“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you”

As marketers, we’d like to think that we’re in control of our own brand narrative. But reality (and human nature) dictates that we’re not. So, when customer perception of our brand is not what we want it to be, what can we do about it?

The headline for this blog is a snippet from a quote by Bill Bernbach, one of the most influential figures in the world of advertising, a pioneer of the Madison Avenue creative ‘revolution’ of the 1960s.

His point is quite simple.

You may well have designed and manufactured the very best product on the market, but if your audience thinks differently, or has no idea what ‘the best’ looks like, you might as well have not bothered.

It’s all about perception.

As Seth Godin similarly said: “Facts are irrelevant. What matters is what the consumer believes.”

Belief is a funny old thing.

Anyone who’s ever had children will understand that proof is irrelevant. Our belief systems are influenced by everything from societal norms and stereotypes to repeated exposure and consistency of messages. If, as young children, we’re told over and over by people we trust that Santa exists, then we’re going to believe it.

Once the belief is embedded, when we encounter contradictory information, then we’re likely to ignore it, or rationalise it to confirm what we ‘know’ to be true. Simply presenting us with new information won’t change the belief. At least, not in isolation.

It doesn’t help that we have selective attention. We can’t process all the information we’re bombarded with, so we choose what information we’ll take in – and very often that means we’ll reject information that contradicts our existing beliefs.

It’s just easier that way.

Pictures of Real Santa Claus's List He's Checking Twice  

The implications for brands

It’s important to understand that once your brand has established itself as the go-to brand in any market, you have an unfair advantage over any new entrant, regardless of how ‘good’ the competition is.

Ask yourself, when you’re ordering a cola drink at the bar, do you ask for a Pepsi?

Coca-Cola has the advantage – because it’s ‘the real thing’.

In taste tests, most people prefer Pepsi – but they’ll still ask for Coke.

In 2021 Pepsi spend an estimated $3.5 billion on advertising, and they’re still not number 1.

Steering perception in the right direction

So being at the top of the tree is a great place to be. But what if your brand has got a bad rep? What then?

In the 1980s, the mere mention of the Skoda brand in the UK put smiles on our faces for all the wrong reasons.

Q: How do you double the value of a Skoda?

A: Fill it up with petrol.

The Skoda reputation in the UK was tied to its communist-era heritage, which did little to inspire consumer confidence in the brand.

Q: What do you call a convertible Skoda?

A: A skip

The turning point for the brand came in 1991 when Skoda was acquired by Volkswagen Group. Because VW had a strong reputation for build quality, they were able to tell a different narrative – of reliability and high-quality design and engineering.

With new ownership came new manufacturing processes and new models, like the Octavia and Superb. With advertising designed to appeal to the rational brain and encourage people to test drive and experience the change for themselves.

The transformation in the brand’s fortunes was huge, but it didn’t happen overnight. In the 1990s, the hugely successful “It’s a Skoda. Honest” ads, were credited with transforming the reputation of the brand.

But even by 2001, when previously sceptical consumers now believed that Skodas were better than Fiats or Citroens, research revealed that most would not actually buy one.

Chris Hawken, the head of marketing for Skoda UK at the time said, “We know that some prejudice remains. Not everyone is yet comfortable with the thought of actually owning a Skoda.”

That’s a 10-year period in which sales only increased from 30,000 a year to 35,000 despite huge investment.

Eventually, the effort did pay off. By 2017 sales were up to 80,000 annually – a good result, but that’s a full quarter of a century after the VW acquisition.

Belief is the paper through which facts are filtered

The Skoda example offers some insight into the scale of the perception problem.

Shifting long-held attitudes and beliefs takes a long time, and establishing a new positioning takes patience, consistency and above all, resilience.

If you find your brand in this situation, if you believe you have a perception problem, then you need a structured response:

  1. Conduct a brand review
    Start with internal stakeholder interviews to understand what your key people believe about the brand before sense-checking this with customers and prospects. Use surveys, focus groups or interviews to really understand how the market perceives your brand in relation to the competition. Remember the core objective here is to identify where the disparity lies between your ideal brand perception and the current reality. What perceptions do you need to change? But also, you’re looking for the root cause – what’s led to current perception? It could be the product itself, competitor activity, past controversy, or simply outdated branding. You may also find some positive brand associations – you may need to draw on these in the future.
  2. Develop a strategy
    Before you start, clearly define what you’re trying to achieve and make sure you’re focused on the root cause: if there are genuine issues with the product or service, these must be addressed first. Your strategy may need to be multi-faceted – remember, if you have a perception problem, then simply improving the product won’t make an iota of a difference in isolation. You’ll need a clear external marketing strategy which may even involve a rebrand. You’ll need to do a lot of persuading, so consider how you can use social media, targeted media and PR to communicate the change. And make sure your strategy has longevity. Learn from Skoda; changing perceptions often takes time.
  3. Internal engagement
    Ensure that all internal stakeholders (employees, management, shareholders) are on board and aligned with what you’re trying to do. It’s always worth bringing key people along with you on the journey, whether you’re re-positioning or completely re-engineering the brand. Use training programmes to ensure every employee understands the brand narrative and values and can represent them effectively. The concept of ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ will be more important than ever before – there’s little point in trying to re-position your product if the customer experience doesn’t reflect what you’re promising.
  4. External engagement
    And make sure that external stakeholders (key customers, media, industry influencers) are given a thorough briefing – make sure they understand why you’re changing tack. These are your potential brand ambassadors, so take the time to bring them on board. Skoda spent a lot of time courting the automotive media to help deliver a consistent and ‘independently verified’ story of reliability and solid engineering.
  5. Launch and execute!
    When it’s time to roll out the changes, whether via marketing campaigns, product re-launches or PR effort, consistency is vital. Yes, go for impact, but make sure all touchpoints, from advertising to customer service and the product itself, contribute to a consistent narrative. Always remember that when you’re trying to convince someone of the truth, repetition is your friend. The truth isn’t the truth until people believe it. Keep telling the same story, over and over, until they do.

The market is evolving all the time, so you’ll need to be prepared to evolve your strategy as you go. But always remember, deeply held beliefs take time to change and you can only do that by being consistent.

You have to be prepared to repeat your message; but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring.

Remember the Bill Bernbach reference earlier? The full quote goes like this:

“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”

So there you have it.

It doesn’t matter what’s true.

If you want to change perceptions, you’ll need to convince people of the truth.

To do that, you’re going to need some creativity.