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To Make Your Marketing Effective, Consider Where It Appears


When you look at a painting, its surroundings can affect your perception. How ornate its frame is, whether it hangs in a home or a museum, how it’s lit — these things can change how you view the painting, and therefore how you react to it.

Likewise, the setting in which a marketing message is seen or heard can impact its reception. It’s true for physical space, and according to Michigan Ross professors, it’s equally true for virtual space: Context matters.

John Branch

“We often focus on the piece of art, but that piece of art and how we interpret that piece of art will be influenced greatly by how it is framed,” says Michigan Ross Professor John Branch. “In marketing, we often focus on the message, whereas the framing, the context, can also play a huge role.”

In a way, it’s an expansion and an extension of Marshall McLuhan’s famous notion that “the medium is the message.” Although that idea is more than 50 years old, it still resonates in today’s digital-first landscape.

“Understanding the context of the environment is a massively powerful consideration when we think about how we deliver messages, products, ideas, communications, and the like,” says Ross Lecturer Marcus Collins. “Technology changes so very fast, but people change very, very, very, very, very, very slowly. We adapt to the technology, but we're still governed by the same wiring that we've always had.”

Branch and Collins examine some of these issues in a popular offering in Michigan Ross’ Executive Education program, Strategic Marketing in the Digital Age. They specifically explore the continuing importance of context in a digital environment in one chapter of a new book, Contemporary Issues in Digital Marketing: New Paradigms, Perspectives, and Practices. Branch and Collins, with Eldad Sotnick-Yogev, edited the book as the product of a symposium that brought academics and practitioners together to discuss current issues in marketing.

In the book, Branch and Collins identify four conditions that together constitute context in the digital era, although there is some overlap among them:

  • Defaults - The standard settings we experience in digital life, such as the selection of apps that are preloaded on the home screen of a new cell phone.

  • Semiotics - The signs and signals that affect behavior, such as the standardized “on/off” icon on many electronic devices.

  • Placements - Where something appears within its actual surroundings.

  • Cultural nuances - The backdrops, often hidden, that color and influence perceptions.

Collins says that a good marketer should approach these conditions with “great observation and a radical sense of empathy.”

Marcus Collins

“The best market researchers are the stand-up comedians,” he says. “They just watch people, and then they go on stage and they report what they see. And we sit there and listen, and we say, ‘Oh, you're so right!’ Those things seem obvious. But the obvious sometimes isn't obvious until someone points it out. It requires being extremely curious and empathetic.”

Branch adds: “One of the examples which I always use is when you ask for a glass of water. In America, it always comes with ice. That's the default here. When you ask for a glass of water in Europe, it never comes with ice. And the only way you would understand that is not by asking questions, because your brain is limited to asking only the questions which you can think about asking. It's putting aside your own cultural defaults and being very, very observant.”

Some companies are good at all this; Branch and Collins point to Apple and other tech companies as examples of effective marketing in a digital environment. But at the same time, nearly every week brings a new example of some company making a misstep.

“Most good marketers lean into the cultural side,” Collins says. “Understanding the cultural backdrop becomes the underlying physics to moving things forward, and then the more tactical things, like the defaults, semiotics, and placements, are things that you can use interchangeably.

But I would argue that that's what people get wrong the most, understanding the cultural backdrop. The cultural nuances are extremely subtle and if you don't have a close proximity to the culture, it's very easy to get it wrong.” Three recent examples are a commercial for Heineken Light focusing on skin tone, a racist sweatshirt ad from H&M, and an insensitive Pepsi commercial that invoked the Black Lives Matter movement.

“That's the thing that we miss, the thing that is the least tangible, both visibly and physically, the cultural backdrops. And it's manifested in our ethnicities, the religions we subscribe to, the passion points we're a part of — they all have shared beliefs, social norms, rituals, and artifacts, and language. Understanding it requires great empathy, great observation. Especially if you aren't a part of the culture.”

Branch notes that these subconscious elements of marketing can be very powerful — more than people realize. “Marketers have treated customers as if they were rational decision makers and, especially in advertising, have focused so much on the message. Messages are written to appeal to the rational brain, but if indeed the behavioral economists are right, then the context becomes so much more important than the message itself because human beings are not rationally deconstructing the advertisement. They're reacting to things beyond the rational advertising copy. They're looking at the cultural nuances, the placement, and so on. So it makes it even more compelling for marketers to study the context rather than the message.”

John Branch is a clinical assistant professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Marcus Collins is a lecturer at Michigan Ross as well as a senior vice president and executive director of social engagement at Doner Advertising.

Media contact: MichiganRossPR@umich.edu

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