Mapping the Human Side of Brand & Advertising

Much has been written about the ‘theory’ of brands and advertising so setting out a paper on this topic with something new to say somehow seems a little ambitious, even foolhardy.  It is clear there is little point in covering the ground that has already been covered in detail elsewhere.  There is, however, a case to be made for taking a step back to consider how we make sense of the various theories and practices of brand and advertising.  Because there never has been and it is still the case that no single approach is universally agreed on, albeit at different points some are more in favour than others.

The challenge we have is one of untangling confusion and creating some ordered thinking in this multi-faceted ‘discipline’.  What is not required is another theory of how brands and advertising works.  We are not looking to identify which approach has primacy over others.  Or to demonstrate the pitfalls of different approaches in favour of a preferred perspective.

But this is all too often the nature of the debates that take place.  It is as if there can only ever be one ‘truth’ to be agreed on which means that other perspectives then need to be dismissed.  Indeed, this is the way in which academia operates – it is a combative, competitive process where individual academics are invested in their own perspective and will fight to assert the authority and credibility of their research which supports that point of view.  The entire academic process is structured in a way that people are trained to see the world from the confines of their own tradition.  A sociologist has little to do with a physicist, a chemist likely barely exchanges words with a geographer.  And even within fields, a cognitive psychologist, for example, sees the world in a fundamentally different way to a social psychologist.

And this is equally the case when it comes to brand and advertising.  There is, for example, little common ground on the topic between a neuro-marketer and an ethnographer.  Or between a behavioural scientist and a market researcher.  Does this mean that one is right and the other is wrong?  How do we square the contrasting views of how brand and advertising works?

The aim of this short paper is to start a discussion about how market research can offer some coherence in this confusing and much-disputed field. And to be clear from the beginning, no single approach has primacy and what any one theory is good at explaining and predicting will vary.  Whilst this seems pretty much common sense, from this simple premise, arises a radical reappraisal of the way we approach this discipline which should offer brands a more effective (and intelligent) means to grow.

Different models

To describe the different models that seek to explain brand and advertising is a scale of task worthy of multiple PhD’s, or at the very least a long and not all that exciting textbook.  And ultimately, we ensnare ourselves in a level of complexity and detail that does not necessarily help us to better navigate this discipline.

Instead, what we need to do is to abstract the different approaches into some broad categories.  This necessarily requires a loss of detailed meaning but it also offers another way to understand the discipline in a more coherent manner.  There are four main categories of brand & advertising theory.  In a sense, these reflect a wider conversation on ‘what it means to be human’.   For there are radically different views of what the human experience entails and how we go about understanding it.  But given that brand and advertising is an essentially ‘human’ activity then there is little surprise these are comparable.

The broad categories of theory of brand & adverting are briefly outlined below:

Cultural norms: This essentially takes a ‘macroeconomic’ perspective which suggests that the dominant organising force is society.  As such our shared culture, norms and values determine our choices and the way choices are communicated (using, for example, advertising).

It is fair to say that this theoretical approach has not dominated brand and advertising despite it generating interest and credibility.  One of the more popular exponents of this is Mark Earls who has championed the notion that many of our consumer choices are based on copying behaviours.  Related to this, there is also a significant interest and investment in the notion of influencers, people that appear to have a disproportionate impact on our choices.

The methodologies used are typically ethnography and semiotics which perhaps reflects the reason for the relatively low take-up of this approach in brand and advertising.  It is hard to measure quantitatively and as such impossible to scale, a significant barrier for global brands that need simple, measurable and globally relevant metrics to facilitate decision making.

Meaning makers:  This approach characterises consumers as communicative, interacting meaning-makers. It suggests that humans have agency in their lives, with a sense of self that can assimilate information and negotiate with others (people and brands) in a way that helps to achieve desired outcomes.

