In my last post I mentioned that Behavioural Economics thinking can highlight the relative roles of content and context in decision-making.

If my emotional attachment to a brand or product is only as strong as its proximity to my immediate needs, then it becomes fairly straightforward to assume that context trumps content. To continue with the lager example, this might mean, for example, that the efficacy of a brand’s distribution strategy counts for more than the brand personality the latest advertising seeks to capture.

But there’s a cartographer’s library between the territory occupied by advertising, and the co-ordinates that represent the moment where I choose my lager at the bar. If there wasn’t, would I default to Peroni as soon as I see it on draft? I certainly don’t remember any Peroni advertising. What’s more, why would I somehow feel I’ve failed in my quest for confident connoisseurship whenever I find myself ordering a Foster’s?

So, having massively enjoyed, and been really rather impressed by, the Foster’s co-option of Alan Partridge, I wonder if I’ll be judging myself any less harshly next time.

What Fosters have done does progress the content/context debate a little. It has a new, if somewhat literal, take on what content might mean. It makes me think of the Medici model of branded content: benefactor declares his wishes, throws enough cash around to show he’s serious, and the artist does his bidding.

And, relief all round, it’s not shit.

Mainly, though, Foster’s have pretty much substitutes ‘advertising’ with ‘entertainment’. It might add utility, and it has produced something people will want to to share. Because it does Partridge so well, it might even fuel what Naked no doubt planned it would – blokey, competitive banter in the pub – and connect the brand’s content to the product’s context. However, you still get the feeling it’s started with the brand, and with what a bunch of marketers think their ‘consumers’ want.

And they might well be right.

I’d love to see more ideas, though, that had been generated from a buyer-centric, and not seller-centric, point of view. I can’t help feeling that, rather than finding new ways to make content that creates preference outside the context of decision-making, shouldn’t we getting more effective at connecting context to content? Can we identify what help people need to make decisions, then create a series of solutions from that insight.

In media planning, we often talk about context, but we’re fairly narrow in the way we apply it. That’s because we’re still bewitched by the premise of presumed receptiveness – once we acept the need to get a ‘message’ to people, we work out when and where are they most likely to want to hear it. Or rather, when are they least likely to have their defences up. This is entirely seller-centric, and so increasingly futile, I think.

Media agencies’ capitulation to this convention is understandable, I guess.  Whatever moments of optimum relevance or influence have been identified, we always need to revert instead to points when media actually allows for interventions. So, for ‘downtime’ read ‘magazine supplements’, or for ‘busy middle-class 35 yr olds’ read ‘commuter Outdoor’, for ‘family moments’ read ‘saturday night TV’.

It’s a depressingly narrow and reductive expression of what people are really like. And if ad agencies have been in charge of articulating brands, it’s unfortunate that media agencies have taken such little care of their custody of consumer insight the strategies to engage them.

Surely we’re beyond this now. Technology means that interactions with potential customers can cut across time and location with ease. Real-time data frees us from the need to second guess where people will be, and what they’ll be thinking when they’re there. And that data is getting ever richer. If search was about revealing what people were interested in, then facebook allowed us to see what people were thinking, and now foursquare/facebook places adds an extra layer of insight telling us where they are right now.

BJ Fogg defines technology’s capacity to change behaviour as the way it can restructure tasks, or make them easier. I think that’s a pretty useful, if ahead of its time, description of what apps are doing for us right now, but effectively chunking the internet down into task-specific platforms, which fulfil particular needs at any given time.

Which brings us back to the content with which we fill this contextual space. Meeting needs doesn’t preclude us from making compelling stuff fuelled by creative thinking. In fact, quite the opposite. Alongside the kind of intellectual property typified by Partridge, we can also think about other services, tools, products, events, transactional opportunities.

In short, ideas with genuine utility. If brands can harness this I think the real connection between context and content isn’t far away.