Today, on Valentine’s day, millions of people around the world will receive declarations of love. Some extravagant, some small. Many unreciprocated.
True love, they say, is doing something for someone without expecting anything in return.
That is why we love each other, in a way that we don’t love brands. We make breakfast in bed with our favourite mayonnaise, not for it.
Though just like the smitten romantic, brands are constantly trying to attract their audiences via the signals they send. In many cases, the more conspicuous the signal the better. Billboards don’t work if they are hidden. Neither do flowers.
Yet, academic research has shown that when it comes to signalling virtue, signals are more effective when ‘buried’ (i.e the billboard is discovered, not displayed).
Mathematically modelling using game-theory finds that when we ‘bury’ a signal that subsequently gets found, we receive the full reputational boost attributed to it, with none of the cost of bragging.
These models are the kind which predict when people cooperate with strangers (prisoners dilemma) or how nuclear powers act during escalation (hawk-dove game).
Whilst it’s nice the maths works, most people intuit this concept, even if unconsciously.
Who do we admire more, the donor who named the building after themselves, or the anonymous one we heard about on the grapevine? Which brand is more luxury, the one with its name plastered everywhere, or the discrete logo only those in the know will find?
Brands who want to get credit for being prosocial have a dilemma on their hands. If they don’t shout from the rooftops (e.g. at the Superbowl), their new sustainability initiatives may never be heard. But if they bury the signal that then gets discovered (e.g. by a trusted journalist or activist), they get double the reputational points.
Getting most credit requires the risk of getting no credit. Reputation truly is earned.
In this way, the best brands are the most like Banksy. They are so confident in their quality, virtue or distinctiveness, that they don’t (always) need to promote their own work. The receiver will discover the buried signal and share it themselves.
It works the same on valentines day. The people who truly love you never need to sign the card: you know their handwriting.