table of contents:
is there a common denominator between the 5 pillars?
why are metaphors and allegories essential to storytelling?
does sponsorship generate the modern equivalent of allegories?
how does image transfer actually happen?
what is the role of heuristics?
key to all 5 pillars
The last chapter of Instinctively Sustainable ended on an intriguing question: could commercial communication techniques be adapted for the purpose of promoting an intangible concept?
For instance, is there anything to be learned from successful brands such as Virgin, Ferrari, Marlboro and Red Bull, when the aim is not to promote a product, but a concept for societal change? Could an intangible concept such as ‘sustainability’ be turned into an aspirational goal for the Y generation?
My objective with Instinctively Sustainable has been to reverse-engineer how sponsorship works and then re-assemble its component parts in order to promote an intangible concept. I believe I now hold that formula. It relies on five mutually indispensable pillars, symbolised by five verbs:
Each of them will be developed in its own chapter. I start by explaining a key factor for all five pillars: the role of heuristics.
In the previous chapters I made the case as to why modern marketing is more about affecting rather than persuading consumers. Some companies have been extremely successful at this art, creating an almost fanatical following for their brand, which in turn can be transferred to whole families of products or services (I will hereinafter refer to both as "products"). In the most extreme cases, the brand makes the product, rather than the other way round.
Entities that seek to promote societal change, on the other hand, have not been able to adapt their communications to modern marketing techniques. They continue to be predicated on persuading people to change attitudes and behaviours using rational arguments, the equivalent of arguing the benefits of a product.
The lack of marketing resources is not sufficient explanation for the problem because it does not apply only to communications from governments, international agencies or non-profit organisations. Even commercial corporations, when they engage in CSR initiatives, tend to dust-off long-abandoned communication techniques for marketing their products.
What is it that modern marketers do when they sell a product? They aim to transfer a set of attributes to the brand. In order to elicit these attributes and then to sustain them over time, they need to generate them via something tangible, a subject suited to perpetual storytelling, metaphors and allegories. The storytelling needs to revolve around a subject rich in personalities, drama, emotions, atmosphere and suspense. Ideally, it should also take place in real life as opposed to fiction. While I have of course grossly simplified and generalised, these are the basic ingredients for sponsorship to work. Once they are in place, a well-managed sponsorship can do something that other marketing strategies would struggle to replicate: transferring attributes from onto the sponsoring brand via a subject that is, in fact, unrelated.
The following chapters will explain how and why this happens. The common thread is that sponsorship is astonishingly efficient at creating mental shortcuts called heuristics. Although a combination of heuristics influence every aspect of the process, I will treat each one within the most relevant chapter. Before I do that, however, I should explain what these mental shortcuts need to convey.
metaphors: essential to efficient communications
(Jo Romm, Language Intelligence) "Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know with what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused"
While we all know to sprinkle the odd metaphor to spice up our everyday language, Lakoff and Johnson make the point that metaphors are in fact not just useful, but essential for efficient communications.
(Lakoff, Don't think of an elephant, 2004) “One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of metaphors. The frames are in the synapses of our brains physically present in the form of neural circuitry […] The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.
[…] metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”
Through a series of examples they remind us how the same concept can be expressed by more than one metaphor. For instance, ideas can be foods (half-baked ideas, I just can't swallow that idea, let that idea simmer on the back burner) or they can be people (he is the father of modern biology, those ideas died in the Middle Ages, his ideas will live on forever, he breathed life into that idea), or plants, or products, or commodities, or resources, or money, or fashions. To measure just how peculiar this is to human behavior, just envision the challenge of developing A.I. software that is supposed to understand not just perfectly construed, literal and complete sentences, but also these strange metaphors that we use to condense an idea.
from metaphors to allegories
What are the limitations? In order for a metaphor to be efficient, it needs to have a carried meaning that is memorable and explicit. In order for a brand to use a metaphor in its marketing, there is an additional requirement: originality. For marketing purposes, the supply of useful metaphors is therefore limited.
Marketers also need more than one metaphor to allow them to build a sophisticated identity for their brand, one which is distinct from the competition, remains vibrant and can evolve over time. They need extended metaphors and a narrative that sustains them. In literature and art, one refers to allegories to describe figurative or symbolic language. Painters, composers, authors and poets used to be commissioned by wealthy and influential individuals or organisations to convey sophisticated allegories [essentially paid-for messages embedded in cultural content]. A patron’s agenda was generally to have an influence on society, be it morally, spiritually or politically.
