Brands Must Know Their Reference Points

Walker SmithNovember 2, 20238 min

It’s hard to tell if something is good or bad unless we have something else to compare it to. A standard of comparison. A reference point.

For all the turmoil in social psychology related to replication, p-hacking, fraud and publication bias, the importance of reference points for forming opinions and making judgments is not in dispute. It is one of the foundational ideas for the field itself. Which is the study of social effects. Not psychology but social psychology, which is to say the study of how people and groups influence and interact with other people and groups. Implicit within that is the idea that the interaction with others provides a reference point that enables us to figure out how we feel, what we believe and what we intend to do next. All of which relates to marketing.

Aspirations. The oldest ploy in advertising is getting people to want what other people have. This is about reference points. In his classic bestseller on persuasion entitled Influence, ex-Arizona professor Robert Cialdini outlines seven principles of persuasion, all of which involve social interaction but two of which rooted in social comparisons. Social Proof, or our reliance on others to know what is correct. And Unity, or the more we see others as like us the more we believe them. In other words, others are our reference points and based on these reference points we know how to think and what to do.

Social science has quantified all of this, but I think the idea that we look to others is intuitive. My mother was a stickler for etiquette. She drilled into me all the rules she knew. But she knew there would be situations where I’d be lost. So, the backup rule she taught me was to watch others and do what they do. Which fork or plate to use, of course. But the proper way to eat foods I’d never eaten before. Or the polite way to greet someone from another culture. Or the protocol for formal events that were new to me. Instead of fumbling around, her rule was for me to slow down a beat and take my lead from others. That’s relying on others for guidance. And it’s the same thing for persuasion.

In his book, Cialdini recounts several of the classic experiments in social psychology (unaffected by the modern-era replication crisis). Such as bystander studies in which a realistic-looking emergency is staged and confederates pretend to ignore it. Others take their cue from them and ignore it, too. Or the copycat contagion created by media stories about suicides or shootings. Because people can be influenced in this way.

This applies to aspirations as well. Celebrities like sports stars or rock stars or movie stars provide a reference point for what’s good or popular or chic to buy. Even when we are determined not to be influenced by such transparent stratagems, we internalize the comparison points they provide us. We may act or think differently than them, but our reference points for knowing what is more authentic or less shallow are these very celebrities we are trying to ignore.

Digital media flood our attention spans with comparisons. When we compare the number of steps we walked today with the number taken by the online group we are following, we are calibrating and judging our performance against a reference point. Which is how we know if we’ve done well and how we know what more to aspire to. When we see what others are posting about themselves, we get a sense, like it or not, of what to pay attention to in our own lives. Mostly, this happens organically. But often enough, it is the way in which social influencers have an impact. They frame certain things as salient and desirable.

Students of mass communication (like myself—this was my doctorate) will recognize the concept of agenda-setting in this. Which is the idea that media do not tell us what to think but rather, what to think about. Lots of us are skeptical that media can change our opinions, but there’s more going on than that. We don’t know what news is important or what topics are interesting without guidance from someone else about what’s happening. We need a reference point, and the media provide it, and media are greatly enhanced in their effectiveness when the other people we also rely on are reinforcing news stories as relevant and important.

Social Guidance. Social effects are important in our understanding of consumers. But that’s not really how we do market research. In survey research studies, each respondent fills out an individual questionnaire without the assistance or input of others. In this way, we operationalize the idea that individuals hold, express and even form opinions in isolation from others. Of course, respondents bring into the interview whatever social influences they have, but during the interview they are not able to rely on these influences to answer. There is a bit of philosophy implicit in this methodology, which is the idea of individual agency and autonomy. I’m not arguing this point. I’m simply offering a reminder that the opinions of individuals have to grounded in something.

And that something is social proof and unity. We learn what to think about from others and we calibrate our opinions based on others. Everything we think is rooted in social guidance of one sort or another. There are techniques to incorporate social influences in survey designs. But even so, one-on-one interviews don’t always capture this social dynamic adequately, especially when it comes to topics where social guidance is particularly influential such as sustainability or voting or fashion or fads. What we need to do is plot individual attitudes within a social web to see how they interact and adjust. What we learn is that there is always fine-tuning based on social guidance.

