Les Binet and Sarah Carter get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them... like the the idea that brands are 'thought leaders'.

Often when putting together pitch submissions, we're asked which brands exemplify best practice. Which brands do we admire for their innovative marketing? Or for their social responsibility programmes?

Last week, the question was: 'Which brands are "thought leaders"?' We knew what sort of brands they were alluding to: Apple, Google or Nike. And these brands certainly have had a big influence on marketers.

But the clients asking the question weren't just thinking about the marketing community. They meant which brands were 'thought leaders' in the wider world. And that got us thinking. Our conclusion: as far as real people are concerned, brands are almost without exception not 'thought leaders' at all.

We used to run a panel at our agency called Grapevine – the idea being we would talk to people like cab drivers, hairdressers and pub owners to find out what other people were talking about in their day-today lives. We hoped to let our clients know which brands were 'hot on the street' – being discussed and debated, or looked up to or down on. Which were 'thought leaders', even.

After a number of these panel sessions, we had to admit failure. Real people weren't talking about brands at all. In the real world, brands don't even inspire much thought – let alone lead it.

Online data confirms this. There's lots of noise nowadays about the number of Facebook fans brands get. But the really interesting story is how small these numbers are. In general, less than 1% of users can be bothered to befriend their brand on Facebook (usually just to claim a discount). And less than 1% of these 'fans' ever post anything about the brand. That makes perfect sense. Ordinary people have more important things to think and talk about than brands. In fact, the main reason people choose brands is so they don't have to think. Brands offer mental shortcuts that make purchase decisions quicker and easier.

This was illustrated wonderfully in a brain scan experiment we once saw. The study compared the brain activity of someone choosing between a leading brand with a much weaker, lesser-known brand. Counter to what we expected, there was less activity going on for the strong brand than the 'weaker' brand – strong brands are literally no-brainers. That's why they are strong.

Interestingly, there's also evidence that strong brands don't get talked about much, either. When we analysed social media data for the car market, we found that the cars everyone talked about actually had the smallest market share. The really successful brands generated far less 'buzz'.

There are some exceptions to this pattern. Every brand has a small core of real fanatics who think and talk about it - fashionistas who dream about Prada all day or young music fans obsessed with their band. But these are minor exceptions. As Byron Sharp points out in When Brands Grow, brand enthusiasts are a tiny minority, and generally economically unimportant.

More importantly, there are occasions when a brand's marketing gets people thinking and talking. It's a hard trick to pull off, but if you can get people down the pub saying: 'Have you seen that ad?' then it does seem to pay dividends. But to try to be a 'thought leader' on some higher level is usually over-ambitious, at least for commercial brands. It smacks of arrogance, and can be counter-productive – think of Benetton years ago.

At the end of a painfully long discussion about a biscuit brand's positioning years ago, a planner we know cried out: 'For God's sake, it's only a bloody biscuit!' She was right. Brands are useful. They can be very profitable. But they're peripheral to ordinary people's lives. Forget 'Thought Leadership'. Mostly it's only a bloody biscuit.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.