When it comes to marketing and branding, most businesses tend to focus on the message – ‘What are we going to say?’ or ‘What are our key points?’ – rather than on picking the right person or group to deliver the message.

As a result, organisations in general, and the oils and fats business in particular, encounter a frequent problem with the response: ‘They would say that, wouldn’t they’ – abbreviated as ‘TWSTWT’. What is the point of spending a ton of time, energy and cash on a message, if all it’s going to get you is a shrug of the shoulders and ‘Ah well … TWSTWT’?

I first came across TWSTWT at a sustainability seminar in Kuala Lumpur about 10 years ago. A big oil palm plantation company announced a new initiative on biodiversity and the preservation of endangered species, having spent money on a plot of land to be used as a nature reserve.

During the question-and-answer session, the speaker was asked if this was “simply an example of green-washing”. It was almost as if the questioner saw the company executives as spending money because they felt guilty and wanted to buy goodwill. Now, if somebody else had announced exactly the same details, the chances are the reaction would have been totally different. Had the message come from a wealthy philanthropist or a credible NGO, for example, it could have thrilled the questioner.

The phenomenon is not a new one, as an example from history shows. Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point tells the story of the early days of the formation of the United States of America.

On April 18, 1775, the British armed forces were on their way to suppress a civil disturbance in the Boston area. However, the colonial folks were prepared, having set up a system for delivering messages via riders on horseback. The most famous of this chain of messengers was Paul Revere, who rode off into the night to warn everyone that “the British are coming”. His colleague William Dawes did the same, only riding in a different direction.

While Revere was effective in getting his message across, Dawes was not. One reason for this was that the two men were very different in their networking skills. Revere was very active in the area and was a member of many social community groups. He was well-known and respected and, consequently, believed by a majority. Dawes was by no means so well connected. His message was for the most part ignored. He simply lacked the credibility.


The lesson for the edible oils and fats industry is plain: think about your credibility as a messenger before you start thinking about what message you would like to send. All this sounds rather straightforward, if not obvious. Yet time and again, I come across organisations that do the opposite, and then they go on to wonder why they are struggling.
The Dawes story becomes an even better illustration of ‘the power of the messenger’ when you dig a little deeper. We’re going to move on from ‘how the message is spread by the messenger’ to ‘how the message about the story of the messenger is spread’.

In 1861, the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a poem on Revere’s horseback ride, thus giving the story quite a bit of both fame and glamour. Historians agree that the poem was far from factually accurate, but it was popular and caught the public’s imagination. Consequently it did get digested and many came to think it was real. To be fair to Longfellow, he never claimed to be a scholarly historian or that the poem was anything other than just a poem.

Sadly for Dawes, no poem was written about him. By simple contrast to Revere’s ‘heroism’, Dawes’ efforts appear unimpressive, when in reality they may well have been nothing of the sort.

In this area too, the lessons for branding and marketing are clear:

– A good invented story which gets an emotional reaction will generally get more buy-in than the truth.

– Fiction which is interesting will often beat facts.

– People rarely bother to check!

That last point never ceases to amaze, given that we live in the information age and have search-engines at our fingertips. Yet, most people manage to stay strangely ill-informed. The vast majority do not use the Internet for fact-finding and research. Instead they use it to watch funny clips on YouTube or missed episodes of their favourite game-shows.

It’s not just that people lack information. They often lack the intellectual tools for analysis too. Add to that the issue of motivation: most people simply don’t feel much of an inclination to dig deep – with rigorous questioning being a skill that they left behind with their days at school or university for onerous projects or essays. So, if your message requires an open-minded and intellectually fair audience, you would have something of a problem.

This is sometimes compounded by the role that movies play. The assassination of President John F Kennedy on Friday, Nov 22, 1963, is one of the most significant moments in the history of the US. All these years later, I still hear people asking: ‘Where were you when JFK was shot?’

In 1991, when the Oliver Stone movie JFK was released, public perception changed in a big way. A large number of the people who watched it accepted it as factually accurate. Yet it has been criticised for its inaccuracies, to a massive degree.