This is a dominant theory of brand and advertising that has underpinned much market research.  Essentially it reflects the way in which market research, overall, infers that humans have agency – given that we ask questions that require a degree of introspection and offer insight into likely future behaviours.   The theories of brand here relate to the way in which the brands are perceived or related to, so will include Brand Love, Brand Relationships and Brand Equity.   The methodologies here, therefore, a wide range of qualitative and survey-based tools. 

Homo-economus:  This is the model of rationally acquisitive individuals. The underlying principle suggests we are self-interested, rational, individual choice-makers who seek to maximise our choices.  A wrinkle to this is the increasing recognition that we are not always totally ‘rational’ in the way we do this but that we can account for deviations from normative decision-making use of ‘behavioural economics’.

This approach has historically been the preserve of the econometric modelling team in organisations whose function is to identify and quantify the key levers underpinning decision making to optimise marketing strategy.  The methodology here is survey-based tools, used to populate statistical modelling.

More recently, an increase in awareness and popularity of ‘dual processing theory’ has been used to explore the way in which we make decisions (explaining the way in which we might deviate from strictly ‘rational’ decision making). This embodies the notion that many of our consumer decisions are made using a ‘system 1’ mindset (fast, automatic employing mental shortcuts, or heuristics) rather than a ‘system 2’ mindset (reflective, considered and more rational).    The methodology here is a range of tools designed to capture the non-conscious ways in which decisions are made, such as implicit attitude measurement or indeed, the use of experimental designs.

Biological organisms:  This model suggests that we are purely neurobiological organisms that happen to embody more highly evolved (that is, more complex and capable) functions compared to other biological organisms. We are therefore understood via genetic, neural, and chemical parts and processes.

One of the most popular proponents of this approach is Byron Sharp whose theory of ‘How Brands Grow’ has gained huge popularity.  Essentially choices are determined by ‘mental availability’ driving choice at the point of purchase.  Advertising is used to generate these mental (neuronal) associations over time so that as long as there is ‘physical availability’ of the item then we are more likely to make a purchase.

The methodologies here include tools that measure these involuntary mechanisms, such as eye tracking, facial coding and biological measurement such as heart rate.

Of course, there is a necessarily broad-brush summary of the main theories of brand and advertising and the demarcations between them are not strict.  It would not be difficult to make a case for a somewhat different conceptualisation of theories but this is not the point.  The critical issue is that there are many competing theories that can be better understood via this process of abstraction and as such our task now turns to how we manage this tension.

From competing to complementary

The temptation when there are a number of different approaches is to identify which one is ‘right’.  And it is not only academics that may be driven to robustly defend their preferred theory.  It is also the case that market research practitioners often have pressures to support one approach at the expense of others, driven by their business models which are often built around a single model of brand and advertising.

Yet, is this really the right approach?  To suggest that only one theoretical framework is relevant to understand all brand and advertising issues across all categories is perhaps a little complacent when we not only consider the range of brands and the markets they operate in but also the complexity of their mode of operation.  Surely, we need to think about this fundamentally differently, so that rather than having theories compete with each other, we can see that they are actually answering different questions.

To illustrate this point, think of the way we use an atlas.  Most contain a number of maps of the world, each covering a different topic including world physiography (structure and seismology), world climatology (mean annual precipitation, climatic fronts and atmospheric pressure), world vegetation, world politics, world energy, world food, world air routes and a good many more. If we want to understand how these maps work, we do not need to select one of them and discard the rest because their value depends on the question we are asking.

For market researchers, this requires a fundamental shift in the way that we both think about brand and advertising issues as well the way we undertake research.  Market research is guilty of adopting a ‘single lens’ view, mainly working on the principle that humans operate as ‘Meaning makers’.  This may not always be recognised but just because a set of assumptions is not articulated does not mean that it does not underpin activity!

