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Attention: The Zero Sum Brand Game

Attention: The Zero Sum Brand Game

by Symonne Torpy

The French are glad to die for love, they delight in fighting duels, but I prefer a man who lives and gives… attention capital..?

The millennial identity may indeed be so interwoven with social media that a waterfall of Instagram “likes” inspires an emotional reaction equal to that of the diamond in your engagement photo.

A tad hyperbolic? Perhaps. Reductive? Sure. But it makes a point about the shift in our economy from one of “things”, to one of information, to one of attention.

The Internet has irreversibly changed the landscape of value, and with it, the way we operate. In a world of informational abundance, what we now lack is the attention required to process and synthesise it all. This makes attention, at least in the present, the zero-sum game.

The brand – from niche product propositions to meta-cultures, is a means of structuring this attention, delivering it within our current frames of reference (or disrupting them), shifting it by degrees, yet always referencing the world we understand.

Word of mouth (facilitated by highly branded social media), and a variety of other branded vanguards help us to decide where to orientate our attention. They are amongst the most powerful influencers, acting as the curators of our brands and our lives.

Attention capital is an interesting beast, because it is something very difficult to capture and store. But how are brands able to derive power from sustaining consumer attention on a variety of different levels – winning or losing at the zero sum game?

It’s constantly claimed that brand loyalty is a dinosaur; contemporary consumers move effortlessly between choice-saturated utopias, without the millstone of allegiance. But this is facile. While attention capital can be ephemeral, it may also be organised into narratives that knit themselves into our lives.  Strong brands generate high levels of attention capital but it is only the most successful that will store this over the long term, retaining or building upon their efficacy.

There are four levels of “attention storage”: short-term success, longer-term loyalty, physiological penetration, and discursive monopoly. These define the brand-attention interface – a permeable membrane of information and feedback, of brand advocacy in the physical and digital worlds.

Short-term Success

Some of the most interesting short-term attention-garnering brands enjoy “meme” status. They challenge interpretive dictionaries, and become relevant at a specific moment within the zeitgeist. Memes allow the efficient delivery of permeable messages, facilitating the global spread of the brand very quickly (through word-of-mouth/sharing), trading on exponentially self-growing attention capital. Think Damn Daniel, Nyan Cat, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. There’s a place on the ever-expanding web where our friendly viral characters all go to die, rising now and again when we feel particularly nostalgic.


What motivates us to be associated with a brand – allowing its meanings to be transferred to our very person? Loyalty is about forming relationships as a means of sustaining attention, creating engaging dialogues that influence and change the way we think – entering into our consciousnesses on a level that allows us to make branded choices.

Allegiance represents the longer-term storage of consumer attention. If the public is willing to seek out a specifically branded product, it means that the product commands some level of retention, amidst the noise of other products within the market.

In order to command loyalty, brands are often required to reinvent themselves – reproducing moments of short-term attention (although perhaps with less extreme potency), working within the parameters of established brand values and ethics. The difficulty of achieving this constant “cut through”, even for an established brand, must not be underestimated.

‘Known’ environments within which advertising operates, such as the magazine, come with specific constraints. However, creating a disruption to such models brings greater attention to the brand, and arguably greater control. Take the example of the well-known Tippex YouTube ad. It employs disruption of the medium itself to destabilise background contextual “noise” and focus attention. In this case, the brand differentiates itself, rather than allying itself with other messages floating within its ecosystem.

Physiological Penetration

The idea of a physiologically penetrative brand is interesting; it suggests attention is stored within ordered worlds that actively influence the way we move, interact with objects, generate expectations and articulate our demands.

