Understanding today’s politics can help brands learn the difference between unstable polarity and long-term loyalty

This article uses recent political events to explain how people react differently to the messages they receive, how humans deal with complex decision-making in real world scenarios, and how they are responding to the modern media world in increasingly tribal ways. It explores post-rationalisation and its side effects and how brands can avoid the pitfalls while discovering brand purpose and what makes their customers choose them.

One of the central things we do in our consumer marketing work is to measure the strength of positive and negative associations people have with elemental propositions, that is, statements about the world that bring together basic or ground-level ideas.

We take these measurements over millions of people and hundreds of decision-making processes. When we do this, we never need measures that span from negative to positive as we tend to see a proposition as either a spectrum of positives, or instead as a range of negatives. Put another way, we’ve never seen anyone disagree with anyone else about anything fundamental.

But how can that statement be true in a fractured, post-Brexit, post-Trump, society? A world where people find it hard to talk to each other about their differences of opinion because they are so fundamental. Surely these problems highlight where we fundamentally disagree, and that in such fundamental disagreements we lack the empathy to be able to collaborate across divides.

Our real differences are subtler than you think

We would suggest that a Bernie Sanders supporter and a Donald Trump supporter likely agree on almost everything fundamental. How could this be true? Perhaps the best place to highlight this is to look at social security and welfare issues in society. Here are some questions both Trump and Sanders supporters typically answer in the same way:

Can a person you would consider a worthy, useful member of society then suffer bad luck and so be unable to support themselves?
Is it beneficial and right for society to support such a person?

Are there people who take advantage of social security due to selfishness?
Is it harmful and wrong for society to support such a person?

The difference between right and left, between say, Trump and Sanders supporters, is the relative size they place on these problems. They agree fundamentally that both situations exist and on whether these are positive or negative things. Interestingly, for most of them, they agree that both problems are very important and the difference is only slight.

How is it that two groups of people with fundamentally aligned views and such subtly different evaluations of the world can be so diametrically opposed that they are left unable to talk to each other about their positions?

Is this simple demographics or something deeper?

One answer is that this is tribal behaviour. Although only marginally different in terms of values, the two groups see themselves in different tribes, and their primitive sense of belonging and threat drives them apart. It is certainly true that different geographical areas of the US have more Trump supporters or more Sanders supporters. This left/right divide has long been true.

What is interesting now however, is that this divide seems to have taken root within families. There are many families now who can’t discuss politics with each other because these divides are so volatile. This flies in the face of simple social, geographical, or economic forces.

So why is this happening?

1. The increasing tribality of news

One clearly identified change is that we are now receiving our news in silos. In emotional terms, it’s more comforting to read articles that agree with what we already believe, while information that challenges our world view causes us anxiety and disruption.

In the past, while we could choose our newspapers by their leaning, the major nationals still represented broad viewpoints because they couldn’t be personalised based on the articles we read yesterday. Now, usually in a bid to make sure we stay on their site, social and traditional media sites are deliberately targeting us with news that fits our model of the world.

People find themselves growing unchallenged, insulated from the anxiety of learning, so long as they stay in their own digital universe. In the past they had a choice: connect to those around you while accepting the challenges to your world view or lose those connections. Now consumers can have the illusion of connection without the need to take on that anxiety and this is creating the conditions where families, each with starkly differing external interests and connections or tribes, are finding they can no longer talk to each other.

Although this is one step closer to the truth, and correctly identifies what enables these issues, it still doesn’t explain the fundamental driver: why do we form such embedded opinions that we will isolate ourselves from even close social connections to avoid challenging them?

2. How people manage decision complexity

Reflecting upon the 2016 UK Brexit vote, the electorate was given the responsibility for a decision on which no expert in the world could properly advise, and advocates on each side hadn’t understood the complexities of the systems involved. For example, one side wanted a “free trade area” and the other a “single market”, yet even most finance professionals still cannot adequately explain the difference between the two.

The electorate needed a way to manage this confusion, to reduce the anxiety of making a choice they couldn’t realistically understand, likely to reverberate upon their children, and their children’s children, with potentially severe economic impacts. To cope, most people used a very human system we deploy every day to simplify our lives: post-rationalisation.