Of course, across the market research industry there are practitioners from across the spectrum, ethnographers and semioticians, survey experts, qualitative researchers, behavioural and neuroscientists.  Nevertheless, the dominant theoretical framework underpinning most of the work is still that of ‘Meaning makers’.  The variety of other ‘sub-disciplines’ are often in competition, not only with the dominant perspective with each other.  Instead, we need to recognise how they are all different ‘maps’ in the atlas, to continue our analogy.  But what has been lacking is an index that guides us to the relevant map to help answer the different questions that we face.

Finding the right map

Of course, there are a wide variety of ways in which we can construct an ‘index.  And this is perhaps the most important task because it reflects what we want to know.  Indeed, one of the under-estimated skills of expert practitioners is identifying what the right questions are to ask.  To this end, there are two (inter-related) categories of ‘question’ we can ask here:

  • What are the implications for the category of brand (i.e. how can the dynamics of the type of brand be understood)?
  • What is the type of questions that we have about the brand or advertising?

There are a number of ways we can potentially frame this of course.  But one which resonates with the task is based on work by Marketing Professor Itamar Simonson.  He proposes that consumers’ purchase decisions are typically affected by a combination of three things:

  • Their prior preferences, beliefs, and experiences (which we refer to as P)
  • Information from marketers (M)
  • Input from other people and from information services (O).

He calls this the influence mix where the greater the reliance on one source, the lower the need for the others. If the impact of O on a purchase decision about a food processor goes up, the influence of M or P, or both, go down.

Simonson’s view is that in recent years technology (through user ratings and expert reviews etc) O has taken on increasing weight in many categories, but plenty of exceptions remain. For example, habitual purchases (such as milk) tend to be dominated by P, while someone shopping for a toothbrush is most likely to be swayed by packaging, brand, pricing, and point-of-purchase messages—all components of M.

If we accept this as a useful framework then we can start to see how the way in which they raise particular sorts of questions that are best answered by particular theoretical frameworks. And each theoretical framework brings with it a set of implications for measurement.

The above framework is designed as a starting point for a radical new way for market researchers to conceptualise their work relating to brand and advertising.

Making it happen

Market research has traditionally been a somewhat ‘practical’ trade, with a tried and tested set of tools that continue to offer a great deal of value for a range of brands.  The profession has been changing with the arrival of a variety of new ‘sub-disciplines’ with their associated methods but there has been confusion about how to integrate these new areas.

These changes are much needed as the reality is that to achieve a rounded ‘total’ understanding of consumer behaviour we need to explore it using a variety of tools and accept that they are qualitatively different to each other.  What often happens, however, is that tools can be set up in competition with each other trying to compete to measure the same thing. And of course, any tool can be designed in just this way.  But this reflects a lack of awareness and understanding of the underlying conceptual framework that accompanies these different tools

An important issue to consider is that every discipline has its boundaries – but at the same time the exponents of that discipline will seek to use it explain as much of consumer behaviour as possible.  Whilst the process of agreeing framework is essential if we are to achieve ‘total understanding’, it will not be without serious compromise having to be made in the process.  In a sense, all disciplines can explain any behaviour after the event – so as such some careful thinking needs to be done about the way in which we apply critical thinking to get this right.

A move to an ‘integrative’ understanding of consumers is more radical than it might first appear. It not only requires a fundamental rethink about the way in which we seek to understand brands and advertising but also how we choose the way we select our tools.  It means that we necessarily start with a conceptual understanding of the issue that in turn determines the tools we select.  And this conceptual understanding then determines how we weave together the insights from these different tools to deliver coherent understanding.

The implications of this spread far and wide but it is only really by taking this approach that we can help brands really grow.

By Colin Strong


Simonson, I. and Rosen, E. (2014) Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information. Harper Business

Sharp, B (2010) How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know. Oxford University Press

Smith, C (2010) What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. University of Chicago Press

Midgeley, M (2006) Science & poetry. Routledge

Earls, M. (2009) Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature. Wiley

Khaneman, D (2009) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin