What is Selective Distortion?

An Overview of Selective Distortion

Selective distortion is where consumers distort (or misinterpret) the promotional message in a manner different to what was intended by the brand or the marketer.

For example, a consumer who holds negative attitudes to a particular food brand, might distort their message of “low in sugar” as “it probably tastes bad”.

In this example, the consumer has aligned a their negative opinion of the brand – and of their opinion of low-sugar food tastes – and they have reinforced both opinions through selective distortion.

This message distortion process in usually NOT intentional on behalf of the consumer. It is usually a subconscious process that helps people make sense of the world around them by reinforcing and aligning to their pre-existing views, attitudes, and opinions.

And selective distortion helps protect consumers from cognitive dissonance, which is another consumer behavior term where consumers prefer not to hold conflicting beliefs and want their “thinking” to be aligned and consistent.

What are Some Examples of Selective Distortion?

Brand Image Reinforcement

A customer might believe that their favorite luxury brand is the best quality brand in the market and superior to all its competitors.

In this case, the consumer is likely to interpret (distort) any positive customer reviews about their preferred brand as additional proof/evidence of its superior quality.

And they will disregard or modify any negative customer reviews, on the basis of

  • “that consumer does not understand quality” or
  • ” that’s just one person” or even
  • “they have got it wrong!”

This brand image reinforcement will work both ways – to reinforce either positive or negative brand perceptions. This is a key aspect of consumer attitudes is that they are often hard to modify – making repositioning efforts usually quite challenging.

Regular Discounts = Low Quality Brands

If a brand frequently uses sales promotions (especially discounts), then there is a likelihood that the consumer will NOT perceive the discount as a great deal and buy the product (which is the intended message of the promotion) – instead, they may perceive that frequent sales incentives are a sign that the brand is low-quality, not popular, or outdated.

Country of Origin Effects

Country of Origin effects is where the consumer connects the brand and its value to where the product is made.

For example, many consumers will believe that better pasta comes from Italy, or that German cars are better made and more reliable.

In some cases, this is the intended message of the country connection, especially when the product and country have a positive association. But in other situations there is a negative connection.

For example, pasta produced in non-European countries may be deemed as unsuitable or poor quality by the consumer. While there may be no logical basis for this assertion, the consumer has distorted the message (brand benefits) to fit to their preconceived ideas of which countries excel with particular product categories.

Celebrity (and Sponsorship) Endorsement

Whenever celebrity endorses a product, some consumers may distort the information provided about the product.

If the consumer likes and respects the celebrity, then they are more likely to believe the product is of high quality or represents great value – regardless of other information, such as product reviews or competing products.

Likewise, the reverse will apply. If the consumer dislikes the celebrity (or influencer) and/or believes that this person will endorse anything for money, then the consumer is more likely to form a negative view of the brand.

In both cases the consumer is distorting the intended message to fit their narrative of their view of the celebrity.

Please note that this distortion example can also be applied to sponsorships, co-branding, influencers, review sites, and so on.

For more information: Perception is Reality

How Does Selective Distortion Impact Brand Positioning?

Selective distortion can significantly impact consumer perception and, consequently, a brand’s positioning. This is because consumers don’t always perceive marketing messages as the brand intended. Instead, they reinterpret these messages in a way that conforms to their pre-existing beliefs about the brand.

For instance, if consumers have a negative perception of a brand due to a past experience or belief, they might distort positive marketing messages to align with their negative view. On the other hand, loyal consumers might overlook negative information about a brand and focus on the positive aspects that align with their positive perception.

As a result, selective distortion can cause a gap between a brand’s intended positioning and its actual positioning in the consumers’ minds. It may also lead to inconsistent brand images among different consumer segments based on their unique perceptions.

For more information: Perception is Reality

What Can Marketers Do to Overcome Selective Distortion?

Given the potential impact of selective distortion on consumer perception, here are some potential approaches for marketers to implement:

  • Ensure consistent and repetitive messaging
  • Leverage social proof
  • Use Two-way Communications/Messaging
  • Admit to and Address Prior Problems
  • Address Misconceptions About the Brand

Let’s address each point in turn…

  • Ensure consistent and repetitive messaging

In marketing, we add the word INTEGRATED to integrated marketing communications (IMC). By ensuring consistent messaging across all brand touchpoints we can work to reinforce the brand’s intended image and positioning.

