Recently, Porsche ran an advertising campaign to promote their new Cayenne S E-Hybrid electric/gasoline SUV in Scandinavia. The core aim of the campaign was to establish awareness that the new vehicle had been manufactured by the most skilled designers and engineers in the car industry, and the tag line was “made by the best.”
When Porsche introduces a new car with such a tag line, customers expect a winner. They not only anticipate high luxury standards all around but also top-notch engineering of every element. Promising “the best” and delivering what customers perceive as merely adequate performance would damage Porsche’s 85-year-old premium brand.
One of the primary considerations of prospective electric car buyers is the distance these vehicles can drive before the gas engine is turned on. Discovering that the Cayenne S E-Hybrid’s electric battery range would be only 14 miles (23 km), even most loyal Porsche customers were sorely disappointed. Why is it that an expensive Porsche offers a range of 14 miles, when many lower-cost hybrid cars, such as Chevrolet Volt and Cadillac ELR, easily run for 35-55 miles before the gas engine kicks in? If Chevrolet’s engineers can build a long-range hybrid car on a budget, Porsche’s should know to do that, too.
People might start to think that lower-cost car brands are outperforming Porsche. For customers it would be a similar experience if Kia or Hyundai were to offer an affordable car that could reach 60 mph in 3-4 seconds, almost matching the 2.9 seconds it takes for a Porsche 911 Turbo S to reach that speed. Therefore, the Cayenne S E-Hybrid campaign is contributing to a brand dilution, at least to some extent. Customers are led to think that for the double price, they get more luxury but less technology.
This is what happens when marketing specialists fall into the assumption fallacy. They assume that customers will think in the same way that they, the brand experts, think. They fail to realize that the mindset, knowledge and motivation of the consumer is often quite different than that of marketers.
The assumption fallacy occurs when marketing people assume that if customers hear ‘A’ they will surely think ‘B’. As confirmed by Porsche’s marketing manager, they thought that the phrase “made by the best” would lead people to think of Porsche’s 18 recent wins in the Le Mans race. But the problem is that few people other than those closely involved with Porsche’s affairs know about these Le Mans titles. Instead of associating the campaign with winning racing titles, customers in Scandinavia did what most customers do: They associated the brand message with thoughts present in their own mindset: “Made by the best” must indicate the highest possible performance. If an engineering legacy giant like Porsche introduces a new hybrid car, it must be designed to have one of the longest drivable ranges currently on the market.
The assumption fallacy is a common situation in marketing. If it is assumed that customers will think in a certain way, they will often think in the opposite manner. If people are told that a certain brand is the best, they might start to figure out various reasons why that brand is not the best. And when an auto manufacturer says “our cars are top-notch”, customers readily look for performance measurements revealing that other brands perform better. The reason for these contrary thoughts is that one can never force the mind to think in a certain way. While it might be possible to affect what the mind thinks about at a certain moment, one can rarely control whether the thoughts are positive or negative.
One could call this the ‘Robinson Crusoe fallacy’, assuming that customers are hypothetically living on a small island with nothing to do but contemplate brand messages. The fact is, however, customers don’t care about the brand because they have more important things to do. Never assume the general public knows much about the brand, its history, facts and achievements.
The best strategy to prevent customers from thinking about your brand in a unexpected way is to design marketing messages that don’t force the customer to guess what you are hinting at. Don’t give clues and don’t refer to facts only brand experts are aware of. When addressing customers, always assume they are unaware of all the wonderful facts, victories and achievements of your brand. This is because most customers don’t relate brands to facts but rather feelings. Sometimes they are positive feelings, sometimes not. But they rarely have any cumulative knowledge about your brand and therefore, marketing people should never make obscure references when crafting brand messages. Even for Coke, it would be a horrible idea to remind customers about which cola drink is number one. It would only evoke negative thoughts for many and bring doubts to that assertion. It would be regarded as cocky and could even bring up the issue of the unhealthiness of sugary sodas. Yes, the mind of the customer is not a logical machine.
As food for thought to bring to your next branding meeting, one can assume that the average customer often knows less than 25% of what marketing professionals know about a brand. This rule of thumb might help when designing your next message.