Why We're Learning Even If We're Not Paying Attention...


...AND What This Means For Corporate Reputation

By Graeme Trayner

Every day, we each encounter 3,000 messages from brands, businesses and organizations. In this environment, it is hard to fathom how any one perspective sticks with us or how an individual or institution can get its case across. But, the area of “low-involvement thinking" sheds light on how we form attitudes about topics and issues even if we are not fully engaged, and how brands and reputations evolve and change.

This area of thinking is explored by academics working across disciplines, from behavioral economics, to advertising and political science. Most famously, Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s work has shown how our minds use either “fast” or “slow” thinking. Slow thinking is deliberative, logical, and deploys when we are fully engaged on a topic or very focused on a task. However, fast thinking is in charge most of the time, and is based on how intuitive and fleeting impressions inform our thoughts, choices, and behaviors.

In the world of advertising, Robert Heath is a pioneer in exploring the role of implicit learning. In his recent book, Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising, Heath shows that even if we are not fully focused on watching a television commercial, we still make associations with images and themes. As a result, our attitudes toward brands and products are often built without overt acknowledgement.

From a political science perspective, Samuel Popkin’s research demonstrates that voters who may not be focused on the minutiae of a policy platform still make smart judgments by picking up cues from how a political candidate acts and communicates. Similarly, we may not read lots of dense reports about macroeconomic conditions, but we make assertions about the economy by looking at the price of gas or our grocery bills.

Jonathan Powell, writing from his vantage point as Tony Blair’s chief of staff, has noted that the public may pay very little attention to politics, but that some marque moments still cut through and become embedded in the collective consciousness. In Powell’s words, these provide a “sudden window” through which the public evaluates a politician and forms an opinion. 

It is crucial that companies understand low-involvement thinking when considering reputation building. Confronted by information overload, opinion formers and consumers cannot focus on all issues or continually process everything they see and hear about a company. However, they still absorb information on a low-level basis from a company’s cues and signals. People rely on shortcuts – heuristics – to make decisions or judgments. 

The role of heuristics underlines the need for companies to refresh the focus of their communications efforts. In part due to information overload, much communication is lost in the ether and has little impact on perceptions. Politicians have grappled with this for longer than companies, and the most successful ones realize that connecting with their constituencies requires promoting signature initiatives that illustrate their vision and values. These policies are tangible in scope, yet imaginative and emotive. Importantly, they are easy to grasp and understand, but cast a wider light on the principles and philosophy behind what a politician is aiming to bring about in society. 

The approaches of smart politicians are confirmed by the knowledge of social psychologists – Harvard professor Howard Gardner sees the need for leaders and companies who are intent on changing to show “representational redescriptions,” in effect, tangible examples of bigger visions. They provide a hook and a means of understanding. In order to allow perceptions to evolve, companies need to develop and promote signature initiatives, which give context, detail, and meaning to their corporate mission. 

Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair – an annual global science competition involving seven million high school students – powerfully speaks to the company’s focus on innovation, talent and technology. GSK’s recent decision to curb payments to physicians signaled a commitment to re-shape the conversation around the role of the pharmaceutical sector, and a new approach to business. At its most successful, a company’s signature policy should then become part of the shorthand people drawn upon as it cuts through the clutter of information overload. However, it requires commitment and investment, and sticking to a set of core programs, policies and pledges for the long-term.

As companies look at breaking through the media noise and gaining credit for initiatives, political leadership also gives wider clues. On both the left and the right, counter-intuitive policies can challenge existing assumptions and stereotypes while giving voters the permission structure to shift their views. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s staking out of a set of “New Democrat” positions on social and economic policy, or Tony Blair’s approach to law and order and defense, disrupted perceptions of what a left wing party typically talked about. Mirroring this approach, conservative modernizers in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic have aimed to convey more centrist positions on health and education, and at times social issues such as gay marriage. In the business world, and particularly for companies in sectors with reputation challenges, the power of counter-intuitive policies cannot be overlooked – witness Microsoft’s shift toward supporting open source technologies in notable ways, as a sign of its commitment to openness.

The challenge then for corporate communicators is to focus on less, rather than more. Multiple initiatives and programs, or a complex communications program, can provide a sense of comfort and security, but in reality, a few distinctive and potentially brave actions can start to re-frame attitudes and narratives.


Graeme Trayner is a Vice President at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and leads our global corporate practice.  He has advised companies around the world on how to build and manage reputation. His recent session on activism and the corporate response has been shortlisted for two Market Research Society conference awards.

GQR Corporate Perspective is a series providing insights on the application of campaign thinking to commercial challenges, and views on the convergence of politics and business.

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