In England, when I was young, the VW wasn’t anything special.

It was just another cheap mid-size European car like Renault or Fiat.

The truly amazing small car was the Mini: engine mounted sideways with front-wheel-drive,it won the Monte Carlo Rally twice beating every car in the world.

It was so unlike any other car, everyone from the Beatles to Peter Sellers was photographed proudly driving a Mini. Michael Caine even made a film about it: The Italian Job.

A few years after the Mini was launched I went to art school in New York.

When I got there I couldn’t understand why everyone in America thought the VW was a revolutionary small car.

Where I came from the VW wasn’t even a small car, the Mini was the small car, the VW was just a noisy, badly designed, mid-size car.

Alec Issigonis had torn up the rule book and revolutionised car design with the Mini.

The VW was just a noisy, air-cooled, rear-wheel-drive, old-fashioned car.

But of course the difference was, we were looking at it from two different contexts.

The VW was in a different competitive set in the USA.

Americans were used to massive chrome gas-guzzlers from Detroit with V8 engines.

Compared to that, the VW was cute and tiny, they’d never seen anything like it.

Whereas we never had anything the size of American cars, a VW was just an average size car, so it wasn’t cute or unusual, just dull.

But with the counter-culture taking hold in America, the VW looked basic and sensible – a break from the overblown excesses of Detroit.

In the UK we never had the vast excesses of Detroit, their standard cars were 8 cylinders.

In our country the standard size was 4 cylinders, and a really big car was 6 cylinders.

The VW was 4 cylinders which was small next to an American car, but average over here.

The fascinating thing for people in the communication business is how changing acompetitive set changes the context, and then perception dictates reality.

In Britain the VW was just a dull car, until it became fashionable in America.

American advertising labelled it as the sensible car, basic, even cute, a sort of Cinderella car.

Americans gave it anthropomorphic qualities even making films like The Love Bug.

In the UK, people were influenced by America, so they began buying it because it was seen as trendy in the US.

A car like the Mini was so small it wasn’t even considered a car in America, just a toy, because their start-point was huge.

The Mini was seen as clever and small in the UK because our start-point was mid-size.

That’s why one of the most important points in marketing is context.

Context is your brand’s competitive set, who or what it will be compared to.

In behavioural economics this is known as framing.

In framing, your brand is seen as better or worse depending on what it’s compared to.

Years ago, the ECD of Benton & Bowles told me about a problem with Jacobs Mallows.

These were small, jam-filled marshmallows that weren’t selling.

He went to the supermarket to see the context they were being displayed in.

He found that packs of 7 Jacobs Mallows were displayed next to packs of 20 custard cremes, which made them look like bad value.

So he asked Jacobs to tell all supermarkets to move the Mallows next to the cakes instead.

Compared to a pack of 2 cakes, 7 Mallows looked like good value, and sales took off.

They didn’t change the product, the brand, the packaging, or the advertising.

All they changed was the competitive set, which changed the context.

And changing context changes perception, which changes reality.