Starbucks is a perfect example. Within its utopia, consumers have learned to queue up with a memorised order, which is articulated in a distinct way. First comes the primary title of the drink – re-appropriated from traditional coffee culture and having undergone evolution via Starbucks branding (your caramel macchiato or hazelnut frappuccino). Second, the style of milk is stated (soy, full cream, lite). Next, preferred size (tall, venti, grande) – a vernacular that reorders the way consumers must think about their demands, establishing itself as uniquely “Starbucks”. Perhaps an extra squirt of sugar-free vanilla or an extra shot will be added. Then the consumer’s first name is surrendered, with payment and a loyalty card. There is a shift towards the group of people waiting to hear their names called, receiving their heavily branded styrofoam cups, with their names happily scrawled on the side. A quick stop off at the self-serve table for a dusting of cocoa, and the Starbucks consumer heads out the door, sucking at branded coffee as they walk down the street.


Within its utopia, consumers have learned to queue up with a memorised order, which is articulated in a distinct way. | Photo Courtesy: Pixabay

The physiological rebirth of take-away coffee has been achieved, exported as a whole experience to countries where hitherto, the only physiology of coffee existed within cafés, restaurants and terraces. Likewise, for those who stay in-store, the new Starbucks utopia has become de rigeur, accompanied by wifi, comfortable seating, mid-range lighting and that oh-so recognisable playlist.

The attention economy involves a constant dialectic between comfort and disruption. Brands play along this equilibrium, with a combination of the two successfully allowing the long-term physiological permeation of brands into our modern lifestyles.

Discursive monopoly

Power theory tells us that discursive power is the strongest. When a brand becomes the baseline, it leaves its competition less room to define its value proposition in a meaningful way.

The power of a brand’s ability to exist as such a baseline is ever more apparent if a brand name is able to achieve proprietary eponym status. In the case of products such as ‘Kleenex’, ‘Hoover’ and ‘Coke’, the brand is inextricably intertwined in our vernacular, achieving a sense of timelessness, enduring across the boundaries of fleeting consumptive trends.


‘Coke’ has become synonymous with dark, carbonated beverages of a similar taste | Photo Courtesy: Passel

And what if a brand is able to flex its muscle as a verb? Authority is derived from a sense of the active – the inculcation of branding into a human process and the naturalisation of a branded activity into everyday life. Wikipediaing, Googling, Shazaming. It is indeed possible for a brand to achieve fleeting eponym status – highlighting the power of the contemporary short attention span, particularly associated with the Internet. An example of this is MySpacing – a verb that exists now as a relic, as much as the word “groovy”.

There was once a fear that your brand-name may grow so prevalent or generic that it failed to stick to your company, but defined all similar products on the market, thereby destroying its own point of differentiation (known as “genericide”).

Google still seems conflicted over whether it is happy to embrace its role as a verb, or whether it wishes to redirect its path away from genericide. Its policy page stipulates: “Use the trademark only as an adjective, never as a noun or verb, and never in the plural or possessive form. Use a generic term following the trademark, for example: Google search engine, Google search, Google Web search.”

On the flip side, brands are parasitic. A word or phrase in common parlance can take on new meaning because it becomes a brand name. The word/brand ‘Virgin’ is an example. The original connotations of youth, innocence and above all, sexual inexperience that underlay the unbranded meaning of the word ‘virgin’, have been replaced with the associations of freedom, rebelliousness and entrepreneurial spirit that define Branson’s mega company. So too, ‘apple’ now carries a loaded sense of “brandedness”. The simple exercise of searching the words ‘virgin’ or ‘apple’, will yield an overwhelming number of brand-related hits. Here, strong brand DNA has dissolved the original meaning of the original host words.

The Importance of Attention

While brands compete for our attention, we crave theirs. We feel the need to be listened to, watched and tracked at the same time that we observe, watch and track. We have also become hoarders of our own attention capital as the rise of the personal brand has matured into a millennial reality.

However, while Tiffany and its synonymous blue, and Cartier and its jewelled panther romp around my universe have achieved maximum penetration, it will always be up to me to chose a man — someone who cares not for attention capital, who has all but shunned Facebook, and whose “personal brand” is a frenetic stream of Jamaican rap, fresh croissants and panama hats. Turns out big brands don’t always win at the zero-sum attention game.

Symonne Torpy is a prolific writer and currently working as a Creative Strategist at Creative Spirit, Paris.

Featured Image Courtesy: Tookapic

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