Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation with Dr. Emmanuel Probst

Dr. Emmanuel Probst, Global Lead, Brand Thought-Leadership at Ipsos, discusses his book, Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation. Emmanuel explains why, to be successful, brands need to focus on three dimensions: shaping expectations, harnessing context, and demonstrating empathy. We also discuss contextual brand tracking and how understanding the occasions that drive the choice of one brand over another can be more beneficial than analyzing the competitive set.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: We understand that brands are no longer static, The meaning of a brand, the territory of a brand, evolves over time and, as brand strategists, we want to anticipate and we want to have a vision for how the brand is going to evolve in the long run.

Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising. Produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Over the past few weeks, we’ve focused on some of the ways in which marketers can better understand category buyers and quantify their brands’ mental availability. We discussed testing distinctive brand assets and approaches to brand health tracking. Earlier this year, the global market research firm Ipsos published a study showing that consumers increasingly believe that, in addition to selling products, brands have a responsibility to bring about positive change in society and the environment. The study findings suggest that brands can grow by shaping consumer expectations, integrating context, and showing empathy. That study was led by our guest today. Dr. Emmanuel Probst is the Global Lead of Brand Thought-Leadership at Ipsos, where he works with Fortune 100 companies across a wide range of industries, including consumer packaged goods, retail, and financial services. With approaching two decades of commercial research and marketing experience, Emmanuel also teaches market research at UCLA and writes about consumer psychology for numerous publications. Emmanuel is also a Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling author. His first book, Brand Hacks: How To Build Brands By Fulfilling The Human Quest For Meaning was published in 2019. His second book, published earlier this year, is Assemblage: The Art And Science Of Brand Transformation. To discuss some of his ideas in Assemblage, and ways to predict, measure, and optimize the success of brands through research, I’m delighted that Emmanuel is joining us today from his office in Los Angeles, California. Emmanuel, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS! 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Adrian, thank you so much for having me on the show.

Adrian Tennant: Well, I mentioned in the intro that you are the Global Lead of Brand Thought-Leadership at Ipsos. Could you tell us a bit about your career journey?

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: I sure can. I started in market research about 17 years ago. I think what’s important is I started in market research and I’m staying in market research because I’m curious about why do people do what they do. And I feel what’s valuable to our listeners here is to say this industry is really all about curiosity. It’s about discovering new ideas. It’s about sharing knowledge. It’s about acquiring new knowledge. It’s about meeting new people, and granted, my role has evolved. Obviously, I’m in a more senior position now than I was when I started. What hasn’t changed is this enthusiasm for understanding people and the world around me, and this enthusiasm for meeting new people and learning from everyone. 

Adrian Tennant: What does your role at Ipsos entail? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: At Ipsos, I counsel brands on their brand strategy. We are here to measure and optimize brand performance, equity, and optimize activations as well. So at Ipsos, I work with our brand clients on what to do next and how to best measure what matters to them. And I also work on disseminating thought leadership about specific verticals. So it might be technology, it might be DTC, it might be CPG, you name it. And about specific methodologies and methods. For example, I’m very focused on our brand success framework. That is, at Ipsos, we conducted extensive research on research that shows that successful brands succeed through three avenues that are: shaping expectations, harnessing context, and acting with empathy. And so I disseminate this thinking. I evangelize if you will – I’m not a big fan of the term – through conferences and publications, and of course, podcasts. And, of our client-related or industry-related activities.

Adrian Tennant: Well, I mentioned in the introduction that you’ve written two books, your latest book is entitled Assemblage. Emmanuel, what prompted you to write it? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: What prompted me to write it is to take a step back, look at the world around me and think we don’t need any more brands and we don’t need any more products. What I mean by this is most people don’t care about most brands. The opportunity is to create a better connection between the brand, the products, and the audience. And the opportunity for brands is to make a greater impact than just selling products. Yeah, as marketers, we’re here to make a profit. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not a charity. Yet, we have the opportunity to make a positive impact on people and the world around them. That’s what prompted me to write Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation. It is to say brands can no longer just sell products. Brands must also transform us, people, and the world we live in.

Adrian Tennant: Could you define what an assemblage is?

