The Greek philosopher Plato first wrote about epistemology around 400 BC, when he pointed out that things in the physical world are very different to the ideas and concepts in our heads: What we “know” isn’t the physical world itself, but an organized, structured and categorized version of it.
Seem pretty obvious? Maybe, but the fact that perception is a function of the mind (rather than a function of what is shoved in front of it) is frequently overlooked by brand owners.
Life Through a Veil
More recently than Plato, and furnished with a greater level of scientific understanding, philosophers began to speak of the epistemic veil. In plain English, this is the notion that we see the world through a filter, or series of filters.
The theory works like this: Before we can perceive anything, our minds need t0 assimilate and interpret the raw data that we acquire through our senses. And to do this, sensory inputs from many different sources are synthesized together so the mind can make deductions about the world around us. Science tells us that we actually employ a mixture of innate and learned information to interpret our physical surroundings – so as soon as we start to collect sensory input, we begin to use this information to process the next batch of data… and so on.
In short, our minds cross-reference memories, past experiences and new experiences in order to make sense of what is happening around us.
So the process of filtering and interpreting the world passes through many unconscious and semi-conscious steps before it is useful to us. And even then, the brain does not simply read all the intelligible information. Much of it is junked before ever reaching the conscious mind.
Philosophers have used a “veil” metaphor to convey the sense that information cannot flow freely between the physical and the mental worlds – that at best the two worlds merely correspond roughly to each other.
And here is the nub of the matter: Somewhere deeply lodged behind this veil are brands. This means that brands are many stages removed from the physical world inhabited by brand owners. No wonder they are so difficult to influence!
Applying the Veil Metaphor
As soon as we begin to think in terms of two worlds (one mental, one physical) on either side of this epistemic veil, we can capture the sense of frustration that brand owners frequently feel when trying to promote their brands.
For example, Hutchison’s new mobile telecommunications brand 3 was launched last year with one of the biggest global media spends ever – but awareness is not a patch on that of Vodafone. Why? Because millions of veils have become attuned to Vodafone – whereas they haven’t yet learnt to piece together the various elements of the 3 story.
Last year I witnessed a small UK company struggling with a similar issue. The business had created some incredible interactive television technology. Not unlike 3, this particular company had spent a fortune on media – but without the backing of a multinational like Hutchison, it couldn’t sustain expenditure levels that would make its complex message stick. The result? Today no one has heard of the product, while the public rushes to adopt other technically inferior alternatives.
With the veil metaphor, we can see that the challenge for the brand owner is essentially to pass through the veil into the mind – and then to repeat this for each member of the target audience. Easier said than done, obviously.
Unfortunately for the brand owner, the veil can be cruel. It can lie and mislead. It can be unforgiving and critical. As we’ve just seen, the veil does not operate a meritocracy – many excellent products just don’t get through. Clearly, the existence of the veil means that simply producing the best product in the world doesn’t mean people will see it.
Influencing the Epistemic Veil
We know that information doesn’t always pass through the veil easily – but the good news for brand owners is that the impenetrability of the veil is not a constant.
The veil becomes increasingly opaque when faced with an onslaught of information (think what happens when you are deluged with marketing messages on the way into work), while at other times it is more transparent. This is essentially the basis behind Seth Godin’s principle of “permission marketing”: Rather than using brute force to gain entry to the mind, the smart brand owner chooses the moment carefully – to approach the veil when it is at its most receptive. A similar idea is echoed in Y&R’s Brand Asset Valuator, a tool, which identifies relevance and differentiation as two of the most significant characteristics of successful brands. Differentiated brands stand out from the background noise, while relevant ones are attuned to the specific settings of a particular epistemic veil.
Differentiation, relevance and permission can all be seen in a new light thanks to the veil metaphor. But that’s not all. Passing through the veil is not just about timing, shouting loudest or tuning in. There are many filters that control the veil and many interpretive steps applied to the information it receives. And while is impossible to comprehensively catalogue all of these, I believe we can single out three of the higher-level filters which are of particular importance to the brand owner. These are Attitudes, Past Experience and the Brand Itself (see illustration).
Past Experience is about residual information. An essential principle of the veil is that it uses learned as well as innate information to interpret the world. It is because of this information that we see the world as we do. But memories fade, so this kind of influence decays readily. The veil is busy and will not maintain a favorable disposition toward your product just because you deserve it.
Attitudes form the most deeply ingrained filters and are much more permanent than past experiences. They concern some kind of value judgment and they fade at a much slower rate than memories. Attitudes are consequently the hardest element of the framework to change (which is why their influence is indicated as a dotted line in the diagram).
