In Ghana, we often say ‘di wo lane mu’ [stay in your lane] to people who veer off the course expected of them. This is particularly so when they veer off into the path expected to be used by others. The people around us form their expectations of what our next step should be, given our history. And when we traverse, this advice is how they draw attention and get us to act as expected. Take for instance, that tro tro [mini public transport busses] driver who insists on zig zagging on the road and tries to secure a place just before you in heavy traffic. If you are like me [and my children feel embarrassed for it, every time], you might probably roll down your window and remind him/her to ‘di wo lane mu!’.
Brands get this too. You see as consumers, we form ideas of what a brand represents and, therefore, what it should or should not do. When you think about Goil, your mental images and thoughts are all around transport fuel and lubricants [never mind the fact that they have mini marts]. How about your expectations of Adonko bitters? I am sure they hover around alcohol and pubs rather than schools. What brands are known for become a short cut by which as consumers we develop our expectations of them.
However, like a tree whose branches we cannot predict direction for, brands can also veer into uncharted and unexpected paths. So what if the University of Ghana decided to start a fast food franchise? Its campuses are teeming with people that should provide a market. And what if your favourite tuo zaafi [local dish] delivery joint also launched a laundry delivery service? Afterall, its delivery vans and cycles are already bringing you stuff; why not your laundry?
Brands do launch new products that do not match consumers expectations of them. Think about the first time you heard that the business that owns the Angel Cream brand was venturing into media. How about the idea of Valley View University owning a bread brand? Brands look for opportunity and take advantage of them. It’s that simple! And so, every so often, a brand you have formed certain expectations of can surprise you by the new products they launch. When brands launch such surprising/out-of-norm new products, it generates shock as consumers now must deal with the incongruence (lack of agreement between what they expected and what is happening).
For the brand communicator, this can be tricky, even a nightmare. How do you promote and position this incongruent product without diluting the logic of your brand? If you miss the sweet spot of this balancing act, you risk people getting confused about what your brand stands for. Or you could fall into that trap of a poorly understood and positioned new product.
According to researchers at the University of Leeds, you do have some things working for you in such situations. Their research, titled “How less congruent new products drive brand engagement: The role of curiosity” explores the benefits of launching incongruent new products, from a communication point of view. The research shows that under such circumstances, brands and brand communicators can actually leverage the incongruence to boost customer engagement (i.e., the sharing and commenting of posts) with brand messages on social media.
Ordinarily, and typically, unless consumers are wholly loyal and super excited about your brand, they don’t wake up looking to engage with you on social media [certainly not with their highly-priced data]. However, when something different happens [e.g., the launch of your incongruent product], people’s curiosity is activated in a manner that can be beneficial to you. According to the research, not only do social media announcements of such products generate curiosity among consumers, but they also have the power get consumers talking. Whether by liking your posts about the new product [well, and hating too], commenting, sharing, mentioning etc, the surprise element can get you some attention and engagement and, who knows, even some word-of-mouth advertising.
It gets even better for you if your brand has historically been conservative in its new product launches. The study found that brands that have historically tended to go off their lane and announce incongruent products earn less engagement credits when they announce new, surprising products. Actually, the surprise element becomes lost to them as their history of breaking bounds would have already formed expectations that they will surprise again. I guess if you keep surprising, we come to expect that of you and so your attempts at surprise fail to shock any longer. But for brands that have a background of launching new products that we expect of them, when they veer off course and launch something different, bingo! They surprise us and get us so curious we go looking for their messages and connect with them.
The message is simple. Sometimes, disruption is good. As brand communicator, you only need to understand how it can work for you.
The author is a senior lecturer at the University of Ghana Department of Communication Studies ([email protected])
PS: The full copy of the research explained in this article is accessible here. It may be subject to fees.