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Industry Contributor 6 Jul 2022 - 4 min read

What Red Bull, Nespresso, Aldi - and behavioural science - can teach us about brand framing and context over content

By Dan Monheit - Co-founder & Director of Strategy, Hardhat

Context matters far more than content, argues Behavioural Science expert and Hardhat co-founder Dan Monheit argues. Therefore, your messaging strategy should be shaped accordingly. Here are three key questions to ask as brand comes back into vogue.

As the marketing world starts to grow weary of ‘all things performance’, we’re seeing a growing chorus for the return of ‘all things brand’. For the industry, this is exciting and refreshing. Let’s be honest, it probably wasn’t the fond childhood memory of a highly personalised fax campaign that got you into this industry in the first place.

As we turn our attention squarely back onto ourselves – our brand, our tone, our USP, our distinctive codes, our channels to market – it can be easy to overlook one of the most fundamental concepts of human decision making: Context is more important than content. Why? Because we’re prone to interpreting the same information differently, depending on how it’s presented to us.

In Behavioural Science, this is referred to as ‘framing’, and it goes some way to explaining why we might instinctively promote a new surface cleaner as ‘killing 99 per cent of germs’ (vs leaving 1 per cent of germs to live happily ever after) or why a doctor might tell us that an upcoming surgery has ‘a 92 per cent success rate’ (vs ‘two out of the last 25 patients died’). 

Yes, nailing our own story is important. But so is the context, aka ‘frame’, that we guide people to see it through.

Framing was first demonstrated by the legendary Behavioural Science duo of Kahneman and Tversky in 1981. The two set up an experiment in which participants were asked to decide between two different treatment options for a deadly disease that had infected 600 people. The options they were presented with were as follows:

  • Treatment A, which would save 200 lives.
  • Treatment B, which had a 33 per cent chance of saving everyone and a 66 per cent chance of saving nobody.

Despite the odds (and therefore the outcomes) being exactly the same, 72 per cent of people selected Treatment A (who doesn’t want to take credit for saving 200 lives?). When the researchers flipped the frame and instead presented the same two treatment options with the outcomes described in terms of deaths caused rather than lives saved, 78 per cent of people instead selected Treatment B. That’s the power of context over content.

Reframing, or changing the context in which the same information is interpreted, is a hallmark of so many successful launches in the last two decades.

  • Red Bull reframed sugary, caffeinated, carbonated beverages as energy drinks, allowing them to charge much more money for much less liquid than Coke.
  • Nespresso reframed coffee pods (75c/serve) as cheaper than coffee out ($4.50/serve) rather than more expensive than instant coffee at home ($0.12/serve).
  • Aldi reframed the entire grocery market with their ‘we’re not cheap, they’re expensive’ strategic platform.

And just last year, in the depths of lockdown, we launched The Factsination to reframe the one in a million chance of dying from the AstraZeneca vaccines as much less risky than dozens of things we already do in our day to day lives like mowing the lawn or riding a bike (helping to spur a 52 per cent uptake in AZ vaccinations in the weeks after launch).

When thinking about framing, there are infinite ways in. In my experience, three of the most important questions we can ask ourselves are:

  1. Can we frame the same attribute more positively?
    This one might seem obvious, given that our jobs tend to be about ‘accentuating the positives’, but it works.  
    Often, there are multiple options for positive framing and the challenge is working out which stage to play on. Do we want to be the healthiest snack in the confectionery aisle, or the tastiest treat in the health food aisle? Are we better off building a brand that’s the best Vodka from New Zealand, or the most New Zealand vodka in the world? 

    I remember seeing an ad last year for Berocca that positioned the product as what you take to be ready for a big day ahead, rather than what you take to recover from a big night out. This is a prime example of more positive framing in action. 

  2. Can a benefit be framed in terms of losses rather than gains?
    There’s a large body of research (also from the field of Behavioural Science) that demonstrates humans are far more motivated to avoid losses than to pursue equivalent gains. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective where, for most of human history, gaining an extra day’s worth of food was a nice bonus but losing today’s meal would have been a disaster. For this reason, framing benefits as ‘avoided losses’ can be far more powerful than framing them as gains. 

    Research by Simon Gächter in 2009 looked at registration fees that included either penalties for late payments or discounts for early ones. Despite the amounts payable being identical, late fees resulted in 93 per cent of people paying on time (avoiding a loss) while early discounts were only taken up by 67 per cent (getting a gain).

    In the VC world, funders will often consider whether a fledgling startup is positioning itself as more ‘aspirin’ or ‘multivitamin’, knowing that consumers are willing to pay more for the former (get me back to normal) than the latter (take me somewhere new and amazing). 

  3. How far up the ladder can we go?
    There’s no question that all advertising is designed to reframe perceptions, but in my experience, there’s a distinct hierarchy to consider. At a minimum, comms should reframe the way somebody feels about a product (‘oh wow, now it’s got folate!’). 

    The next rung up is reframing the way somebody feels about a brand. For example, the recent Crocs collab with Justin Bieber has lifted demand across the entire Crocs portfolio, not just the limited edition (yet still unsightly) Bieber edition. 
    The third rung up is reframing an entire category. This is usually achieved by pointing out that until now, people have been shopping it all wrong, and that in addition to ‘price vs quality’, there’s a whole new dimension to consider. Who Gives a Crap added ‘social impact’ to toilet paper. Virgin added ‘fun’ to air travel. Suzuki is doing the same to cars. 

    Which brings us to the final rung - reframing the way people feel about themselves. It appears that the thread running through almost every case study that’s become too much of a trope to share, is the way it’s changed people’s perceptions of themselves. Nike (‘maybe I am an athlete?’), Dove (‘maybe I am beautiful?’), Apple (‘maybe I am creative?’) – I’m looking at you. 

    Deciding which rung to play at will impact everything, from the tone and language used to the budget required to get the job done. 

Considering these three questions will help ensure that while we’re busy rebuilding our brand shrines (content), we stay highly attuned to the world we’ll be placing them into (context).

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Dan Monheit

Co-founder & Director of Strategy, Hardhat

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