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Seeing the Expected

What Your Brand May Have In Common with Samuel L. Jackson and a Duck

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”


Playing the role of Jules Winnfield in the 1994 classic film Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson delivered one of the most iconic monologues in the history of cinema. With over 120 films (and counting) to his credit, much of his success has been built on this type of character.

In fact, kicking butt is just something we’ve come to expect when we see him on the screen. Although he has tried to break out of that, he has not always been successful. Do you remember him as Romulus, the mentally ill New York City hermit in The Caveman’s Valentine? With box office receipts of just over $687K, the answer is likely not.

samuel2If you were one of Jackson’s fans that saw him in that role, you likely said something like, “Man, he’ll just always be Jules to me.”

When you said that, you were experiencing what Leon Festinger, the father of “cognitive dissonance,” meant when he observed, “people cognize and interpret information to fit what they already believe.”

Take the illustration below for example. What is the first thing you see?

If you’re like most people, you probably see a duck. Unless it’s Easter, when we’re expecting the Easter Bunny to visit, and then you’re more likely to see a rabbit.

Why? It’s the same picture. It’s because our perception of a thing, be it an actor, a picture, or yes, even a brand, is the product of both the stimulus and an individual’s mental activity.

In a world full of ambiguity, we see what we want to see.

As a brand marketer, you can probably recall times when brand extensions were unsuccessful due primarily to expectations consumers had of the brand. Remember any of these?

Colgate Meals


Frito Lay lemonade


Ben-Gay Aspirin


Probably not – After all, who wants to eat toothpaste, drink salt, or swallow a famous cream?

People tend to create their own reality based on their beliefs. They see what they believe they will see. They taste what they think they will taste. To change their behavior, we have to change what they believe.

This is the arduous, somewhat mysterious task of the brand marketer. Although we can all think of examples where things didn’t go well, there are plenty of examples where brands have experienced tremendous growth by changing expectations over time.

One brand that is currently directly addressing the need to change consumer expectations is Buick. Their recent series of 5 TV spots reintroduces us to the brand via 5 “expectation shattering models,” inviting us to “Experience the New Buick.”

As brand marketers, we must always seek to understand the complex belief systems of our consumers. Our brands must evolve over time as consumer expectations change, and we must be willing to reintroduce the brand, if necessary, a la Buick, for the benefit of the brand’s long-term equity. To do this, we need to understand the context in which consumers place the brand, and how their expectations change when the brand plays a different role.

Otherwise, we are going to market as Romulus when the whole world just wants more Jules.

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