All of what follows should should be nothing more than a truism, known to all marketers: That human decision making is far from rational. It’s been argued, elaborated upon and more rigorously examined by other, far more expert minds.
But there is enough infrastructure, paraphenalia, received wisdom and plain old bad practice to suggest that we need to keep revisiting it.
Homo sapiens 1.0
Whatever Plato and Descartes might have told us – and whatever some marketers might tell themselves – we are at our core, driven not by reason and choice, but by far more ancient, intuitive, and often irrational emotions, impulses and instincts.
Reason and consciousness are but a thin veneer on top of the much older hardwiring and workings of the mind. For all the wonders, sophistication and advances of our modern age, we are still very much homo sapiens 1.0, driven by age old hungers, drives and responses.
Of course the world has changed radically since our mental foundations were laid, and the complexities of modernity work to both exacerbate and frustrate these impulses. And it is in this coming together of the ancient and the modern that the opportunity to overcome indifference lies.
It is perhaps the curse and thrill of every age to believe that we are living through unprecedented change. And we today are no different, seemingly surrounded by change on ever side, both ephemeral and significant. But our story of how to survive and prosper amidst our age’s wonders and complexities begins with what has not changed.
The belief that any one thing (like the internet) or phenomenon will Change Everything Forever encourages us to focus on the superficial surface of things, which do of course change all the time. Yet as the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey reminds us:
Cultural and technical innovations can certainly alter the trajectory of individual human lives. But, while human beings continue to reproduce by having sex and each new generation goes back to square one, then every baby begins life with a set of inherited dispositions and instincts that evolved in the technological dark ages… Let’s dream, if we like, of revolution. But be prepared for more of the same.”
The surface trappings of life and culture may have changed, yet the choices, predicaments and motivations of the characters of Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens are as vividly meaningful and recognizable as they were when audiences first encountered them. The stuff of story, myth, and human biography – love, sex, sacrifice, war, politics, redemption, jealousy, ambition, heartbreak, altruism, heroism – is enduring and universal. As Edward Wilson – one of the world’s most preeminent biologists and naturalists – puts it:
We have created a Star wars civilization, with stone age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
When it comes to understanding those stone age emotions, it is perhaps fair to say that we know next to nothing about how the mind works. This should probably not surprise us. There are after all, 100 trillion constantly changing connections in the brain – more than there are atoms in the entire universe.
In contemplating the mysteries, complexities and marvels of the brain, the psychologist Steven Pinker cites Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘The brain is wider than the sky’:
In its staggering complexity, its explosive combinatorial computation, and its limitless ability to imagine real and hypothetical worlds, the brain, truly, is wider than the sky. The poem itself proves it. Simply to understand the comparison in each verse, the brain of the reader must contain the sky and absorb the sea and visualize each one at the same scale as the brain itself.”
Anybody who claims to have conclusively worked out how the human brain works is either deluded, or a charlatan. Or both.
That said, neuroscience and psychology have begun to open up a small window on what interests and moves us. And what this reveals is that while we have undoubtedly come a long way as a species, we are still very much homo sapiens version 1.0.
A tale of two systems
The notion of ‘evolution’ suggests a process of wholesale change and transformation. In our case from animals, to sophisticated creatures of consciousness and reason. But the story of the the human brain’s development is less one of transformation and more one of accretion, addition, and enhancement.
As a result, the brain is a patchwork of different circuits and structures built upon our original brain. And this is the key point. Our primitive brain and its workings has not disappeared. It still continues to act as the home of our unaware, emotional and intuitive thought processes. Wilson puts it thus:
The more we learn about our physical existence, the more apparent it becomes that even the most complex forms of human behaviour are ultimately biological. They display the specializations evolved across millions of years by our primate ancestors. the indelible stamp of evolution is clear in the idiosyncratic manner in which humanity’s sensory channels narrow our unaided perception of reality. It is confirmed in the way hereditarily prepared and counter-prepared programs guide the development of the mind.”
The older and the newer parts of the brain are enmeshed and wired together. So rather than function as an entirely separate process, what we characterize as ‘reason’ is fundamentally dependent on these more basic and older processes. The implications are significant. For despite all the accomplishments of civilization, our powers of reason are but a thin veneer on top of something much more primitive and instinctive.
The work of the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman for example, has shown how we are capable of two modes of thought, and how our responses and decisions are shaped by the interplay between what he characterizes as ‘System 1’ and the newer ‘System 2’.
System 1 is always on, constantly originating impressions, intuitions, and feelings in response to the outside world’s stimuli for System 2. And as Kahneman’s work has shown, System 1 does not provide us with a clear and objective view of the world, but rather works to edit, filter and interpret it. It actively works to create a coherent pattern of ideas in the memory, enjoys illusions of truth, infers and invents causes and intentions, is biased to believe and confirm, exaggerates consistency, and is more sensitive to changes than to states.
