Marketing out of context – literally

What a violin maestro playing at a subway station teaches us about marketing and advertising

I recently attended a LinkedIn conference in Munich and read the below in The Sophisticated Marketer magazine. One article really stuck with me: Content vs. Context – which matters more?

Imagine a man in worn out clothes standing next to a garbage bin at a Washington metro station on an early weekday morning, his violin case ready to take donations. He plays for 43 minutes. More than 1,000 commuters pass by. Seven stop to listen, twenty more drop money into his case. He makes USD 32 in total.

Two weeks earlier, the exact same man stood on stage at a symphony hall in Boston – no shabby clothes, no garbage bin next to him. Instead, he was surrounded by a crowd decked in their finest garments, excited to hear every sound he’d produce. After all, they had all paid a minimum of USD 100 each to hear and see him live .

In both locations, he played the same beautiful music on the same incredibly expensive violin. Yet the response and attention from his audience could not have been more different.

Content vs. Context – a hard reality to come to terms with

Both two performances had been arranged by the Washington Post as an experiment into the influence of context on human perceptions. In marketing and advertising, likewise, context influences our attention in powerful ways. We make extremely quick decisions about the credibility and value of what’s presented to us. In other words: it’s impossible to consider an ad objectively, without being influenced by where we’re seeing it.

On that morning at the Washington subway station the commuters were adhering to a rule of thumb that reliably told them the violinist wasn’t worth listening to. It’s this same rule of thumb that marketing audiences have often relied on to determine what a brand’s advertising really says about that brand.

So, would it be fair to conclude that the place of your message or ad contributes far more to the value of your brand than the content of the ad itself? Think about the famous Super Bowl commercials . Don’t we automatically use context to decide which brands to trust with our time, interest and money? Audiences know that such ad slots cost a fortune and a brand that is willing to pay for it is likely to continue to be around for a while. This delivers credibility and trustworthiness; maybe even far more than the message of the ad itself. It’s an interesting thought, in my opinion, to compare this with the supposed goal of a programmatic ad following you around the internet trying to make you click as cheaply as possible from an advertisers point of view (admittedly, in the right place, at the right time and on your preferred topic).

Context and Relevance

Context also signals whether a brand is relevant. There actually might have been some classical music fans in the metro station during that particular morning, however they were probably focused on getting to work or making phone calls and thus couldn’t give the violinist the attention he deserved. The relevant context wasn’t given to engage with the content that was produced. Placement plays a vital role for how people interpret what they engage with online. Marketeers, communication professionals and advertisers will face poor campaign results if they ignore this.

Take Statista’s Infographic newsletters as an example: a sponsored infographic post for a client – e.g. The Financial Times – will look more relevant and valuable if posted in the global Statista Infographic newsletter than on The Sun website. “We often focus on the piece of art, but that piece of art and how we interpret that of art will be influenced greatly by how it is framed”, says Michigan Ross Professor John Branch. Yep. Just read the Van Damme Epic Split manuscript out loud without hearing the music or seeing the video. Quite a different thing.

P.S. The real question is: who makes those pants? I’d buy a pair or two…