The missing piece of the puzzle

Use behavioural science to better serve your customer

Mongezi Mtati talks to Rory Sutherland about branding

Data tells you the what, but you need behavioural science to tell you the why. And without the why, the what is sometimes not valuable,” says Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy UK, and shares his marketing wisdom.

Before mobile phones, nobody knew they wanted one, but now none of us can live without them. Nespresso, Post-It, Red Bull… No one wanted these products before they were invented, yet today they are among the world’s most successful brands.

Why? It’s not the job of marketers and advertisers to give consumers just what they need. It’s their job to give potential customers something new that, once they’ve experienced it, they add to their list of ‘must-haves’.

A messy world

Sutherland uses examples like these to illustrate that the role of inductive, sequential logic is important. But “it’s not the only game in town,” he says. The concept refers to broad generalisations based on specific observations, which, he argues, interferes with creativity.

“Once you free yourself from trying to arrive at solutions through logical steps, the world becomes messier, but the solution space becomes 20 times bigger. And you can post-rationalise 20 good ideas for every one idea you can pre-rationalise,“ he states.

“Increasingly we find ourselves in an environment where our love of standardisation means there is only one way to think: in monotonously logical but constricting straight lines.”

The missing puzzle piece

Understanding consumer behaviour gives marketers and advertisers better insights to develop strategies for improved customer engagement. And it’s why Sutherland calls behavioural science the missing puzzle piece.

“Sometimes it appears to us that consumer behaviour is driven by irrational thinking, yet it usually makes sense in hindsight. Using behavioural science to reframe the questions transforms how you think about brand problems,” he explains.

There’s nothing wrong with advertisers and brand managers relying on data to influence their decisions, but add behavioural science, and you add insight into why consumers make their purchase decisions.

Winning consumer attention in the age of ad-blockers

You can’t be in advertising today without addressing that it’s never been easier for consumers to ignore and avoid what you do. Sutherland’s take on how to win meaningful attention provides some inspiration.

He says marketers are doing two things that each make sense in isolation but not together. The first is getting better at knowing who the customer is. The second is reaching them cheaply through mass media. “The combination of good targeting and cheap media, which seems like two good things, is actually not useful,” he says. In other words, if you know who your customer is, don’t try and reach them through low-impact, low-conversion media forms.

“Decisions driven by data have limitations, whereas irrational factors like gut instinct have none.”

Why, if we have millions to spend on getting our customers or employees to take action, do we lack the insight into the human mind required for consistent behavioural change? 

Why do we rely on demographics and behavioural data, which tells us the who and the what, but provide very little clue on how to persuade our customers’ thoughts or feelings, let alone change behaviours?

“Increasingly we find ourselves in an environment where our love of standardisation means there is only one way to think: in monotonously logical but constricting straight lines. It’s a style that works a lot better in renderings than in reality,” Sutherland writes in Ogilvy’s Behavioural Science Annual 2023.

Beware of averages

One of the problems with data is that it leads us to create – and rely on – averages. The mistake in thinking that the person who ends up in the middle of your data pile is your ‘average consumer’ is that, in reality, consumers are too complicated, fickle and mutable to pin down with a stereotype approach.

As Sutherland says, data contains much more information and value than the consumer will give you if you ask their reasons for buying. “Data doesn’t give you answers, it gives you an avenue of inquiry. Decisions driven by data have limitations, whereas irrational factors like gut instinct have none.”

Harnessing intangible factors

We know that stories and emotions can have a profound effect on people, but we’re not always good at harnessing these intangible feelings. This is because we believe more in proportionality than in magic unless we’re creative, in which case we don’t have a sense of proportion.

This is why creatives can spot opportunities for magic. Here’s how it works. If option A is better than option B, logical, sequential thinkers automatically try to improve B. But creative people do the opposite by ignoring option B.

Just as a magician does when performing tricks, they want the audience to focus on the positive option, understanding that, if they do, they will worry less about the negative to the point where it doesn’t matter. According to Sutherland, this only works if the negative you’re distracting people from is not dangerous.

Using behavioural science

It’s about tapping into human desires and wishes on a seminal level. This is mainly about providing your audience with psychological visibility and respect. 

What does this mean? Let’s say you turn up on time at someone’s office for a pre-arranged appointment, and they’re running late, so you are left waiting in reception. Pretty soon, you begin to feel offended.

However, if you’re invited to wait in a separate lounge with a coffee machine, comfortable chairs, a Wi-Fi password and good reading material with possibly a screen or two, you feel cared for, and you’ll wait much more patiently.

The same applies to your audience – your target market. Treat them with respect, and they will associate you – your brand – with kindness and other good sentiments. It is that simple.

Listen to Mongezi Mtati’s conversation with Rory Sutherland.

This story was published in INC Africa

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