We’ve long been accustomed to think of reason and emotion as being in conflict with one another. Plato started it, characterizing the mind as a chariot pulled by two horses – one well-bred the other obstinate – with the rational brain acting as charioteer, holding the reins and keeping the horses in check and on course. And later we had Freud arguing that the mind was locked in perpetual conflict between the primitive id and the conscious and reasoning ego. And of course the popular notion of a brain ‘divided’ into separately functioning left and right sides endures still in our collective consciousness.
But the truth is that our older mental systems and processes work with the newer ones.
As Kahneman, argues, System 1 provides System 2 with the raw material. And in contrast to System’s 1‘s constant activity, System 2 is fundamentally lazy. Most of the time, it adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification, turning impressions into explicit beliefs and impulses into deliberate and voluntary actions.
Navigating our way past indifference
It was heresy when he first wrote it, but the neuroscientists and psychologists of today are demonstrating quite how prescient the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume was when he declared, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
What Edmund Wilson calls “the indelible stamp of our animal ancestry” is inescapable – “we are an evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct.” It is impossible for us to escape the inheritance of our genetic and cultural evolution. As Wilson notes, “they shape the way we perceive the world, “the options we open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make.”
So if we want to create demand for our work and overcome the hurdle of indifference, then it is our older nature and selves we must connect with.
Push strategies that rely on brute force can and do work. But creating a pull effect is significantly more efficient. You get a far bigger effect in return for the same amount of effort.
Creating that pull effect – overcoming people’s indifference and creating content that people find interesting, relevant, compelling irresistible, fascinating – demands we connect with System 1 for it is this mental system that interprets and makes sense of the the world.
In other words if we want to involve people in what we create, then we must arouse, interest, and connect with our older brain and more ancient instincts. If you want to move people’s behaviors, you have to emotionally move them. As Dan Wieden put it in an interview, “Just move me, dude.”
(We should distinguish here between stimulus and response. For it is emotional responses that we should be seeking. And there are all manner of ways in which we can evoke that. That might be a well-timed relevant piece of rational information. It might be a brilliantly delivered piece of customer service. And yes, it might be a piece of emotive storytelling).
We can ignore this truth about human nature at our peril. In his analysis of why the Democrats consistently failed to achieve electoral success, the psychologist and political strategist Drew Westen has argued that the root cause of the party’s failure was its insistence on treating the electorate and voting behaviour as being driven by reason and analysis. Consequently according to Westen – and in sharp contrast to what the Republican party had long instinctively grasped – the Democrats inundated voters with the complexities of policy detail, rather than framing them in the context of an emotionally compelling, intuitively appealing narrative.
Westen’s advice for politicians and political strategists is that if you want to influence voting behavior then the key lies in activating the older, emotional brain:
You can slog it out for those few millimeters of cerebral turf that processes facts, figures, and policy statements. Or you can take your campaign to the broader neural electorate, collecting delegates throughout the brain and targeting different emotional states.”
Similarly, the advertising veterans Paul Feldwick and Robert Heath have urged advertisers to let go of the belief that advertising works as a rational communication vehicle. It’s time they argue that advertising professionals recognize that most advertising simply does not work through planting rational messages in people’s memories. Instead, it works to create networks of associations in the brain through visuals, sounds, symbols, music, gestures, context and a host of other things that are too often simply treated as a means of gaining attention or ‘recall’.
While many in marketing- and adland still seem to struggle to accommodate themselves to this truth, the fact of the matter is that people do not rationally process advertising. Advertising, as Feldwick and Heath argue, works through activating the emotional (and usually subconscious) processes of the brain. As they put it, this perspective offers “a more plausible explanation of how 30 seconds of apparent nonsense, watched through half-closed eyes, can affect brand preference and buying behaviour, than the old idea of the ‘selling proposition’.”
Indeed the complexities of our modern age make connecting with our older selves all the more pressing for cultural producers. For the fact that we operate with 1.0 brains in a 3.0 (ever more post-industrial) world inevitably results in tensions, hungers, needs and desires. The rolling back of tradition, the relentless expansion of urbanization, the central place of celebrity in popular culture, the liberation of individual choices, the acceleration of culture, the cataclysms of the last century and the complexities of the current… All of these characteristics of our modern age can both exacerbate our ancient and deep-seated appetites, drives, and impulses as well as frustrate and challenge them.
And where there is a tension, there too lies the possibility of people being not indifferent but actually interested.
It is commonplace to make the distinction between artistic and commercial endeavors. The poet versus the salesman. The painter versus the ad man. Meaning versus entertainment. The gallery versus the shopping mall. The muse versus the market. Commerce versus art. Objectivity versus subjectivity. But these are false distinctions. For as cultural participants – as meaning creators, and weavers of magic – both the artist and the salesman must seek to overcome the challenge of indifference.
And whether our cultural agendas are commercial or artistic in nature, success – creating pull rather than relying on push – lies in finding and understanding the tension between modernity and this older yet enduring version of our selves. For amidst the complexities and paradoxes born of the intersection and struggle between our ancient selves and our modern lives emerges a timeless and indeed inescapable story about who we really are and what we really need, want, and desire.
