13 May 2015 by Richard Parsons

It’s All About Anthropology, Stupid…

anthropology_1700x498We like to think we buy a top-notch BMW because of its beautiful engineering, its performance, comfort and reliability. We probably really buy one because we think it’ll help us get laid, or differentiate us from the riff-raff.

The irony is, in making this purchasing decision, we join the crowd of all the other thrusting execs trying to “differentiate” themselves. We indulge in groupthink under the illusion of individual choice. Businesses are no different.

McGraw Hill once concluded that an astonishing 90% of business purchasing decisions made by businesses involve one of the three brands purchasers could already name before the buying process began.

More and more research, from neuroscientists, sociologists, psychologists, economists and all the other ‘ists’ out there is concluding that people are far more influenced in their purchasing decisions by their peers and the prevailing culture than by anything else.

We like to think we’re individual, rational and evidence-based, but the reality is we’re herd-like, emotional and intuitive. We like to conform. The opinions of others matter. If lots of other people think something is good, why reinvent the wheel? We have neither the time nor the inclination to do the research and weigh up all the evidence again ourselves. This is the wisdom of crowds, right?

This is why big brands always have a head start in any tendering process. Of course, you can’t go back to your board and justify offering a multi-million pound service contract to Company X simply because Susan told you they were really good and, well, you trust Susan because she’s usually right about everything.

No, you need to find evidence. You need to build a case that looks like your decision was made by Spock, not Captain Kirk. You need to do a rationality retro-fit. 

This isn’t just me speculating. Psychologist Daniel Kahnemann won the Nobel prize for economics in 2002 for his work demonstrating precisely this, that our thinking is not as rational, calculating and considered as we like to believe. We use approximations and intuition far more than we use reasoning; we’re not that good at calculating probability or risk; and many of our decisions are affected by our emotional state at the time.

Businesses are like people, but people are not always rational, and they love stories and are heavily influenced by others.

Not understanding this fact is a major reason why B2B marketing has taken a long trip to Dullsville.

A very short history lesson – why/when did this happen?

B2B began with industrial advertising which largely consisted in the production of technical drawings showing the specification of your particular engine or gadget – the so-called “speeds and feeds” approach.

Why would you buy product A, went the thinking, when product B was so obviously more powerful, efficient, and cost-effective? It appealed only to the rational and economic brain, not the emotional one. And this erroneous belief led to its marketing becoming rather dull.

This type of approach had its champions among the “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” brigade. Just think of the Alan Sugars of this world. He has always been slightly suspicious of creative types and marketing “mumbo jumbo”. Advertising and telling a brand story for people of his ilk is often seen as needless expense.

Things were complicated when the industry began to fragment into lots of specialisms. In the Seventies, media and creativity began to split. Planners and buyers competed on how well they could buy advertising space, plan and negotiate rates. Creatives began to compete on the quality of their insights, creativity and output.

In the Eighties, advertising started becoming more visual and design-led. Copywriters and art directors began to work together as teams; research departments morphed into planning departments.

Then there was an explosion of media. Direct marketing took off with the advent of computing that facilitated large databases and mail-merges. Supermarkets and others began to offer loyalty cards and use big data insights to plan store locations and finesse their in-store marketing. CRM marketing was the new big thing.

Then as the internet went mainstream, we saw the rise of email marketing, websites, user-experience specialists, digital agencies, affiliate marketers, search engine optimisation gurus, world-of-mouth specialists, viral video gurus, you name it. The industry continued to atomise.

Marketers began to confuse the medium for the message. They lost sight of the big idea.

Here endeth the lesson.

If we’re to get back to a human approach to messaging, we need to put the human at the centre of our thinking. Don't you agree?