It’s time for context

As the old accountancy saying goes ‘turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, cash is king’.  It’s a brilliant reminder to any business owner of the dangers of ignoring the lifeblood of what keeps them trading day to day. 

However, for marketeers, policymakers, researchers and indeed anyone working in the field of either studying or influencing people’s behaviour, a different ‘C’ is king. And no digital marketeers, I’m not talking about ‘content’.  The ‘c’ I’m referring to is ‘context’, and it’s incredibly important. 

The central premise for this argument is that context fundamentally changes meaning.  In other words, how something is presented to us alters how we perceive it – whatever that ‘it’ may be. In turn, perception affects our emotional response, which then fundamentally impacts our reaction, and in turn, behaviour. The ‘it’ could be a product, an in-store promotion, a brand or even a service interaction. This was a point that Rory Sutherland, a behavioural economics guru, hammered home during a recent conference I attended. 

To give a crude example of context in play, consider this: you’re drinking an average quality wine, lounging on a chic chaise longue and overlooking the turquoise coast of the French Riviera. Hang on! I’m there… Now imagine drinking the same wine at a greasy spoon café somewhere off the M4 corridor. No? Not feeling it as much?

The bottom line is, the wine is the same – same taste, same smell, same colour, same grape variety… nothing about the product is intrinsically different. What’s changed is the way the wine has been presented, and in turn, changed my perception of it. I would probably think nothing of paying more for the wine in the first scenario. In fact, I could even say I’d perceive it as being of superior quality. What is certain though, is that I wouldn’t pay more than a few quid for the one being served in the greasy café, assuming it was a cheap plonk.

Several fine dining restaurants have borrowed from this ‘context is king’ concept by creating immersive sensory food experiences, charging a hefty price tag for them and getting away with it. Famously, at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray, there is a dish called ‘Sounds of the Sea’, where guests tuck into sashimi and edible tapioca sand whilst listening to seaside sounds via headphones connected to an iPod hidden inside a conch shell. It claims to ‘evoke sensorial memories of the seaside, which cross the threshold of consciousness and combine to strengthen the experience and heighten perception’. Guests have raved about the dish and even report the fish tasting ‘fishier’. 

During a recent commute home to Leeds from London after 3 days of heavy-duty business – (back to back meetings, workshops and seriously brain aching thinking) – I found myself reflecting on the importance of context. I’m an absolute magpie when it comes to colourful jewellery and accessories, so the retailer Oliver Bonas at King’s Cross station is always a key calling point before my journey back home. Yes, the necklaces are gorgeous, funky and on-trend, but there has to be a reason beyond those attributes as to why I think nothing of paying £30 for a single piece of delicate chain? (my price sensitivity curve is so shallow!). And the explanation to my thought process, naturally, once again comes down to the ‘c’ word. 

Oliver Bonas is not in the “funky clothing and necklace business”, that’s just what it sells. No, Oliver Bonas is in the business of “providing cheerful, much needed, calorie-free pick me ups for knackered, on the go female commuters”. Its stores invite you in with the promise of an immediate purchase high, making your stroll around it lightly and effortlessly. This is the real context in which Oliver Bonas works and I’m addicted! Interestingly, given his passion for ‘context’, Rory Sutherland says he doesn’t ‘get’ Oliver Bonas. 

As researchers, the notion that ‘context is king’ should pervade everything we do.  Want to know how your brand is perceived in a competitive context? Then be clear about what that competitive context is. For instance, if you’re a train operator, are you benchmarking yourself against other train companies or other modes of transport (bus, ferry, walking, driving etc.)? The context you choose will fundamentally change your scores. 

And whether it’s brand tracking or shopper research, understanding customer journeys or creative pre-testing, context should never be ignored or underestimated.  It’s what fundamentally changes consumer perception and therefore behaviour and, as Rory puts it ‘where the magic happens’. 

So next time your FD tells you ‘cash is king’, maybe just maybe you’ll fire back with, ‘no, actually context is’.