Branding: Avoiding Bad Neighborhoods


brands & bad neighborhoods
Should your brand be in a bad neighborhood?

Are you placing your brand in a “bad neighborhood?” The other day, I was contacted by a BBC reporter, Daniel Nasaw, working on a story about highway naming. At first I thought he had contacted the wrong person, but it turned out there was logic behind his query. The core question, sparked by a move by Virginia to allow corporate sponsorship of highways and bridges, was whether a brand should associate itself with a potentially unpleasant experience. Do motorists, frustrated and angry as the creep along in a traffic jam, think positively of the brand that sponsored that stretch of road? Or does the brand become associated with anger and frustration?

The article quotes branding expert (and occasional Neuromarketing guest author) Denise Lee Yohn:

“You’re stuck on a highway, you’re sitting, and all you can do is look at the sign that says ‘Tostitos Bridge’ or ‘The Coca-Cola overpass’… I see this as a move that companies would consider just as something different – a new touch point, a new vehicle from which to broadcast their name. Repeated exposure is so important for brands these days because there is so much clutter.”

There’s little doubt that repetition and familiarity are critical for brands. It has been demonstrated that ease of recall is often a proxy for liking, and (as shown by brain scans) we prefer familiar brands to unfamiliar ones (even when both are invented and we have no personal experience with them). So, repeated (and sometimes lengthy) exposures to hordes of motorists during a daily commute could be a huge branding tool.

Conditioning and Association

Persuasion expert Robert Cialdini discusses the term “association” in the related context of conditioning. Cialdini cites both academic research and real-world practice to show that people are influenced by extraneous factors when they form impressions of brands and people. People dislike the weatherman when their party is rained out, even though reporting the weather doesn’t cause rain to fall. Ideas expressed over lunch are viewed more positively than those unaccompanied by food. Brands use celebrities and attractive models, knowing that some of that luster will transfer to their products.

traffic jam
Would lengthy exposure make up for bad association?

The potential branding risk I see is that the wrong kind of association could be formed. If a commuter is late for dinner because he’s stuck in a traffic jam on the Pepsi freeway, might not some of that negative emotion attach itself to the Pepsi logo he’s staring at while inching forward?

Bad Neighborhoods

For years, in the arcane world of search engine optimization, the term “bad neighborhoods” has been used to refer to groups of dodgy interlinked sites that use optimization techniques frowned upon by Google and other search engines. Legitimate sites have always been told to “avoid bad neighborhoods,” i.e., to not associate with these questionable sites by linking to them, lest they be viewed as part of the sketchy network themselves.

Bad neighborhoods can apply to branding, too. Brands should seek to associate themselves with the positive and pleasant, and avoid situations where their potential customers will be experiencing a negative emotion. The association principle dictates that even if the negative emotion is unrelated to the brand, it can still transfer. Nobody would rationally blame Pepsi if some moron crashed his SUV during rush hour, blocking two lanes and causing a massive backup. At the emotional level, though, creeping past Pepsi signage with growing frustration could be a brand negative.

What do you think? Do the rewards from branded bridges and highways outweigh the risks? And, at a more fundamental level, does this kind of commercialization trivialize public projects. Should “Kennedy” and “MacArthur” be replaced by “Starbucks” and “Samsung?” Share your thoughts as a comment!

  1. Saleem Shafi says

    The $64m question. Perhaps the brands should link to traffic updates, measure traffic flow, and schedule their brand to show up when the weather is good and the traffic is flowing at a good pace.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    That’s a good idea, Saleem, if the technology could be implemented. Considering the cost of a major sponsorship, using electronic signage instead of fixed would likely be practical.


  3. Charles Fyler says

    Although the term, “Bad Neighborhoods” entices blog readership, I don’t think the title is dead on because it gives the impression that there are places where no one should advertise. “Wrong Neighborhoods” makes more sense. Every product has it’s market and every market has it’s products. You just want to be sure to associate your products with others who have made positive impressions in your target market.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Well, Charles, there probably ARE places where nobody should advertise. For example, I wouldn’t want to sponsor a hospital emergency room, since most of the emotions will be negative due to injury, illness, pain, etc. I agree that there are also “wrong” places that may work for some brands but not others.


  4. MilliCorp Ryan says

    I agree with the negative association, but what about effect over clutter. I mean, advertising highway signs and names, where does it stop? We already huge billboard lining the interstates, I know….let’s ad more advertising to the streets! I know advertisers are constantly trying to find new touch points, but at some point we have to say enough is enough. One day every square inch of this world will be covered in ads. Is that really what we want? We need to think differently.

