The furor over whether brand attitudes predict or follow behavior made me take a step back and re-examine my own beliefs about how attitudes and behavior interact. Assuming that ‘it’s complicated’ is not helpful, I have tried to map out a framework for thinking about how the two affect each other.
In most cases people do not have strong attitudes about a brand prior to having direct experience of it. Instead, they will register an implicit impression of the brand and may consciously remember a few claims made about it, even if they discount those claims as ‘that’s what they say’. As a result, people’s willingness to endorse a brand on various attributes in a survey before trying that brand is in part dependent on how easily ‘testable’ they are. I might be more willing to believe that brand X is ‘the most popular choice in America’ but less likely to believe it is ‘the best thing you ever tasted’.
This is not to say that people reserve judgement in all cases; it is a matter of degree. There will always be brands that that people feel are so obviously meaningful that they are willing to say good things about them before trial. I have related elsewhere that when it launched the iPhone was anticipated by some to meet their needs even though they had not yet bought one. But, for most people positive attitudes remain latent until search, shopping, and subsequent usage confirm or deny them.
Even if people have strong attitudes toward a brand before checking it out, then the actual experience will trump those expectations. Of course, experience is a malleable thing, particularly when it comes to how an experience is remembered. Good advertising and positive word-of-mouth can shape how you experience a brand, highlighting positives and distracting from negatives, but they will not overcome obvious weaknesses that are readily apparent during usage.
Continued usage of a brand will consolidate early impressions, confirming attitudes, and habituating people to the brand. Even if the experience is not that great then users will tend to agree with positive statements in a survey because it is the brand they use. Most people do not care that much about the brands they use, but they do like to be able to easily justify why they use them, so you end up with a basic split where users tend to say good things about a brand and non-users say little. It will take a really bad experience to get a brand user to start saying bad things, but then they might be so upset they resort to Twitter to share their story.
Taking this back to the argument over the value of brand attitudes and whether they lead or lag behavior, it becomes obvious that behavior leads attitudes in all cases (even if experience simply confirms a positive expectation) but that in some cases attitudes can lead behavior. However, to lead behavior an attitude must be supported by evidence of relevance and advantage convincing enough that some people accept the claim at face value. However, just because advertising does not shift attitudes ahead of trial does not mean it is ineffective provided it does leave a positive impression that can be confirmed during usage. This is why we monitor advertising claims and impressions. It gives an early indication of whether advertising is likely to trigger a positive influence during search, shopping, or usage.
My experience suggests that attitudes are more likely to lead behavior in categories where people are more likely to deliberate on their purchase decisions and the decision-making window is longer. For instance, most people put a bit of thought into buying a new car and start thinking about which make to buy months ahead of making the final purchase decision, so the chances that reported attitudes will lead behavior are greater.
None of this thinking is new. Gordon Brown, co-founder of Millward Brown, long ago pointed out that people register advertising claims as just that, claims, but it seems that over the intervening years we have forgotten that people do not have to believe a claim prior to trial for it to have an effect; it is the interaction between the claim and experience that matters. But what do you think?