The Brand Itself also exerts a significant influence on the veil. Existing information about a brand colors the way in which we see the corresponding products and services. This explains how we can speak of brands possessing a “forgiveness factor” when customers are prepared to overlook the mistakes of a much-loved brand. But the reverse is also true: customers are predisposed to see flaws in brands they love to hate.
Perhaps most dramatically, this model shows clearly that the brand is not merely an output. Once created, the brand doesn’t just sit on a shelf in the mind. It has an ongoing impact upon the way in which future brand-related messages are received by the mind.
The Challenge for Brand Owners
We know that life on the wrong side of the veil can be deeply frustrating for brand owners, but taking time to understand these three filters can make it less so.
Firstly, the significance of past experience in maintaining or building a brand is underlined, since we now appreciate the role of memory in changing the receptiveness of the veil toward a particular product. This explains why Vodafone has much greater awareness than 3; and why the small interactive TV company did not achieve the market share it desired, despite huge media spend in both cases.
We know from daily life that to stay in the memory, things have to be regularly reinforced. And for this reason, it is pretty clear why communications need to be consistent over time. After all, if there was no veil between the world and the mind – and if people received every marketing message they were sent – there would be no need to say anything more than once!
A related issue is that of integration across media channels. Because the mind uses the veil to build up a composite picture of the world – drawing together data from various sources – the brand owner needs to work in the same way by using complementary messages across all communications channels. Today’s marketing industry may be a very fragmented place, but the veil does not work in this way. It does not neatly separate TV advertising from direct mail like marketers do when they plan it.
Perceptions are formed on the basis of data acquired from multiple sources: This morning’s radio commercial gets mixed up with the PR in yesterday’s evening news before a coherent perception starts to form in our heads and ultimately influence the brand. If both messages complement, the result will be strengthened; if both messages do not, the brand owner may make little or no impression at all.
But that’s not all. Since the mind is building up a picture based on the sum of all experiences, it follows that these will include direct experience of the product – and not be limited to its marketing communications. The significance of all touch points – not merely paid-for media – in building a brand is well known, and I will not rehearse it here. Suffice to say that for the brand owner who appreciates the role of the veil, the importance of brand-building experiences (such as customer service, product quality, style and design) is clear.
Changing Attitudes, Changing Brands
The veil metaphor also highlights why attaining so-called attitude shift can be such a difficult undertaking. A brand owner who wishes to achieve attitudinal change will need to change the veil through which the product is seen, rather than merely change the appearance of the product itself. A major undertaking, sure, but one that can be a powerful step in advancing the brand if successful.
While changing attitudes is hard, changing brands can be even more difficult. The close two-way relationship between brands and perception goes some way toward explaining why many brand owners feel intuitively that their brands become stronger as they become embedded in the minds of more people.
We know that the influence of brands on the epistemic veil means that people often filter out mistakes made by brands that they favor. But while this demonstrates just how powerful a strong brand can be as a business tool, it also shows us something else: Brands have a kind of in-built inertia. Once they become good, the resulting positive perceptions tend to stick around. Conversely, once brands become sullied, they have a tendency to stay that way too.
Those involved in repositioning programs will be familiar with this phenomenon, and often describe how (despite their best efforts at re-branding), audience perceptions remain unchanged.
In a commonly-cited example of brands resisting change, the poor reputation of Czech carmaker Skoda continued long after new owner Volkswagen had invested heavily in the design and build quality of the vehicles. Fortunately for the brand owner in this case, perceptions are now beginning to catch up with reality, with Skoda gaining a degree of prestige among budget car brands. (Indeed, without the presence of a highly respected brand like Volkswagen, it is doubtful that millions of veils would have ever been receptive to information coming from a small Czech carmaker, however good the news was.)
While the influence exerted by a powerful brand can enable a brand-owner to hide substandard products, it can also backfire. The UK’s West Coast rail service witnessed a massive and immediate rise in complaints when it changed its name to Virgin Trains. Clearly Virgin (which had bought a substantial shareholding in the business) brought with it an expectation of higher quality service – and the poor standards of the train fleet became harder to ignore when associated with a new brand.
Epistemic theory does not “solve” the problems of brand management. But it does endorse a number of aspects of existing brand theory and provide us with a comprehensive model for thinking about how brands behave. It also shows why marketing must be integrated across all media, consistent over time, and incorporative of all brand touch points.
As well as demonstrating the significance of three key filters (Attitude, Past Experience and the Brand Itself), the veil metaphor also sheds new light on the importance of other techniques for gaining access to the mind: Permission, Differentiation and Relevance being three of the most important.