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Yeah, absolutely. Assemblage is a term that is inspired by the wine-making industry. So when one makes a wine or champagne or cognac or whiskey or bourbon, you do so by assembling. That is, the winemaker picks and chooses from a wide range of samples. Think of different aging methods, different barrels, different grapes, different processes, and the winemaker assembles from dozens, possibly hundreds of samples, so that she or he creates a product that is unique and distinctive and on-brand. And the second thing that’s very important here is the real talent of the winemaker is not just to assemble it, it’s to have a vision for how the product is going to evolve, how the product is going to age. And in my view, we can do the exact same thing in branding. That is, we must assemble different attributes from the personal, social, and cultural attributes to create brands that will be successful in the long run. That is, we understand that brands are no longer static, just like wine – wine evolves over time. It’s the same thing with a brand. The meaning of a brand, the territory of a brand evolves over time and, as brand strategists, we want to anticipate and we want to have a vision for how the brand is going to evolve in the long run.

Adrian Tennant: Gordon Ramsey, DJ Khaled, and Picasso are all mentioned in Assemblage. Emmanuel, what’s the connection?

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: They are all assemblers. And what I mean by this – which is an important takeaway for our listeners – is the artists, the chefs, the musicians we admire the most, they are talented, of course, but not necessarily in the way we may think. What I mean by this is the real talent is to assemble. That is to deliver on the artistic vision rather than necessarily creating the art themselves. So Gordon Ramsey doesn’t cook anymore, or at least not much. Neither does Alain Ducasse. Jeff Koons was a broker on Wall Street, and he had a team working for him to create his balloon dogs and all his cultures. He doesn’t necessarily do the work himself. Pharrell Williams doesn’t know how to read music. DJ Khaled is a music producer. And the point being is the talent of those people is to pick and choose from different samples, cultures, and attributes so that they assemble a product or a song or a dish or a sculpture that is compelling for the world to see. And as such, I prompt you, our listeners, to do the same.

Adrian Tennant: In the first chapter of Assemblage, you write about antiheroes, villains, and saviors. How do these roles relate to brands? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Well, in advertising, we very often rely on the archetype of the hero, which is fine. The limitation, though, is most of us don’t have superpowers. What I mean by this is most of us cannot jump from one building to another, and as such, the archetype of the hero is not so relatable. It’s aspirational, but not so relatable. What’s interesting, what’s valuable with villains, antiheroes, and saviors is, they’re all very relatable. What I mean by this, an antihero is someone who is going to accomplish something that’s heroic, yet it’s an individual who is flawed and he’s wrestling, if you will, with various issues. And we will side with the antihero as long as the antihero strives to improve. Also, because we know that we’re not perfect ourselves. And antiheroes include the likes of James Bond and Tony Soprano, and Don Draper; all are antiheroes. Then the savior. Well, it’s because the savior might save the world. And in a way, Jeff Bezos is a savior by promising a better life on Mars. And the villains are sympathetic in their own fashion. We want to like the villain in a movie, and we like a James Bond villain in a weird sort of way. And that conveys also very well in branding in advertising. If you look at General Motors, they relied on the parody of a James Bond villain to advertise their new range of EV cars. So those three archetypes are underrated, if you will. They show great potential for advertising and branding, whereby they’re not as common as the archetype of a hero, yet they are very relatable for our audiences.

Adrian Tennant: One chapter of Assemblage is titled, Perception Is The Truth, in which you write – and I quote, “In marketing, what matters is how people perceive the brand, not what the brand and product really are,” end-quote. Emmanuel, can you unpack this for us? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Yeah. Perception is the truth. This chapter is all about how do we understand the world around us? How do we construct our own truths? There is a deep dive on why do fake news catch on, and why “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway would say, are so powerful. And, from a marketing standpoint, as you said, what matters is how people perceive the brand, not what the brand and product really are. And what we want to understand here is, as people, as consumers, as citizens, we construct our own truths based on our perception of the world, based on the information we are exposed to. And what we discover in this chapter is, in a surprising sort of way, we construct our own truths based on what we want the truth to be. And this chapter helps you understand how we construct truth and, therefore, how to create a perception for a product, for a brand in marketing. Let me take an example for our listeners, Adrian, and think of a product like vodka. Think of a product like lager. Think of a product like light beer. Think of a product like bleach. All those products, with no offense to the great manufacturers, the truth is, even the brand owners wouldn’t tell the difference between Smirnoff, Absolut, and Belvidere. In fact, I spoke to a wholesaler a few weeks ago, and they did some blind testing of vodka. And the vodka that comes out first is Smirnoff, even though it’s half the price of Belvedere and Grey Goose. That’s all to say that those products, you cannot distinguish the products based on the products themselves. Thanks to branding, you create a perception for a product whereby Belvedere and Grey Goose are luxurious, and Clorox stands for quality because your physician relies on Clorox and not so much on Target’s Up and Up. So it is the opportunity for brands to create a perception for this perception to become the truth. And perception is particularly important in branding, let alone when one couldn’t differentiate the product otherwise than with recognizing the brand.