  • Leverage social proof

As per some of the example above, consumers may look to others for cues on how to perceive and interpret information.

As marketers can work to leverage this by providing social proof. This would include positive reviews, testimonials, and endorsements from trusted celebrities and influencers.

This additional evidence (proof) as to the brand’s quality is likely to be more effective than traditional advertising in cutting through and resulting with the intended message being received and hopefully accepted by the consumer.

  • Use Two-way Communications/Messaging

Actively engaging with consumers is more likely to reduce the likelihood of selective distortion. This is because miscommunication issues can be address.

Some channels available to the brand for two-way communications might include: social media (posts and comments), review sites, chatbots, FAQ pages, YouTube videos, and so on.

By fostering trust and openness with consumers, consumers will be more likely to perceive the brand’s messages as intended.

  • Admit to and Address Prior Problems

If the brand have negative attitudes toward it because of historical brand damage, then it may be helpful to proactively address and acknowledge these issues and describe how the brand has learnt and improved.

Otherwise, if not corrected, the brand will tend to have this negative legacy impacting their intended messages for some time to come, as consumers align the new messaging with their old view of the brand.

  • Address Misconceptions About the Brand

Somewhat similar to the above point, if there are common misconceptions about the brand, then brand it’s also essential to address these directly.

For more information: 

How Selective Distortion Impacts Consumer Perceptions and Perceptual Maps

Selective distortion plays a significant role in influencing perceptual maps, as  consumers’ perceptions may be skewed or distorted to fit consumers’ pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.

Here’s a list of how selective distortion may affect your perceptual maps:

It Will Alter Brand Perceptions

Selective distortion can alter how consumers perceive and interpret information about different brands or products. This will lead to an inaccurate positioning of these brands or products on the perceptual map.

For example, a consumer with a strong positive attitude towards a particular brand is likely to distort any negative information, leading to an overly positive positioning of the brand on the perceptual map.

Impacts on Competing Brands

When comparing brands, consumers might distort the information to favor one brand over another, based on their existing preferences. This distortion can affect how they position these brands relative to each other on the perceptual map.

For more information: 

Quick FAQs for Selective Distortion

What is selective distortion?

Selective distortion refers to where consumers misinterpret or distort promotional messages in a way that aligns with their pre-existing views, attitudes, and opinions.

Is selective distortion intentional or subconscious?

Selective distortion is usually a subconscious process that helps individuals make sense of the world by reinforcing and aligning with their existing beliefs and opinions.

How does selective distortion protect consumers?

Selective distortion helps protect consumers from cognitive dissonance, as it allows them to maintain consistent beliefs and avoid conflicting thoughts.

Can brand image be reinforced through selective distortion?

Yes, consumers may distort information to reinforce their positive or negative brand perceptions. They may interpret positive reviews as proof of superior quality while disregarding or modifying negative reviews.

How can frequent discounts impact brand perception?

Frequent discounts can lead consumers to perceive a brand as low-quality, unpopular, or outdated, instead of perceiving the discount as a great deal as intended by the brand.

What is the role of country of origin effects in selective distortion?

Consumers may distort brand benefits based on the country of origin. They may believe that products from certain countries excel in specific categories, distorting the message to fit their preconceived ideas.

How does celebrity endorsement contribute to selective distortion?

Consumers may distort information about a product when it is endorsed by a celebrity. Their perception of the celebrity influences their judgment, leading to either positive or negative views of the brand.

What can marketers do to overcome selective distortion?

Marketers can ensure consistent and repetitive messaging, leverage social proof through positive reviews and endorsements, engage in two-way communications, address prior problems or misconceptions, and proactively acknowledge and improve.

How does selective distortion affect perceptual maps?

Selective distortion can alter how consumers perceive and interpret information about brands, leading to inaccurate positioning on perceptual maps. It can also impact the relative positioning of competing brands based on consumers’ distorted preferences.

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