  5. denise lee yohn says

    Hey Roger — great post and great questions — thanks for the shout-out.

    I talked with Daniel the BBC reporter about the negative associations quite a bit — and that’s why I brought up the Zappos/TSA bin point which he also references in his piece: I cannot think of a more hellish place than an airport screening check point, and yet Zappos advertises at the bottom of the TSA trays and doesn’t seem to suffer from the association. It seems if your brand is strong enough, additional exposure –regardless of where it is (within reason) — is a good thing.

    I do believe, though, there are ways to make that exposure more positive and productive, e.g., using correct messaging or sponsoring express lanes (per your comments in the piece), or linking to traffic updates (per Saleem’s suggestion above).

    — denise lee yohn

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’m sure you are right about strong brands being minimally affected, Denise. And there’s no way to know how one type of exposure affects a brand we see in many places. For airport branding, I love Samsung’s charging stations – when you phone is letting you know it’s about to die, there’s bound to be a burst of positive emotion when you realize you’ve got an easy place to power up.


  6. Keith Streckenbach says

    Building off of Saleem’s commentary on sunny days; perhaps sponsoring just the HOV, carpool lane; or sponsoring toll-free days for an hour or so…in other words, magnify the opportunity making it a + brainfluence.


    1. Roger Dooley says

      Love those ideas – I don’t know if they are practical, but the psychology is right. Imagine seeing a sign flash, “You drive for free today – toll paid by Pepsi!”

      Glad you like the book, Keith!


  7. Keith Streckenbach says

    COunterpoint on Zappos and TSA bins. I’ve found that I associate getting a bin as a major milestone/turning point of the long line…it signals I’m almost through with this painful experience…so I associate positive attribute to the bin and Zappos. Thoughts?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting, Keith. When you put it that way, it makes sense. I still find that moment a bit stressful – juggling a carryon, a laptop, a laptop case, and a couple of bins, not to mention removing clothing and accessories, but you are right. At that point, the frustration of the long line has abated, and the Starbucks on the other side of security beckons.


  8. ChineseFood says

    Well, I think that the negative experience of driving in traffic would negatively reinforce the brand in my mind, but, like mentioned above, if Pepsi was paying my toll for the day or something, I would have a completely different viewpoint. That being said, the expressways around me (Chicago area) are littered with billboards and ads on the sides of buildings, so I might not even notice if another one popped up. I also don’t find myself hating the brands on the billboards, so maybe there is no lasting negative effect at all.

  9. Sara says

    I love the term “bad neighborhood” for advertising on the internet; it gives you such a tangible example to base your opinion on. I know if i saw ‘Pepsi’ scrawled in graffiti on my way to work I would subconsciously avoid that brand. This is a very thought provoking piece of advice.

  10. Gridlock says

    There are no “bad neighborhoods” unless you are talking about houses that burst into flames spontaneously or are in a toxic waste dump or a regular earthquake/flood/volcano/meteor zone. There’s just the negative expression of anti-human behavior in regards of the actions of very specific genelines.

    Poverty does not last long around the genelines of productive, intelligent, clever, and kind peoples.
    A wealthy neighborhood does not last long around the intrusive genelines of destructive, moronic, lazy, and violent people.

    Swap the populations of a major city in with a genetic all-Caucasian France populace and the populations of a major city in a genetic all-black African city in Liberia and in 10 years the city in Liberia will be wealthy & safe & productive & clean. Meanwhile, 10 years later the France city plagued by 100% black Africans will be a destroyed, on-fire, polluted, violent, moronic, drug-addicted, Hellhole of ruin.

    Coca-Cola has no problems “cleaning up” (with guns & shallow graves) the Union-desiring populaces of South America and if they were smart, they’d be “cleaning up” major cities in the USA & Europe too as to ensure the survival of their profit margins. At one point 60 years ago, Detroit was the “Paris of the West”, populated by 80% Caucasians, now it is much like any other black African city in decay, ruin, violent, dishonest, low-IQ, and having a high mass-murder rate. Gang warfare is only a tiny expression of the unprofitable unproductive genelines of the people that blight that city.

    See past the “wishy washy Multideathcultral” lies because your profit margin is on the line if you don’t. It is long overdue time to start looking at & acting in the world like Coca-Cola does and not at the world that the scammers declare “just throw more money at the problem” (despite their continual failure of over 100 years to make dysgenic genelines behave like humans at a cost of over 8 trillion dollars at this point to the populace of the USA).

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