Social Connectedness. The size, character and proximity of our social network shapes the influence of media, especially social media. One of the big topics in recent years has been the loneliness epidemic. There is a lot of evidence about people spending more time alone and the size of social networks declining. Taken altogether, this has raised concerns about a crisis of social isolation. There is a vast literature on this topic, with plenty of rebuttals. I’m not going to get into it (maybe in the future). I’m mentioning it in reference to the idea of social influence. With the size of social networks in decline, the complexion and power of social influence is changing, too.

In particular, with fewer people in our networks, the power of any one person is proportionately greater. Because we have fewer people against whom we can calibrate the opinions of others. To make up for this, we turn more to anonymous friends or influencers on social media to fill out our networks. Which makes media more important to our opinions and decisions than ever before. I mentioned agenda-setting. That concept was first developed in the sixties when social networks tended to be larger and traditional media dominated. Back then, media could only set the agenda, while social networks drove opinions and behaviors.

Today, social media play a bigger role in opinions and behaviors. One reason the disinformation of social media have so much impact is that people have fewer points of social calibration and validation. So, there is little to disprove what people see on social media. And people are more receptive to social media because such media fill the gap left by smaller social networks. This is a risk for brands doing new or risky things, especially on sensitive topics. Which we have learned all too well.

It is also an opportunity. The key factor is not social media but social connectedness. So, brands need to manage social connections. Managing social media is difficult if not impossible. Social connections are more manageable, and even in some old-fashioned ways. Brands that are hard at work in local communities or deeply embedded in public third places will make strong and resilient connections. And these connections can become self-reinforcing and aspirational.

Social Norms. Civility is a shared commitment to a set of norms that embody respect and reciprocity. But these norms are eroded when people see others acting out. People internalize what is permissible to do by looking to others for guidance on how to behave and act. As acting out has become more commonplace, people have learned that doing so is acceptable.

Much of how people calibrate permissible behavior comes from public figures. When politicians govern by brinksmanship or celebrities behave in outrageous ways or music stars normalize extreme lyrics and images, people see that old boundaries no longer apply. Click-bait tabloid media add to this. So do confrontational protestors and social activists of all political stripes.

It’s not just public figures. Rudeness makes more rudeness acceptable. Road rage makes more road rage acceptable. Air rage makes more air rage acceptable. Desk rage makes more desk rage acceptable. Thus, with no experts or authorities who are trusted or respected enough to turn the tide, social norms have continued to decline.

This, too, is a risk for brands. People are ever more willing to assert themselves when interacting with brands, and often for legitimate slights. People are turning to social media to register complaints, a forum where extreme reactions and comments are celebrated. People are taking out their frustrations on front-line staff, which is not only detrimental to the brand. It is dangerous for employees and thus leads to persistent difficulty in training, motivating and hiring.

This creates a risk for brands even when a brand doesn’t do anything wrong. With people more agitated and less constrained by social norms, anything can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It might be a person’s hard day with other brands or other things in their lives that gets taken out on your brand. Thus, brands must not only manage against what they themselves do wrong but against the broader context of spiraling incivility unbounded by contemporary social norms.

Anonymity. Digital social media have led to a culture of anonymity in which all things social have disappeared behind a veil of shadowy identities. The traditional check on attitudes and behaviors has been lost. With face-to-face no longer required, we can hide behind screens and personas to say things we’d never say in person. There is no social stigma to hold us back. Many have noted the ill effects of anonymity, but it is important to understand all of this as a matter of social connectedness.

But maybe this will change. Chatbots and IVRs will soon give way to AI avatars that look and sound human. These are learning systems, so they will iterate quickly to master the customer service arts of tempering rage and channeling frustration. To the consumers who interact with them, these AI avatars will feel like actual people. This will, I believe, bring out more of the best in us—that is, our deeply ingrained instincts of empathy and charity that come to the forefront when our social reference points guide us in that direction.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Walker Smith, Chief Knowledge Officer, Brand & Marketing at Kantar

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