonymity of panel membership and online surveys moderates social desirability bias, however, it does remain present. The remedy for social desirability bias is inferred choice from data modelling as opposed to stated choice.
Stated intentions are a poor substitute for inferred behavior. Inferred behavior is based on hypothesized drivers of choice regressed against a dependent choice variable. People might not do what they state, however, they do what modelling infers with consistently high levels of reliability and predictability.
Fratty kind of humor
Finally, I thought I would dip into the Forethought archives to examine the science that was previously applied to ensure Bud Light was remaining consistent to the brand. And the “Fratty humor,” they utilized to do it. Please see award winning, decade old Superbowl ad ‘Bud Light – Severance Package’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X04Zyntkxg0
The following exhibits shows the performance of the brand and the performance of the TVC for male and female regular drinkers of light beer.4
The commercial was stronger in eliciting positive emotion for the primary target, males and indeed, significantly reduced contentment for females. The reduction in contentment was not unexpected given in essence, the communication was about receiving a severance package at the tail end of the Global Financial Crisis although interestingly, emotionally it affected men less. The strong performance of the creative for men confirmed the spot should be aired mainly for a male audience – the primary target.
The point is the contrast of marketing science with mesearch and intuition.
All in All
It would serve all marketers well to understand the brand category drivers, ensure they move in unison with their heartland customers, and when planning for change, remain below the just noticeable difference threshold.
- Please also see ‘Attention Marketers! Leave Virtue Signalling to Corporate Affairs,’ https://assets.forethought.com.au/Attention Marketers-Leave-Virtue-Signalling-to-Corporate-Affairs-11-21.pdf
- Bud Light marketing executive
- Bud Light’s Plan to Win Back Drinkers: Stick to Beer, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ab-inbev-bud-q2-earnings-report-2023-90a57dee
- Pretesting was commissioned by DDB