labels: marketing - general, management - general
The art of perception management news
20 July 2004

Communication is the primary tool for managing perceptions to motivate the desired behaviour.

If you feel that no matter what you do in your organisation people do not notice your effort then you ought to take up a lesson or two in perception management. What you actually do may be important but projecting the right image and managing the perceptions of the concerned parties is vital in today's sound byte-savvy world.

When David Ogilvy famously declared that the consumer is not a moron she is your wife, he might as well have added -" If she perceives you as loyal she'll buy more," implying that it is perceptions that define every buy-sell reaction. And communications is the primary tool for managing perceptions to motivate the desired behaviour in the target audience.

This is understood very well in marketing. If you want the target audience to buy something, you must create a need and manage the audience's perception so that it feels that need and belief that the product will satiate it.

There's a difference here between manipulation (creating something that people really don't need and creating an impression in their minds that they need it) and giving people both the opportunity to express a need and the best way to fulfil that need through products, services, etc. The boundary is getting fuzzy these days as even the co9mmonplace and ordinary is packaged as extraordinaire! Politicians do this by instinct, particularly when the behaviour they desired is a positive mandate or vote for themselves. They know that every outcome requires someone somewhere to do something.

Communications is the means to manage perceptions, to create behaviour patterns for business success. These days companies should have a specific function for perception management as they have specialists to manage monetary assets, people assets and technological assets with systems and precision. They are rigorous about measuring the results of efforts in every area, and yet fail to have a specific function that manages the perceptual assets of a company or a product.

Ask any executive to analyse the value of his company's shares. In almost every case, the logical explanation which includes price earnings, ratios, dividend policies and returns on investments only makes up about 60 to 70 per cent of the market valuation.

The rest has to do with perceptions: perceptions of management quality, perceptions of industry outlook, perceptions of the quality of a company's strategy, perceptions of brand value. And yet those perceptions are seldom systematically managed. They may be managed by an investor relations person or function, a role which often tends to be reactive and fact-driven.

If a company has to succeed in today's marketplace it has to shape perceptions to achieve desired business results with the financial community, consumers, and policy makers to get into the heads and hearts of their audiences.

Changing perceptions requires powerful combinations of messages, messengers and media. One must alter the media used to reach key audiences. Tunes and symbols can be more important than substance as behavioural scientists say, reason persuades but emotion motivates. In today's world, one must create motivating communications, which have emotional relevance to the listeners that one wants to reach.

Perceptions can be more powerful than reality. In the financial marketplace, the value of a stock can be driven up or down by expectations for the future. So is it a powerful idea that drives the company, or is it the perception of a powerful idea that drives the company? In government relations and public affairs, companies often try to influence the minds of government officials about an issue or a proposal.

The argument is seldom won on its own merits. It is usually won by creating the perception that the decision-makers' own constituency is best served by one particular outcome. Perceptions differentiate a product and make it relevant to the consumer, allowing for a premium price. Perceptions filter what we see, how we comprehend and infer, what we believe, and how we act. They add or diminish value. The brand itself, for a start, is a perception. A bad perception can be disastrous.

Cancer, AIDS, SARS are big 'brands' today. Brands, that have a perception of death. The SARS scare shook the economy of South East Asia. For a long time tourists avoided the region. Adverse Travel advisories were out netting a mammoth loss in travel revenues for these countries.

During the Iraq invasion, the White House tried to shape the world-wide perception of the conflict and create an overall positive perception of US policy and defence activities. During the conduct of the military campaign, novel measures of "embedding" reporters with military units. Although initially controversial, the decision to embed was, in retrospect, a brilliant move for several reasons.

First, reporters who wanted to be embedded were forced to undergo a mandatory mini-boot camp, which gave many their first appreciation of the challenges faced by the average soldier. Second, embedding created an inevitable bond between reporters and the units they covered. And third, embedding made sense because it ensured the safety of the reporters and gave the world its first "real-time coverage" of a battlefield.

Later on because of the fluid nature of Iraqi Freedom, many reporters were killed and captured and hence the tactic was abandoned disallowing them to roam the battlefield freely. Al Jazira moved in fast and captured the general sentiment and reported the counter point of view and won the perception war. So overwhelming was the impact of the peace lobby that one expert even averred, "The United States could have the Prophet Muhammad doing public relations and it wouldn't help. We cannot sustain false perceptions (at least not for long), nor should we attempt to communicate them.

Even the rise and fall of companies and brands may depend upon the consumer perceptions. The effective management of perceptions can translate into success or failure in the market place. A case in point in the Indian context is - Real Value fire extinguishers. Real Value "burnt" into the mindscape of consumers with its masterly use of perception management by whipping up emotions about man's primordial 'fear of fire'.

An astonishing volume of fire extinguishers were sold and amazingly created an FMCG kind of category for hand held portable fire suppressants. Fire extinguishers were till then an industrial category.

The advertising platform was panic-centric revolving around fear of loss arising out of outbreak of a fire. A negative emotions was encashed effectively as Real Value positioned itself as a protector and created a perception of peace of mind. The same company's next line of products - vacuumized jars - bombed due to the ill management of consumer perceptions about the category as containers and jars.

Even bigger ad spends than earlier and road block advertising on all TV channels could not change the perceptions of consumers. No strong emotion could be whipped up in this case and the product benefit was perceived as a "no show" even the tangibility of the benefit could not be showcased.

BJP's perception of India shinning boomeranged in the hinterland and countryside India, which perceived the feel good factor as untrue. The management of the perception was wrongly done and the results are there for all to see, Vajpayee sits pensively in the opposition while the NDA wonders if it can come back to power.

In the last decade, TATA Tea's management of the ULFA episode speaks volumes about the company's approach to perception management. It not only quelled any negative fallout for the TATA brand but put the matter in the correct perspective by issuing notices, corrective advertising and media management. The entire PR machinery was in overdrive to clear the brand name of any negative perception.

Coming back to today one can see that Laloo Yadav is a master of grabbing mindshare -perception management. The day he took over as railway minister, he branded his ascendancy with a kullhar (an earthen cup) culture in rail travel wherein chic gave way to rustic khadi (hand woven fabrics) d├ęcor in upper classes and mattha (buttermilk) as the downer instead of MNC colas. He has managed to put his label on the railway ministry and the public at large can distinguish his brand of operations.

Tenets of perception management (PM) include questions like:
Who is the audience? What is the current mind-set? What do they think now about this company or this product? Who has the greatest influence over these people and what is the best selling proposition?

What is the best message that can be offered to help them understand the company point of view? And finally, how can one reach them with the power and the impact that gets them to want to buy or to recommend buying the stock/product? How does one increase the perceptual asset which is critical to the valuation of the share?

In this day and age, companies cannot afford not to manage perceptions of these critical audiences. It should be part of competitive strategies. It should also be part of business strategies. Use of basic communication techniques to get into the heads and hearts of stakeholders leads to-identification of current perceptions, targeting key groups, refocusing on reality, and bringing about desired behaviors and measurable results.

Perceptions and style can never be a substitute for lack of substance but go a long way in sustaining the offering for a long while. Experts say that for a sustainable future an ongoing PM programme can help in every conceivable way.

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The art of perception management