Monday, November 27, 2017

How To Put Advertising Theory Into Practice

Brand managers face a challenge of deciding how to apply theory into practice.

Professors tend to spend substantial amounts of time in an effort to understand how the human mind works. This leads to the development of theories, for example, to help us understand how to better communicate a brand’s value proposition to consumers.

However, a critical challenge occurs as practitioners attempt to apply academic theories in practice. One core issue is that, while academics have a number of important theories and findings, it is often difficult to know, a priori, how to best apply a theory. In a similar vein, it can be a challenge to discern which finding is most applicable to a given brand or how to apply a finding in a given situation.

As an example, prior research has found consumers respond differently based on whether they are promotion or prevention focused. Promotion-focused consumers — people focused on advancement, growth, and gains — are more responsive to messages that emphasize what can be gained from a product or service. In contrast, prevention-focused consumers — people focused on security, safety, and avoiding loss — are more responsive to messages that emphasize what can be prevented through a product or service. For example, a promotion-focused consumer might respond more favorably to a gym that advertises that it will increase consumers’ fitness (i.e., a gain). In contrast, a prevention-focused consumer might respond more favorably to a gym that advertises that it prevents consumers from losing their physique.

What motivates consumers to visit the gym can vary.

How can a practitioner apply this work on promotion and prevention? The challenge arises when one recognizes the questions a brand manager must answer in this situation. First, a brand has to have a sense of whether the audience is likely to be promotion or prevention focused and whether this is relevant to consumers’ decision making in a given situation. This question can be a challenge because various factors affect consumers’ focus and whether or not consumers’ focus is relevant to a decision. Second, a brand has to have an idea of how to represent their message in a manner that effectively resonates with consumers’ focus. Given the brand can communicate its message in a near infinite number of ways, how does a brand even know how to start?

When I represent an example like this to practitioners, I can sense their discomfort. It becomes clear that they wonder if academic research has any value at all. It absolutely does! The work on promotion and prevention, for example, is both influential and critical in helping us to better understand human behavior. This work gives us the theoretical scaffolding or starting point to help plan our advertising efforts. And, it is with this scaffolding that experiments become critical. By experiments, I mean exposing different consumers to distinct treatments that help us understand their motivations and how they respond to various executions.

Brand managers have told me they already do this with A/B testing. To be clear, I am suggesting a different approach in this post. I am suggesting theory-driven experiments. The idea is not to simply test different ideas against one another, but to use academic research as a starting point and experiments as the bridge to leverage those concepts in practice. Over time, brands that engage in theory-driven experiments will gain insights about their consumers that can inform their future efforts to advertise. Not all experiments will work, but rather than be viewed as failures, these are learning opportunities that brands must catalogue. And, if such results are shared with academics, academics can in turn figure out why an experiment did not work.

Theory-driven experiments also offer a bridge between theory and practice because they allow a common ground for academics and practitioners. That is, academics and practitioners can work to develop experiments that test theories and help brands to learn about their consumers and what academic theories are of most value. Indeed, practitioners appear to see the value in this perspective. I have heard from more firms this year, compared to any previous year, that have earmarked part of their marketing budget to engage in the test of different ideas. I believe if such efforts are paired with theory-driven experimentation, a bright future exists to bridge theory and practice that will allow for more effective communications with our consumers.


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