I remember one TV programme about the assassination, which included many references to the movie. A CIA public relations officer explained how he had to take on extra staff to deal with the tidal wave of enquiries that the office got after the movie was released. The programme also had interviews with Stone. He was remarkably frank. His morally easy-to-defend argument was along the lines of: ‘It was just a movie; it was a bit of Hollywood. And I never claimed it was anything other than that.’

Whether or not Stone feels any responsibility for people’s reactions, the fact remains that most people get a large chunk of their ‘knowledge’ about history from watching movies. I’m not going to say that everyone is lazy, but let’s face it: watching a movie takes much less effort than reading history books!

Making sense of all this
From the world of neuro linguistic programming (NLP), there is a wide variety of concepts which help make sense of how our brains process information and how we come to conclusions. Logic has a relatively small role in how your audience chooses (mostly unconsciously) what to believe and what not to believe. Two ideas that are relevant here are anchoring and the NLP Communication Model.

This is the process of human beings taking sensory information (such as hearing sounds or seeing images) and then linking it to an internal state (a combination of a thought and a feeling). A TV documentary is a powerful anchor for most people, as it links the sights and sounds coming from the TV with the watcher’s internal state of learning. Very few people tend to challenge what gets on to the TV, unless of course it is an advertisement.

Anchoring explains why most individuals and organisations will always choose body copy rather than an advert, when it comes to TV time or space in a newspaper. Body copy has the anchoring of authority, while adverts do not. Movies lie somewhere in between. And unless it’s an obvious fantasy movie, such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, a movie can have quite a bit of credibility.

Had Nobel Laureate Al Gore published his ideas for An Inconvenient Truth solely as text in a newspaper advert, the chances are he’d have been ignored. The same would have happened had he stood on a street corner, shouting his warnings about global warming. But by using the format of a documentary he was utilising the anchoring effects which are summed up as: documentary = truth.

On top of the anchoring phenomena is the ‘messenger effect’. An Inconvenient Truth, like most documentaries, has multiple credible messengers in it, such as scientists and technical experts. Had it just been Gore doing all the voice-over parts and the face-to-camera shots, then it would have been ‘just another politician’ expressing his opinions.



NLP model of communication
This focuses on how the human brain filters the information it receives via its five senses. The main point here is that the brain filters most of the information. In NLP these are regarded as three processes:

  • Deletion: information simply gets ignored
  • Distortion: information changes its meaning
  • Generalisation: information is treated as being the same as some other pre-existing information

So, what’s left after these three filtering processes is the tiny bit of information that is not distorted, deleted or generalised, and that is what our brains get to think about.

The first item, deletion, is absolutely massive. The sad fact that most marketers don’t like is that most messages (whoever the messenger might be) get deleted or completely ignored. Equally, most messages get distorted or generalised.

But get the right messenger, and your message has impact. The funny thing is that the messenger doesn’t need to make sense. If you want proof of this, just look at the world of celebrity endorsements. If Brad Pitt is wearing a certain brand of watch, does that mean it’s a better watch? Probably not. But if somebody we like says a thing is good, as human beings we feel an inclination to think it is good also.

Putting it all together
So, how does the edible oils business use these phenomena?

Branding - Words have power

1. Do you need to be the messenger?
Many people think they need to be their own spokesperson, but this is not the case at all. Frequently your message will have more impact if you pick someone else to deliver your message for you.

2. How do you pick a messenger?
Maybe you have been doing the same thing for too long. Just like products in a supermarket, messengers have a shelf-life too. Mind you, some have a very long shelf-life – chat-show host Opra Winfrey has been going for decades and shows no sign of flagging; so if you can get her to deliver your message, you are almost certainly onto a winner.

3. Is it time to try a different type of messenger?
If you have been using university lecturers for a long time, is it time to switch to a celebrity?

With all of the above, remember that human beings are not that logical. More to the point, they are nowhere near as logical as they think they are. Your target audience will have lots of emotional stuff and sometimes weird quirks. But the good news is that you only need to figure out one or two of them in order to have an enormous impact on your audience.


Dr Ian Halsall
Author & Researcher


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