A view from Andrew Hawkins

A bold book with an ambition that it never quite fulfils

Andrew Hawkins, managing director, Doner, reviews The Science of Why by David Forbes

Let me declare a few prejudices.

Since the days I studied at the feet of the great Phillip Kotler, I have always believed that marketing in all its forms is essentially the real-life, practical application of economics, but explained with a new glossary of terms. 

The same holds true for the work of Gladwell, Dubner, Levitt and Kahneman, which has, justifiably, got our industry excited about behavioural economics.

What they, and other great business writers share, is the ability to keep things simple, interesting, and useful. That is what the The Science of Why, by David Forbes, sets out to do.

While its focus is on answering the age-old question "Why do we do what we do?", its purpose is to provide the reader with a practical tool – the Forbes Mindsight Matrix – with which to understand the motives of consumers, and thus be better equipped to influence their behaviour. 

It is, therefore, a very ambitious book. As the author (humbly) notes: "Scholars in great numbers have sought to enumerate a catalogue of human motives over the past hundred years, but none has tried to integrate the totality of past efforts into a unified theory before now."

Where the book succeeds is in tracing the history of behavioural thinking from the time of the ancient Greeks, through the modern psychologists, right up to Maslow. It even touches on the current obsession with understanding the pursuit of happiness. In telling this story, it succeeds also in finding where psychology and marketing theory and practice intersect.

Where it is less successful, is in its stated ambition to create the behavioural equivalent of the periodic table and, therefore, the ultimate marketing playbook (did I mention it was ambitious?).

I’d recommend this book as a good, challenging, informative read, but it’s not the how-to book it sets out to be - 4/5

The Forbes Marketing Matrix is certainly interesting, and the nine core motives that make up each cell do resonate: security, empowerment, belonging, identity, engagement, nurturance (yes, that is a word – I looked it up), mastery, achievement and esteem.

Each of these has a dedicated chapter that both acknowledges historical academic thinking and provides practical, modern-day examples of application to familiar brands. As standalone chapters they provoke thought, provide new ways of looking at things and, fundamentally, teach the reader new things (all of which will be the author’s objectives).

But when invited to pick up this matrix and use it in its entirety as a lens through which to view any marketing challenge, I stumble. Also, in attempting to provide the first comprehensive map of the motives that drive consumer behaviour, it is perhaps too ambitious.

Now, I like a matrix as much as the next person (and I still fall back on the BCG growth Share Matrix, and Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage Matrix), but they need to be simple and practical. The Forbes Marketing Matrix is complicated, unwieldy and verging on the incomprehensible.

Returning to my introduction, I believe our business is best navigated with simple, practical and versatile tools. Our best maps (briefs) are clear, simple directions with a few signposts. The worst are comprehensive prescribed directions with hard parameters, limits and no-go areas.

So, I’d recommend this book as a good, challenging, informative read, but it’s not the how-to book it sets out to be. You would need Forbes Consulting to help you with that. Ahh, maybe that’s the point.

 

Key takeouts

 

  • The most important question in marketing is "Why do we do what we do?"
  • This was a question that challenged the ancient Greeks, served to propel the industrial and agricultural revolutions and is central to the latest motivational thinking: positive psychology.
  • $19bn is spent each year to discover what consumers really want.
  • Changes in lives and lifestyles, coupled with changes in media and the marketplace, necessitate changes in the way we learn about them and market to them.
  • It is a universal truth first noted by David Ogilvy that people don’t really think the way they feel, or say what they think or do what they say.
  • The answer (apparently) is the Forbes Mindsight Matrix, which identifies the nine essential motives of consumer behaviour; a psychology-based tool to help marketers and advertisers.

 


The Science of Why by David Forbes is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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