Success in brand building depends on creating, nourishing, and continuously reinterpreting a unique and compelling identity or “meaning. That meaning has to be commonly held.
Individual preference is deeper when it is enforced by social acceptance. This is an almost magical contradiction. The credit for this discovery and decoding it goes to the eminent Social psychologist Solomon Asch. He challenged our idea of ourselves as autonomous beings. He developed an experiment to establish our urge to conform. His work revealed that when people are confronted with a majority opinion, they just tend to conform.
It is trite to say that a brand is a repository, not merely of functional characteristics, but of meaning and value. In increasingly crowded and highly competitive categories, brand differentiation based on discernible product differences is quickly imitated and duplicated by competitors. So, what makes one brand take a lead and stand out?
Brands become phenomenally valuable because their existence has been translated into powerful meanings which society acknowledges. They are worth billions or trillions of dollars because they had gained a kind of meaning that was universal, larger than life, iconic.
The commonly accepted meaning of a brand is its most priceless and unique asset.
Whether you’re selling a soft drink, a service or a truck, what your brand means to people will be every bit as important as its function, if not more so. This is because our derived meaning tells us “this one feels right” or “this one’s for me.”
Meaning creates feeling in the collective conscious and unconscious. Such meaning cannot be developed via short lived advertising campaigns, but only because of consistent and enduring expression in all forms and facets. And the more it is acknowledged by many, the more this meaning will get strengthened.
An understanding of Social Psychology helps marketers understand how they are perceived or not. This, when converted to consequential actions may create enduring brand identities that deliver meaning to customers, drive up perceived value and inspire customer loyalty.
All Powerful brands can create social norms for their acceptance and inject themselves into cultural codes that enhance their centrality. The reason some brands become synonymous with categories, cultures and even national identities is because they have acquired acceptance via social consensus. Their ability to be at the high table and still be the mass choice does not conflict with their aura. You fly in a Boeing on a budget airline as does the President of the United States on Air Force One. Warren Buffet drinks the same Coca-Cola that the poorest person would.
Group conformance can lift above commitment to what individuals hold true. Solomon Asch pioneered this work in impression formation, prestige associations and conformity. In his paper ‘Opinions and Social Pressure’, published in 1955, he elaborated on the social influences that shape a person’s beliefs, judgments, and practices. This revealed the effects of group pressure on individual decision-making. It was the first time we deciphered how, and to what extent, people’s attitudes were influenced by social forces around them. My point is not to view this negatively but to appreciate, as marketers, how this dynamic plays out. Positive conformance done for the right reasons can build mammoth brand advantage.
Asch’s work was preceded by that of the Turkish psychologist Muzafer Sherif who, in 1935, set out to answer similar questions. He used a visual illusion called the autokinetic effect, wherein a stationary spot of light seen in a dark room appears to move. The subjects of his study were told that the light was going to move and asked how far they thought it had shifted. Tested in groups, the participants’ estimates converged into a group norm, revealing that they used others’ estimates as a frame of reference in an ambiguous situation.
Asch took this forward in a different way. To him, conformity was measured in terms of an individual’s tendency to agree with group members who unanimously give the wrong answer on a task that has an unmistakable solution.
The simple perceptual task he designed was named the Asch Paradigm.
The experiment was conducted with male subjects, each of whom was put individually into a group of five to seven “confederates” – these were people who were aware of the real aims of the experiment but were introduced as fellow participants – and each group was shown one card with a line on it, followed by another card with three lines labelled A, B, and C, and asked which one of those three lines was the same length as the line on the first card.
The experiment was organized such that the subject would give either the last or the last but one answer. Over the course of 18 trials, confederates were instructed to provide the correct answers for the first six, but then to give identical but incorrect answers for another 12. This was to test whether the subject would answer correctly or whether he would match his response to that of the confederates when all gave the same but incorrect answer.
The results of the study were revealing. When surrounded by a group of people all giving the same incorrect answer, subjects gave incorrect answers on almost a third of the questions; 75 percent of them provided an incorrect response for at least one question. These figures indicate a high degree of compliance by the subjects. On the other hand, not a single participant conformed on all critical trials, and 13 of the 50 participants never conformed at all.
The results proved that the subjects themselves were highly consistent. Those who broke away from the group opinion and provided an independent answer did not accede to the majority even over many trials, while those who chose to comply with the majority seemed unable to break this pattern.
When later investigated in one to one meetings, the compliant respondents acknowledged that they knew their answers were incorrect, adding that they did not want to stand out or appear different and foolish. They just wanted to fit in.
Asch performed variations on the experiment to test what difference the size of the majority group made to levels of conformity. He found that just one confederate had virtually no influence on the subject’s conformity, two had only a small influence, but three or more encouraged a relatively stable tendency to conform. This is a cruel manifestation of ‘more the merrier’.
Unanimity mattered a great deal in the apparent steam rolling. Even if only one confederate offered an alternative answer, the subjects were much more likely to provide an independent, correct response. This finding highlighted the power of even a very small dissenting minority.
Asch discovered that if he allowed the participants to give their answers privately, by writing them down on a piece of paper, conformity visibly decreased. It has a bearing on modern day Direct to Consumer models and of groupthink impacting choices made online. Asch found the tendency to conform was strong irrespective of educational backgrounds and this is noteworthy.
Asch’s conclusions noted the power of social influence to shape a person’s beliefs and behaviours. If something becomes normal for a group, social pressure will ensure greater conformity. Inspired by Asch’s theory, Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience showed that ordinary people are capable of cruelty when under pressure to conform.
From a marketing standpoint, it reinforces the first mover advantage as well as the adoption of majority share brands. It explains that a group exerts profound social effects on its members and conformity serves important social functions.
Solomon Elliott Asch was a pioneer in the field of social psychology. He was born into a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1907. At the age of 13 he emigrated to the US and studied psychology. He received a PhD in 1932 from Columbia University, where he was influenced by Max Wertheimer.
Asch taught at Swarthmore College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, where he supervised Stanley Milgram’s doctorate, before moving to the University of Pennsylvania. His many awards include the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. He died aged 88 in 1996.
1951 Effects of Group Pressure Upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgment 1952 Social Psychology 1955 Opinions and Social Pressure 1956 Studies of Independence and Conformity
Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.