Do Marketers Understand What Makes People Tick?

There is an article on the application of behavioral science to business written by Messrs Devine and Gibson in the Mckinsey quarterly (you’ll need to be a premium subscriber to read the whole thing). This really interests me and I give credit to Mark Earls for championing the idea that business people generally, and marketers specifically, should understand much more about human behavior and social sciences.

I mentioned in a recent post that very few companies truly understand, or even make it their mission to understand, the process of adoption (adoption of ideas or brands). We work with very partial knowledge of why people make the choices they do, and much of this knowledge is anecdotal or purely empirical. Nothing wrong with the latter. We can measure what people do and we can form conclusions based on the results but it is not scientific. Scientific discovery creates hypotheses out of observations, theory that can then be tested to form truths that can be applied.

We don’t just want to know what people do, we want to understand why they do it so we can create strategies that help us make a positive difference. Ultimately, and I know this is scary, we want to know how the human mind works. We will one day but not any day soon. However, we already know a lot and what surprises me is how little interest marketers show in this. Is this intellectual laziness or is it cynicism born of short term pressure “That’s all very interesting but I need to shift more product NOW!”.

I certainly agree that for every piece of acquired insight on human and social behavior we need to demonstrate immediate consequences in terms of improved marketing activity. So here goes. These are a few of the pieces of knowledge I have picked up and I will attempt to show their practical marketing implications. They have been gleaned from the likes of Mark Earls, Gerald Zaltman, Robin Wight and others. Some I discovered from original work we did at SABMiller. Smarter people than me may contest them, perhaps they have been superseded by superior truth. If so fine, let me know – knowledge is quest not a destination. But as marketers we need to develop the appetite to understand what makes people tick and then be inventive in how to apply it.

As social apes we are affected by what we sense (see, hear, smell) other people are doing. We copy, and not necessarily from opinion leaders, rather we copy the pack, the herd.

Implication – like amazon.com we need to build in ways that allow new customers to copy what existing customers are doing. Launches should favour activity that creates visible momentum.

Buyers of expensive durables (e.g. cars) become advocates for their choice. They seek to persuade friends to follow their lead to raise their self-esteem and vindicate their decision.

Implication – marketing programmes that arm recent buyers with sales aids e.g. VIP tickets for test drives to give to friends, sexy video of their new car that they can email to mates before it is delivered.

Memories – let’s think of this as positive associations – are reinforced by consistency. Our ability to recall something positive about a brand (literally to pull it from the file in the brain) is strengthened by the consistency with which that association arrived there from different sources over time.

Implication – consistency of message and ensuring this message touches people from different sources over time (not just the ads) needs ruthless management.

Sticky ideas like urban legends are memes that spread like viruses through a community.

Implication – brands need intriguing stories and strong icons (sensory branding devices e.g. the Intel jingle or the creamy head on a Guinness). They need to be more than just a remarkable purple cow, they need legend and mythology. The strong icons act as search engine.

In the Mckinsey article they cite the need for every service encounter to end with a strong positive experience as one example of the application of behavioral science (e.g. the chocolates you get with your bill in a restaurant) and point out that call centres have been slow to use this knowledge to end phone calls with some really strong positive for the customer to remember. An understanding of social and human behavior can help shift more product – right now.

It has always struck me as laughable that Marketers and advertisers are accused of being mind manipulators. As Machiavelli showed, in order to manipulate you have to both understand what makes people tick and apply that understanding to how you behave.

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