We sell or else." David Ogilvy’s industry mantra is as pertinent today as it ever was. And the good news is that, as brand-builders, we now know more about how the brain works than ever before. Surely that should help us cajole, persuade and engage our way to glory?
Well, no. It turns out that, in the brain department, we’re closer to our premodern ancestors than feels comfortable to acknowledge in our hi-tech and flexible working environments. We’re emotionally driven creatures of habit, prone to take the line of least resistance.
Far from noble beings of reason, we tend to follow our instincts or, better still, mimic what we see others doing. For most buying behaviour, "seems good enough" and "is easily available" is all that matters. It’s the way we’re biologically wired.
However, sometimes, our marketing conversations make it sound as though our "targets" are busy weighing up alternative offers for their households like so many mini-procurement departments, balancing upfront cost with longer-term value equations. Or, even worse, that we’re intent on building an army of devoted, cultish followers who will seek out and buy our brand, no matter where it stretches (blame Steve Jobs for that one).
So what must we do? As marketers, rather than believe that we can rationally persuade or educate people to prefer our products and services, we need to pay more attention to the unconscious signals that we send out and the barriers to purchase that we unwittingly create.
How quickly can people find us on a grocery store shelf without breaking flow? Can they see lots of favourable ratings and reviews from others? Is it obvious which of the various options offered is the right one to choose?
No-one ever sets out to make products less visible or service bundles more labyrinthine – but if we just think about our own experiences as customers, it happens remarkably often. The drive for digital and social currency in many communications briefs also leads to a tendency to miss the main point. It doesn’t matter how many retweets you have if your in-store presence has declined. You are unlikely to be selling more than before.
Why does this happen? Because, for much of the time in our working lives, we are engaged in effortful, cognitively deliberate, rational thinking processes ("System 2" or "slow thinking", in Daniel Kahneman’s terms). This is how we design products and packaging, think about costing our service provision and constantly polish our branded content.
Meanwhile, "out there", people are not wired to buy that way. They will continue to be inattentive creatures of habit using rules of thumb, immune to much of our sophisticated understanding. If we want to disrupt this behaviour, we need to go with the grain as much as possible while not underestimating the degree of practical challenge we face.
"We’re blind to our blindness" – Kahneman again. In order to create lasting customer behaviour change, we need to overcome our blindness and design for the inspiring, emotional irrationality in us all.
An inspiration: Daniel Kahneman. For integrating economics and psychology to create behavioural economics and articulating a framework that explains so much of what people do.
Best time to think: In the shower.
Guiding principle: Emotion trumps reason.