What would be the modern analogy? The agenda is more likely to be a commercial one: building a brand identity. The patrons have been replaced by corporations. The cultural content is also different, we will see how. The societal agenda has not entirely disappeared, but it is generally subservient to a commercial agenda. We refer to it as corporate social responsibility (CSR).
from allegories to sponsorship
The communication techniques used in commercial sponsorship are the modern equivalent of allegories. The cultural content still comprises entertainment, causes and arts, but it is now dominated by sports, which account for 70% of the worldwide sponsorship market (IEG, 2016). The on and off-stage exploits of the authors, artists and athletes generate the modern allegories.
The audiences are larger. The disciplines from which allegories can be generated have swelled. The amount of content has exploded due to still and moving pictures. They are propagated globally through a massive media network. What used to be word-of-mouth communications has grown exponentially thanks to social networking.
Sports have evolved from gladiatorial clashes to athletic contests and finally into a multitude of disciplines in which human performance is inseparable from that of an accessory, anything from a ball to a vehicle of great technological complexity. Event locations have moved well beyond the typical arenas, with events also taking place in the oceans, skies, mountains, inside cities or in the depths of nature. Different sports have different geographical spreads. Within each sport, there is a choice of performers, teams or vehicles. Each comes with its own set of attributes and loyal audiences. Commercial sponsors therefore have a prodigious smörgåsbord of factors to play with in order to generate metaphors and allegories that they would like people to associate with their brand. Professional teams and athletes carefully manage this complexity in order to build an identity of their own, to match their offering to the ever more elaborate requirements from sponsors.
There remains the non-trifling issue of how such image associations happen. Even industry insiders refer to it somewhat casually as ‘image transfer’. That is not incorrect, but it is an over-simplification of a complex and fascinating process. It requires a deep understanding of the human psyche and notions of neuroscience. By what strange mechanism does image transfer actually occur? How can the attributes of a sports subject be transferred to a brand? How much of this is conscious and how much subconscious, and why does it matter?
the trigger: heuristics
These questions can be explained by the subconscious strategy that the human brain uses to simplify the majority of its everyday decisions: heuristics. They are mental shortcuts insofar as we subconsciously resort to them in order to replace laborious System 2 thinking with effortless System 1 thinking (chapter 1, What’s Amiss?). It explains what we normally refer to as ‘gut feel’. Since sponsorship builds on heuristics, it is particularly efficient at shaping gut-feel.
It is not difficult to understand the power of a communication technique that can shape people’s gut-feel. It effectively triggers subconscious reflexes and actions, all the way to your typical impulse purchase.
(Robert Heath, Seducing the Subconscious): “We are more vulnerable when we are only vaguely aware that our emotions are being influenced, and most vulnerable when we have no idea at all that our emotions are being influenced.”
There is ample literature on the subject of gut-feel from authors such as Dr.Gerd Gigerenzer, Prof.Daniel Kahneman, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely. We have touched upon their theories in previous chapters of this white paper:
We communicate and process information in a dual-processing system (see Chapter 1)
System 1 and the subconscious seduction model (see Chapter 1)
Examples of attitude changes attributable to a connection to a sports subject (see Chapter 2)
The reverse priming effect (see Chapter 3)
(Dr Gigerenzer, Gut feelings: the intelligence of the unconscious): "Knowledge of heuristics can help marketing researchers understand the processes by which consumers make decisions with limited time and information."
In forthcoming chapters we will discuss specific types of heuristics that explain the effects of sponsorship. We will then see how a new sports Property could use some of these techniques in order to advance a societal agenda: turn a sustainable lifestyle into an aspirational goal for the Y generation.
summary of the five pillars
Affect: in order to elicit genuine Affect, the heuristics and metaphors need to be generated through storytelling that is perceived as authentic (see Perennify) and credible (see Immunize).
Brand: ensures the transfer of the Affect to the sponsoring brand and the symbolism required to Tribalize
Tribalize: expands the reach of the branding, by turning the audience into surrogates for the performers
Perennify: crucial for ensuring authentic and perpetual storytelling
Immunize: warrants the credibility of the sustainability theme, by ring-fencing the sponsored Property to brands that conform to precise criteria
The next chapter will cover the first pillar: why it is necessary to “Affect”.