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Quashing Marketing Fallacies

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I recently attended a conference and it was great to meet hundreds of fellow nerds from all over the world whose interest is also to further marketing knowledge. I may not agree with some of the topics and approach, but it was great nevertheless to cast my eyes beyond the boundary and see the topics that keep other researchers awake at night.

Among the big picture questions navel gazing explorations, I was bemused by presenters who continued to held on to concepts and beliefs that are already proven to be fallacies in the lights of strong and solid evidence. Of course, there are concepts that are still genuinely open for debate but there are topics that have evolved so we know that they are clearly false. Or at least, when it occurs, its boundary is already clearly and narrowly defined. For example, the notion of ‘brand love’ where consumers stick with a single brand out of deep emotional affinity has been disproved. We are more likely to be loyal to a shortlist of brands rather than being monogamously wedded to one. Thus, with this knowledge, it is much more productive to see consumers as heavy or light buyers — as this can be measured through their purchases across brands, rather than relying on claimed internal feelings such as love or hate.

So, I was puzzled when I found research topics like brand sacredness among the presentation titles that do not seem to make sense practically. This concept may seem so far-fetched and alien to you, that you’ll have no problem in dismissing this. However, there are also ideas that seem plausible that have also been rebutted. They continue to rear their heads time and time again either in academia or in professional practices. Brand personality is one of them. A paper in Marketing Theory authored by three researchers in 2014 show that people can assign personalities to rocks based on their appearance, when they are asked to. Fun? Yes. Useful? No. Now imagine spending your hard-fought marketing budget on finding out whether your brand is considered friendly, radical, or arrogant from a marketing consultancy. Fun? Yes — like reading the results of the little social media quizzes or your horoscope if that’s your cup of tea. Useful? No.

A pet peeve that triggered this post came when I saw a presentation during the conference on choice paralysis: a topic I wrote for my post in January 2023. The presenter did a study whether being subjected to unpleasant thoughts on things like death and toothache would affect the ability to make a choice out 5 items vs. 25 items. I don’t know why the presenter would want to connect the dots between these two seemingly unrelated things. Perhaps it comes with the quirkiness of academia – forming complicated models that essentially similar to explaining spurious correlations.

When the researcher presented the research, he acknowledged that two subsequent paper have refuted the ‘choice paralysis’ concept that was published by Iyengar and Lepper in 2000. However, he said that the area was still an open conversation. So, I raised a question during the Q&A and said that the original experiments failed to replicate when done by independent researchers. I also mentioned my go-to statement that nobody was ever lost in a supermarket being confronted by 25,000 products because shoppers could instinctively narrow down their focus based on categorisation and grouping.

The discussion about choice paralysis has moved on.

It’s not a matter of the number of options but how the options are arranged. If we are given sufficient cognitive aids, we are not fazed by being confronted by a large number of alternatives – as we will find a way to screen out irrelevant options. I’m not saying that choice paralysis does not exist – but rather that its scope and boundary have been refined further. You may experience choice paralysis if the options are not well organised based on your objective: like finding the ideal rug in a carpet bazaar or being asked to pick something out of a set of irrelevant options, even with cognitive aids. This is why it may be harder for us to decide on what to see on Netflix sometimes, when you don’t know what we’re in the mood for ( — sometimes I wish there were a list of candidates with headings such as “Short movies to cheer me up” or “True crime documentaries in less than an hour”).

This is why I appreciate working in a research institute like the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, with an encouragement to stay open-minded and skeptical from the top down. Some conversations are indeed still open and ongoing, but some concepts are really myths that need to be busted. There are far more important questions out there, waiting for answers that could help improve the way marketers manage their activities.

If you’re a marketing practitioner or managing a business, it helps to stay skeptical and open-minded, too – a concept that may sound enticing or plausible may not be evidence-based and empirically sound. Be a Thomas and ask for independent, peer-reviewed assessments. Even when the concept is presented through a slick presentation and a well-crafted storyline. It will save you time and money – and the frustration for inadvertently planting an ‘invasive weed’ in your garden.

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