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Brands must focus on building confidence during consumer journeys

Consumer journeys are as much about eliminating insecurities as they are about building up positives, says behavioural economics expert Dr Nick Southgate, who collaborated with Newsworks for its 'How people buy' research.

It is a truism that we receive more messages and face more potential choices than ever before. Advertisers fret that overloaded consumers respond by simply ignoring all but a tiny number. The challenge is to stand out, cut-through and engage, especially in a digital age that promises ever tighter targeting. The aim is to be in that tiny number.

This view of how the world - and advertising - works is a prevalent truism in our industry. After all, it both chimes with common sense and explains the struggles of advertisers and their agencies to craft successful campaigns. It also contains concealed within the deep concern that advertising is inherently combative – that it does something 'to' consumers that they might not wish to have done to them.

Yet, there is good reason to believe that this view is subtly but significantly wrong. People are not ignorers but, as behavioural economist Max Bazerman suggests, "noticers". We are highly skilled at noticing what we need and filtering down options to make good decisions. What is more, in line with this view, advertising, far from being combative, can be part of a mutually beneficial process of decision-making. Here is why we should believe this.

When people make decisions what they truly desire is to make a confident decision. This is usually also a good decision, and if not perfect nearly always good enough. We definitely want to avoid a bad decision and its consequences. Regret, and the anticipation of regret, shadows our decisions and undercuts confidence.

We do this because the validity of a choice (is this really the best car I could buy?) is hard to judge. In contrast, our confidence in it is something we feel instinctively and directly. Confident choices are simple, clear and decisive. It is instructive that we call them 'no-brainers' – they are the decisions we really don't have to think about.

We achieve this by being experts in noticing the things that build our confidence – and even better at noticing things that might cause us regret.

As a consequence, consumer journeys are as much about eliminating insecurities as they are about building up positives. Our research shows that all journeys start with anxiety and confidence in tension, with anxiety having the upper hand. When anxiety is eliminated a choice is made. When it remains the consumer journey is extended. The longer it gets, the less likely a decision becomes – and the less confidence we appear to feel about the final decision.

Brands are excellent tools for the noticer. They filter our choices. They help us make instant decisions about whether a choice is worth considering or not. Brands package together promises of performance and reliability, expertise and experience. Individually establishing these details would be exhausting. These promises are secured by a brand owner's reputation. Reputations are lost when promises are not kept. If the breach of trust is serious enough the loss of reputation can be instant and fatal – as Volkswagen may be discovering. We can judge all of this in the blink of an eye.

We can do this because we also notice when and where we encounter brands. Where we encounter a brand matters. We learn something about seeing Wickes on thesun.co.uk first thing in the morning or Chanel in the opulent pages of The Financial Times' 'How To Spend It' supplement at the weekend.

We know from Robert Cialdini's work that specific local rules can influence us more than general rules (in short, what happens here trumps what happens elsewhere). We've seen this micro-salience at work in consumer journeys. In essence, consumers outsource some of the task of filtering to the media brand they are consuming. In TV they sense stature and scale: only serious brands can afford to advertise. Online they sense immediacy to act and buy. Newsbrands, with the closeness people feel to editorial content and tone, offer a sense of curation and implicit recommendation people value as an additional filter. In combination they are even more powerful. Triangulation of a message from several sources is more powerful than repetition in one.

People also use advertising to filter their choices when they are not in-market. Smartphones are instructive. People know their contract will not renew for many months. However, they note new features and likely packages and prices so they will be ready to choose. It’s like updating their files as they check whether market norms are still comparable and consistent with their understanding and confirm their beliefs or occasionally change them.

This constant effortless filtering of messages means people welcome serendipity. However easy the internet has made it to seek out information, it will always be easier if information finds us. This experience is most powerful in newsbrands. Here people find things for people like them, talked about by people like them.

Read more about Newsworks' 'How people buy' research and try out the consumer journey planning tool

Newsbrands, with the closeness people feel to editorial content and tone, offer a sense of curation and implicit recommendation

Dr Nick Southgate, behavioural economics expert
by Dr Nick Southgate 20/11/15

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