The Trouble with Rivalries

two businessmen engaged in tug-o-war

Coke/Pepsi. McDonald’s/Burger King. Dunkin’/Starbucks. Let’s face it – humans are no strangers to rivalries, and are happy to pick a brand, become a fan, and continue the argument. As brands have learned, this can drive up loyalty through a feeling of belonging and can be very hard to unseat.

When it comes to brand rivalries, many of these battles have been fueled by the lighter fluid of advertising. But there is another argument that has captured the conversations of many involved in advertising today. This one is not actually about a single brand, but about advertising itself. The rivalry? A not-so-little thing called data and the argument of Brand versus Behavior that it sowed.

Ad agencies have been driven by ideas since the Mad-Men days, using storytelling as their most fundamental tool for building brands. They used any data they had from focus groups or ideation sessions to understand motivations…what a consumer really wanted from a product. As advertising has evolved, it has only become more focused on emotion-driven versus information-driven stories, whether the brand is creating content, ads, or experiences.

As this has been happening in the agency kingdom, the tech view over in Silicon Valley is that the most valuable role for data is not what people say they want or are going to do, but what people actually do. They care not for motivation or desire—only actions. They track digital footprints across media and make mathematical models. They are interested in giving brands information on opportunities to display their message, and have no interest in the message itself. It is enough to know that those who visited website X had a higher probability of buying the product than those who visited website Y. It is not necessary to know the reason why they bought the product. (For more on this, see the blog on these differences through a geo lens.)

What is most fascinating about rivalries is understanding the fundamental flaw in how they work. Entrenched positions always have a deleterious impact on truly effective solutions. Always. While one may prefer the taste of Coke over Pepsi, perhaps it’s water that one really wants on any given day. Or coffee. Or a beer. All either/or paradigms fall apart, as well they should—for they all involve extremity, and leave little room for taking the best of different approaches and using what’s good to create truly effective solutions.

In the case of creating great brands, there will always be a place for telling great stories. Stories are equipment for living, as the famous screenwriter Robert McKee said. Humans seek them out and learn from them, and smart brands will never abandon them. But the math majors have something to contribute that can maximize that storytelling by giving it the best opportunity to reach an audience and know when it’s making the impact it should.

Both branding and behavior are ours to use. That is where the advertising battle is really won.