Adrian Tennant: Throughout Assemblage, you reference concepts from consumer psychology as well as interviews with industry leading marketers and include case studies of transformative brands. One of your observations, supported by research data, is that consumers report feeling increasingly isolated. What are some of the reasons behind this trend, and how do you think brands can address it?

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: The more connected we are, the lonelier we feel, and here’s what I mean. Almost all of us have access to smartphones and social media and extensive messaging apps and wifi, and all those technologies to theoretically connect easily with people around us. Yet we find that sadly, younger generations, for example, that spend so much more time on social media online than anyone else, they have very few friends in their real life. In fact, most of them don’t have even one close friend that they could call at 3:00 AM, if you will. Sadly, in this generation that’s obsessed with how many likes and how many friends you’ll have on Instagram or on TikTok or what have you, the people having mental health issues the rates are higher than ever. Prescriptions for antidepressants are higher than ever, and frankly, very sadly, for people intending to terminate their lives, that rate is also extremely high. So that’s all to say, the more connected we are, the lonelier we feel. The opportunity for consumer psychologists, and I should say, more specifically brand strategists, is to create brands that will help people connect with the world around them. So keep this in mind: The brand and the product, that’s not the hero. Nobody cares. What’s important, and that’s what I mean by creating transformative brands, the brand needs to take the individual from who he is, to who he wants to become, that’s the opportunity for the brand to make a positive impact on my personal identity project: “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to become?” And by facilitating these connections between people, their close community, and helping people become who they want to become, that’s where marketing branding can make a positive impact on the world.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Dr. Emmanuel Probst, Global Lead, Brand Thought-Leadership at Ipsos, and the author of Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation. Earlier this year, Ipsos published a study revealing three keys to unlocking brand success, Emmanuel, can you give us an overview of some of the key findings from your report? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Yeah, based on extensive research on research at Ipsos, we took a step back and we wanted to understand what makes brands successful in the long run? Now I’m insisting on the strategic aspect of what we are looking at here because performance marketing, which is pushing traffic to your website this afternoon and sales tonight, that’s shallow, it’s not a strategy. So we looked at what makes brands successful in the long run across a wide range of verticals. At Ipsos, we work with CPGs of course, but we also work with financial services, tech brands, luxury brands, and B2B brands. So what we teased out from this research on research, that’s ongoing, by the way, is three dimensions are important for brand success. The first one is the opportunity for brands to shape expectations, not just meet expectations, not just manage expectations, but to shape expectations for the category and for the brand. And the second one is to harness the context. The context is what’s happening in people’s lives and the world around them. And the third one is to demonstrate empathy. And again, we’re going back to Adrian, what you covered earlier, that is to create this meaningful connection between the individual and the brand, one of the goals is for people to be less lonely, but that’s certainly not the only one. So, shaping expectations, harnessing context, and demonstrating empathy: these are really the three pillars of brand success that we teased out.