When we make a typical decision, we process all the vast amounts of information in approximately 15 seconds. To give some idea of the scale, the amount of information we deal with in an average decision would take a current personal computer some 1500 years to fully process. Once that decision is made, we need to reduce and simplify it, to allow future decisions to be manageable. Re-processing every aspect of a decision every time we act on it would be a tremendous overhead upon our daily lives.

3. Decision-making in the real world

What makes decisions difficult is that they are probabilistic and based on vast but incomplete sets of information. Making a real-world decision is a bit like playing a move in a Grandmaster-level chess game when you don’t know where all the pieces are or whether the rules of the game might shift in the future. Amazingly, we make pretty good decisions most of the time.

Post-rationalisation gives us the ability to turn a hugely complex decision into a tiny number of ‘logical’ steps. We convert partial information into complete information – by pretending the holes are filled in – and turning a large number of potentially good outcomes into a singular ‘correct’ one.

Even more powerful is the way we can transmit these structures over space and time through language. We have evolved to quickly remember and adapt our behaviour to ideas received in this form. We test the world against these simple patterns and generate rigid beliefs and plans of action. This ability allows us to act coherently and intelligently; we no longer need to test every plan of action through hard experience, opening new horizons to us.

Caution: post-rationalised polarity has side effects

This thinking shortcut system does have a side effect, we become less flexible around the decisions we adopt from others than those based on our own experience. Where we have experience, we have a system that can take on the complexities of a situation and find a relevant and flexible response. Where a decision is based on others’ post-rationalisations we respond to our own confusion by tightly holding on to the certainty that we are right.

This psychological stress leads to an odd behaviour called the backfire effect, where we hold onto beliefs more firmly when shown evidence that they are incorrect. This tends to polarise opinions: because they cannot be argued from knowledge or experience, they can only be accepted in full or denied absolutely.

The increasing volatility, pace of change, and connected complexity of the world, when combined with the more limited silos from which we are consuming news, are driving and allowing us to dig ourselves in to more polarised political opinion, apparently unable to communicate or compromise.

What does this mean for brands and their brand purpose?

Much of the time, the consumer does not realistically understand the core difference between comparable products. The product space is crowded, so these differences occur as perception rather than reality. Capturing this post-rationalisation and polarisation through catchy phrases and simplifications is certainly possible and that’s exactly the frame marketers often see their messaging in. Post-rationalised positions create brand advocacy, are socially shareable, and create strong influence across social networks. In this light, they are surely a good thing.

Marketers beware however, polarisation begets instability. Consumers that take on polarised positions without foundation may initially seem highly loyal, never considering competing brands, but while a customer avoiding evaluation of your product against others seems highly appealing, it does create a big issue.

The lack of a customer’s personal reflection and consideration of your product creates unrealistic beliefs, such as that your product matches them or their needs perfectly despite evidence to the contrary. This is unstable. The gap between expectation and reality may widen to a spectacular degree, and as this happens, consumers become more demanding and brands have to invest more in keeping them happy.

Eventually they can’t keep up and suddenly the consumer’s beliefs give way to anger and disillusionment. The resulting negativity is far stronger than normally experienced by a brand.

As useful as positive brand advocates are, they have a tenth the power of a critic. One bad review offsets ten good ones. We are wired to avoid negative consequences far more strongly than we are to seek positive ones. A network of post-rationalised believers is a serious upset waiting to happen, where one bad experience can spread havoc across thousands of your customers in a matter of hours.

Only by seeking a realistic fit with your customers will you create long term win-win

We live in a world where brand value is a product of experience and perception. In that world it is sometimes easy to run away with shaping perceptions and generating easy wins, with viral offbeat campaigns, and creating noise within their 15 minutes of fame. This is fine if it is backed with well-matched brand philosophy, capability, and equity; which means understanding why your customers are your customers.

For those brands that want to stay the course, who want long-term growing relationships with their customers, we need to dig deeper into how and why our customers choose us. From living our values, to being creative in our communication, there is one principle that underlies a stable growing relationship with your customers: the commitment to empower them to make better choices, even when that may lead to them choosing an alternative brand.

To do this, the best brands live with their customers, walk in their shoes, are passionate about the same things, and get to understand their true brand values, not those in the organisation’s business plan, but in their customers’ everyday lives.