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Great (and not so great) expectations

July 11, 2011

I came across this article a little while ago, all about the experiment that the Washington Post ran back in 2007 with Joshua Bell busking in a Washington subway station.

I found it really interesting, not least because it highlights just how importance place is when it comes to how people will interpret the message that they are receiving.

Does it show that if you put something somewhere unexpected then people won’t really accept it? because there are some fairly serious implications there for brands.

Joshua Bell was playing in a subway.  And the inference you can draw from the article is that people didn’t believe he could be that good, because of the venue he was playing in.

As soon as a brand appears somewhere people don’t expect it then their notions of quality change.

Think about brands like Thorntons and a strategy that puts them on discount in Asda. 100 years of brand equity and a heritage of quality undone.

And it isn’t just place.  As soon as certain cues are given it skews how people interpret the evidence.

There’s another similar (and similarly famous) experiment. In 2001 a researcher called Frederic Brochet from the University of Bordeaux served a group of wine experts the same white wine in two glasses – but one of them was tinted red with food colouring. The experts started describing the ‘red’ wine using typical red wine terminology. Not one of them noticed that it was actually a white wine.

It begs the question – how much are people affected by what they are expecting to see and hear? To the point that they will disregard things or brands that are behaving in a way that doesn’t fit their expectations.

As planners we need to understand the audience and their expectations – but to a certain extent, at least from a comms perspective, disrupting these expectations and doing something different is seen as a positive thing.

There’s an interesting tension there, surely.

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