Adrian Tennant: Related to context, one of your findings is that consumers tend not to think of the competitive brands within a category, but rather situations or usage occasions. This reflects what we heard about category entry points from Jenny Romaniuk. What are the implications of your findings for advertisers and ad agencies? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Yeah, the work on category entry points from E-B (Ehrenberg-Bass), is really valuable. They make a great contribution to advancing knowledge in our industry. But back to what you said – in this chapter, what I cover really is people don’t think like brand strategists. Here’s the deal. Many brand strategists think in terms of their competitive set. In contrast, consumers most often think of alternatives, and also in many categories, not all of them, but in many categories, people don’t shop the category per se. People shop towards a mission they try to accomplish towards a job to be done. So let me get back to the vodka example, just because for some reason, we like to talk about alcohol today! But the point is, when one buys a bottle of vodka, he doesn’t think in terms of Grey Goose versus Absolut versus Belvedere. It’s driven by an occasion. So maybe you are going out tonight with close friends. Maybe you are going to host a backyard barbecue party on July 4th. Maybe you’re hosting an elegant dinner for your in-laws. Maybe you’re hosting a bachelor or bachelorette party. And in that context, you are going to buy, well, maybe more of a mixer type of vodka for your backyard barbecue party. And if you go out, you might not even know what vodka they mix with your orange juice at the club, and that’s completely fine. And in contrast, if you’re hosting a more special occasion, if you will, you might indulge in buying a bottle of Grey Goose or bottle of Belvedere because it’s going to look a lot more sophisticated in your bar. So that’s to say that you’re going to buy different products and different combinations of products for different occasions. As marketers and as brand strategists, the key to success is not so much to understand the competitive set as a standalone; it is to understand the occasions that drive the choice of one product or another, and that’s in chapter eight, The New Era of Brand Relevance. That means when choosing a product, we do not think of brands and categories in isolation. Really, we make our choice in light of the occasion and in light of the particular needs we associate with this occasion.

Adrian Tennant: You also identified the need for brands to act with empathy. Could you provide a couple of examples of how this might work in practice?

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Yeah, I can think of Clorox, for example. No offense, but bleach in and of itself is a product that’s not exactly exciting! Yet Clorox managed to develop several ads, and several creative executions that demonstrate how Clorox will help you take care of the elderly. Clorox will help you keep your home clean for your family and for your children. And that’s where the product is taking on a different and important meaning. Bleach is not just bleach for me to clean my kitchen, bleach from Clorox is going to help me keep my family safe, keep my children healthy, and help me take care of my grandma, my grandpa, someone older than I, if you will. Another example will be Volvo. Volvo developed a great reputation for safety. And here again, Volvo doesn’t compete with Lamborghini. The point is not to drive a fast car and to show off. The point is to drive a car that’s reliable and that is safe for me and my family. So those are two examples of two brands. I can also think of Tylenol kind of the same angle here, where Tylenol did not push so much the functional benefit of, “I’m gonna take Tylenol to cure my headache.” Well, that’s fine. Importantly, Tylenol helps me care for myself and for the people around me, for the community. And I become a caretaker when I give Tylenol to a patient or to an elderly person, or to someone who is experiencing a headache or some discomfort. Again, that’s empowering. That’s an opportunity to transform me from who I am into who I want to become. A good person who takes care of the people around me.

Adrian Tennant: Well, in this context, what are your thoughts on the idea of brand purpose?

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Yeah, look, brand purpose has been a buzzword in the industry for what, like call it, seven, nine years now. What has changed, in my experience, is a few years ago, everyone wanted to get on board with some brand purpose of some sort. What has changed is brands must now not just claim, but also demonstrate their purpose. I see in our studies at Ipsos that people, citizens, patients, and consumers are a lot more discerning than they were about brand purpose. And keep in mind that because of social media, people can react and will react straight away to your initiatives. If it doesn’t sound authentic, or intentional, they will talk back and they will cancel your brand. So in a nutshell about brand purpose, we went from claiming a purpose to demonstrating a purpose. Number two, I think brands need to adopt a purpose that aligns with their products and a purpose they can realistically deliver on. And last but not least, I feel that brands need to be intentional as opposed to just creating a bumper sticker. 

