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The Importance of Attitudes

2010 July 18

Hey, you got an attitude?

As marketing becomes increasingly mathematical, attitudes are often overlooked.  They don’t fit easily into the ROI, PPC, tweeterific framework that is so popular these days.

Nevertheless, understanding people’s biases is essential to grasping how and what they will consume. Thinking seriously about attitudes is an essential skill for any marketer.

What is an Attitude?

We humans don’t like to think much because evolution has favored acting before thinking.  As neurologist (and former marketer) Joseph Ledoux points out, cavemen who stopped to ponder a hungry lion didn’t pass on as many genes as those who tore off and ran.

In a more modern context, attitudes serve as convenient short cuts.  We can’t possibly think through every decision we make, so we form positive or negative associations with groups of ideas.  This lets us make decisions efficiently and is essential to how we function in society.

The way form biases is fairly well understood.  Our brains are essentially patterns of synapses.  Some, like fear of snakes, appear to be ingrained and cross-cultural.  Most, however, we gain through experiences built up over time. (For more on this, see Advertising on the Brain).

Because using attitudes as shortcuts has been ingrained in our DNA by evolution, it shouldn’t be surprising that we depend on them heavily to make brand decisions.

The Failure of Demographics

For many products, demographics such as age, sex, income and occupation work quite well.  Young people are more likely to buy surfboards than old, women buy feminine hygiene products, poor people aren’t likely to shop for a Mercedes, etc.

However, for many categories, demographics are of little use.  When you start looking at products like cigarettes, cosmetics, beer, soft drinks and so on, you find that there is little demographic difference among brands.

The reason why is well documented in the book Trading Up.  We buy many things as an expression of our identity.  That’s why receptionists will save up to buy Prada shoes and millionaires will shop for bargains at Costco.  Our consumption often reflects our values more than it does our affluence.

Changing Attitudes

Another important thing to consider is that attitudes change, albeit slowly.  A few decades ago, recycling was seen as quirky, even radical.  Now it is almost a moral imperative.  The American politician Rand Paul found out how much attitudes about race had changed when he decided to question the wisdom of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Smart marketers know the importance of attitudes and continually track consumer perceptions of their products quality, value, taste, etc. through the use of tracking studies.   As attitudes change, they alter their marketing strategy to address the prevailing attitudes.

One good example is McDonald’s, which continually tracks consumer perceptions of its brand in every country in which it operates.  When scores get low, you are bound to see a brand campaign addressing the quality of its products, cleanliness of its restaurants and friendliness of its staff.

Moonlit Nights, Jogging in the Park and Feeding Squirrels in the Park

Of course, like anything else, attitudes are often misused, usually with the aid of questionable techniques such as cluster analysis.  By using algorithms they don’t understand, marketers are often able to find separation between consumers that doesn’t really exist.

Most often, the attitudes that are uncovered often reflect those of the marketers themselves (or of people they aspire to be) more than any consumer they are targeting.  Marketers like to conjure images of people who like moonlit nights, jogging in the park and feeding squirrels (and then propose a fairly conventional TV strategy, but include a cool party they can invite their friends to).

It is this type of soft headedness that gets marketers ridiculed ( hilariously, in the Ad Contrarian blog, ).  Nevertheless, as we found when researching Turkish consumers, sometimes segmenting by attitude is not only useful, it’s absolutely essential.

Why Rebels are Often Middle Class

Often, as with red and blue states in the US, markets can be described geographically.  Turkey is just such a country.  It borders Europe to the West and Syria and Iraq to the East.  It shouldn’t be surprising that there are stark demographic differences in income from one side of the country to the other.

Usually, we would expect that attitudes vary by economics and geography, but as much as we tried we could find no discernable difference in sentiment between Eastern and Western Regions.  We did find, however, that the country was almost perfectly split down the middle on the question of whether Turkey should move closer to Western values or not.

Interestingly, the question cut right across demographic and geographic lines.  Eastern or Western attitudes tell you very little about where a Turkish person lives or how much they earn, but explains brand and category consumption better than any other single characteristic.

What’s more, the people with traditional values in the upscale West are angry.  They answer even innocuous questions like whether they go to the doctor for regular checkups or try to eat healthy with a resounding “no.”  They are hostile to advertising and sponsoring.

So, by looking at attitudes, we uncovered a valuable group of consumers (people with Eastern attitudes living in the prosperous West) who need to be communicated to in a much different way than people with the same incomes living in the same cities.

A Simple Rule

Mathematicians have a rule that is useful for many other disciplines: Use the simplest model that explains the most data.  It would behoove marketers to follow it.

When choosing how to target, what’s important is to identify as many viable consumers in the simplest possible way.  Sometimes, basic characteristics such as age and sex are sufficient, but often they are not and that’s why attitudes are so important.  They serve as useful proxies for how people will make decisions.

Just remember to leave out the silly talk about jogging squirrel feeders.

–          Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 19, 2010


    This reminds me of a past discussion on crowdsourcing. I think one of the reasons that has become so popular is the idea that it, by its very nature, fills in the blanks that can’t be quantified in the data – like attitude. The messy stew of opinion, in this model, corrects for attitude and solves that issue.

    This is not true, of course. But it’s a seductive premise. And an influenced crowd can favor the cache of “jogging in the park” as easily as a marketing exec. This leads to a faulty decision base and bewildered post mortem campaign analysis.

    Thanks, Greg. Thought provoking, as always.

    – John

  2. July 19, 2010


    I think that’s right. For me, the key thing to remember is that you want to make the target group as clear and actionable as possible. If using attitudinal questions helps you do that (and it often does) it can be a powerful tool. However, attitudes (or anything else for that matter) should never be used to muddy the waters.

    – Greg

  3. Andi S. permalink
    February 20, 2011

    Keep watch of your attitude in everything.. be sure not to
    create damage to others..
    great post!!

  4. February 20, 2011

    Thx Andi!

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