Adrian Tennant: Chapter seven of Assemblage is Citizens and Brands Are Activists in which you discuss the origins of the word, “woke,” which is, of course, very much part of current political discourse here in Florida and beyond. It’s currently Pride month and this year we’ve seen some consumers push back against Bud Light, The North Face, and Target, among others, as a result of their support for the LGBTQIA+ community. Emmanuel, how can brands act empathetically when caught in social and political cross-currents? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Yeah, and the honest answer is it’s not easy. It’s not easy because sometimes you mean well, and it does not resonate. It’s not easy because, as you said, you get caught up in some political debates. And importantly, it’s not easy because you have different regions that react differently to the same initiative. So here my advice is when you come up with an idea, again, don’t forget that as brand strategists, too often we are bubbled. What I mean by bubbled is we live in Los Angeles, in New York, in San Francisco, in Chicago, very often we live in progressive markets. Not always, but very often. And what seems like a great idea in a boardroom in Midtown Manhattan, or on Madison Avenue, to use a cliche, may not resonate in Columbus, Ohio, in Fargo, North Dakota, or in Florida. So the important step here, a crucial step, is to test the idea across different demographics and psychographics and across different test markets. And in my experience – the expression is not very elegant – but that will keep you out of trouble. That’s how I will put it. And then you have to be intentional and you have to be authentic. That is if you just decided last night that all of a sudden your brand is a perfect brand for the LGBTQIA+ community, well that’s very disingenuous. And I think people will read through this. Now, if your founder happens to be in a same-sex relationship and you’ve been supporting local LGBTQIA+ initiatives and associations for several years, and maybe you give a fraction of your profits to those causes, and so on and so forth, if you genuinely demonstrate your involvement and that you put your money where your mouth is, you have a much better chance of success.

Adrian Tennant: Could you explain the framework you’ve developed at Ipsos for contextual brand tracking, and maybe how it differs from traditional brand tracking?

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Thank you, Adrian, for bringing this up because earlier in our conversation we spoke about context and I spoke briefly about harnessing context and we spoke about people shopping based on a specific occasion. On the jobs to be done, on a mission to accomplish, more so than considering a competitive set of products. Contextual brand tracking, that’s exactly what it does, is to understand, to assess the performance of your brand and to optimize the performance of your brand in the context of consumption. So let me take a really easy example. If you are Dunkin’ and you market a combination of coffee plus donuts at 8:00 AM, you have obviously a much better shot of selling that combo at 8:00 AM than you would at 5:00 PM or you would at 9:00 PM. My point being that this exact same individual, let’s say you or me, we both like donuts and we both like coffee, we are unlikely to buy a cup of coffee and a donut at 9:00 PM no matter how attractive the offer might be, versus we will be a lot more inclined to buy that same combo on our way to work at 8:00 AM. So contextual brand tracking is to understand consumption and brand choice at the moment of truth, at the moment of need, and that’s what we call the macro of a micro context. And the macro context is the world at large. So it’s how Pride month is going to influence your buying behavior. And the micro context is what is happening around you right now. And contextual brand tracking is for you to understand those two dimensions and to fine-tune your brand activations accordingly.

Adrian Tennant: Emmanuel, what do you hope readers will take away from your book? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: This book is optimistic, and this book is to tell marketers, brand strategists, market researchers, advertisers, no matter your level of experience, you may have 20 years experience as a C-level executive, or maybe you’ve been out of school for six months. It’s a positive message. It’s a book to empower you to make a difference. It’s a book to empower you to create brands that are transformative, to provide you with plenty of ideas to impress your clients, your boss, your associates, people in the boardroom, and the conclusion is called, Now It Is Your Turn. And it is to tell you well, 99 percent of us did not go to the top one percent school. It is to remind us that 99 percent of us were not born with a trust fund. We all have an opportunity to make a great impact with our advertiser clients, and among consumers, and the communities we cater for. And this book shows you how.

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to know more about your book, what’s the best way to connect with you? 

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Thank you, Adrian. People can find the book on Amazon, of course, also in bookstores. The easiest way to get the book is of course on Amazon. Again, the book is called Assemblage: The Art and Science of Brand Transformation. And people can also connect with me on LinkedIn. So easy. My name is Emmanuel Probst with two ‘M’s, and I will gladly connect with you and address any additional questions you may have. I like connecting with readers and listeners. In fact, we’re going back to the starting point of our conversation, Adrian, whereby it’s all about curiosity, meeting new people, listening to new ideas. That means if you reach out to me on LinkedIn, I promise to return your message and engage with you in a form of interaction.

Adrian Tennant: And we’ll be sure to include links to both of your books and that report that we referenced in the transcript for this episode. Emmanuel, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Dr. Emmanuel Probst: Thank you so much, and thank you to our listeners today. It was a pleasure connecting with you.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Dr. Emmanuel Probst, Global Lead, Brand Thought-Leadership at Ipsos, and the author of Assemblage, the Art and Science of Brand Transformation. You’ll find a transcript of this episode with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at – just select ‘podcast’ from the menu. And if you enjoyed this episode, please follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for joining us for IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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