The science writer Stephen Pinker has made the plea that we see ourselves for what we truly are. Not as products of culture and nurture. Not even as the product of the interplay between nature and culture. But rather, that we see through to our real, fundamental, and universal human nature. Not least of all because it’s a perspective that emphasizes as he puts it, “the psychological unity of our species beneath the superficial differences of physical appearance and parochial culture.”
And if we want to connect with and move people (and however we choose to do that) if we wish to enthrall them, captivate them, seduce them, and yes, move them, then so too must we grasp and embrace our true nature.
Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick, ‘Fifty years using the wrong model of advertising’, International Journal of Market Research, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2008
Nicholas Humphrey, Edge World Question Center, http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_3.html
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (18.104.22.168)
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Stephen Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature
John Ratey, A User’s Guide To The Brain: Perception, Attention, And The Four Theaters Of The Brain
Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion In Deciding The Fate Of The Nation
Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest Of The World
If there is one thing guaranteed to relegate a marketing to both ineffectiveness and obsolescence, it is the belief that its primary form of influencing consumer behaviour is through messaging.
Messaging doesn’t reflect how people consume advertising and make sense of brands.
We know that the brain is not some rigid filing system in which memories reside as fully formed recordings. It is something altogether more dynamic and malleable.
Indeed it’s more accurate to think of memory as a process, not a thing. Our brain’s networks of nerve cells or ‘neurons’ are not fixed entities, but rather, are dynamic and continuously modified by experience. What people experience results in new connections in the structure of our brains.
While parts of marketingland still believe we’re in business of transmitting of information, of ‘communicating’ abstract, intellectual ‘messages’ or propositions, advertising doesn’t work through filing verbal messages and propositions in people’s mental filing systems.
Memory actually works through the creation of connections. A brand is simply a set of connections and associations in the brain. We form and access memories of brands by creating and activating these networks of associations.
So people don’t consume and file away abstract ideas and propositions. They consume (as Robert Heath has shown, they often with fairly low levels of attention) all the visual, verbal, audible, tangible characteristics of our content – and these create new connections and in the brain.
Judith Williamson in her wonderful, essential, hostile and demanding book Decoding Advertising: Ideology and Meaning In Advertising demonstrates how advertising’s real work lies in its aesthetic wholes, and how it operates larges silently, through its codes and signals, rather than messages:
What an advertisement ‘says’ is merely what it claims to say; it is part of the deceptive mythology of advertising to believe that an advertisement is simply a transparent vehicle for a ‘message’ behind it. Certainly a large part of any advertisement is this ‘message’: we are told something about a product, and asked to buy it. the information we are given is frequently untrue, and even when it is true, we are often being persuaded to buy products which are unnecessary… a criticism of advertising on these grounds is valid, and I would support it. However such a criticism is in many ways the greatest obstacle of all to a true understanding of the role of advertisements in our society, because it is based on the assumption that ads are merely the invisible conveyors of certain undesirable messages, and only sees meaning in the overt ‘content’ of the ad rather than it its ‘form’ – in other words, ignoring the ‘content’ of the ‘form’.”
So the consumption and decoding of marketing content is something altogether fuzzier than we often allow for. As Stephen King in JWT’s Planning Guide noted back in 1974:
An advertisement as a stimulus is a combination of medium, words, pictures, movements, symbols, associations, tones of voice, etc. The stimulus is received as a totality; the receiver does not separate content and form. The individual elements of an advertisement have no meaning on their own. They can only be judged in combination.”
Feldwick has similarly done much to remind us that advertising, like art does not work through reductionist concepts, but through the experience of aesthetic wholes.
So the What and How are inseparable. We exercise brand impressionism – rather than ‘taking out messages’, we are left with general impressions from what we’re exposed to.
Treating creativity merely as a means of tricking or bribing the viewer into paying attention to the message within it profoundly undervalues and undermines the both the nature and the value of creativity.
Creativity isn’t some kind of distraction tactic, bait or bribe. It isn’t a wrapper or envelope for a message.
It IS the content.
But there is another pressing issue with the idea of messaging.
For aside from the fact that the marketing-as-message model of influencing consumer behaviour doesn’t reflect how people consume communications, it’s singularly ill-suited to adapting itself to people’s digital interactions.
Searching, browsing, searching, tagging, uploading, downloading, sharing, linking, commenting, buying, playing, liking… To varying degrees of involvement and intensity, these are behaviors.
And messaging in an environment characterized by behaviours obviously struggles.
It either gatecrashes, misses out on vast opportunity, or is simply rendered impotent.
Small wonder then, that those charged with creating and leveraging digital behaviors should regard those who believe they are in the business of issuing messages with such bafflement or suspicion. And indeed vice versa.
The messaging school of marketing misunderstands the human mind, misunderstands the nature of creativity, and opens up a deeply unhelpful schism.
It really is time to let get out of the message business.
We need, to borrow the words of Jaron Lanier, a palette cleansing, a broadening of horizons.
Perhaps if we all thought of ourselves in the business of creating connections, then we’d find ourselves better adapted to the new environments and possibilities of our age.
And perhaps we’d begin to see how absurd are the solios that we’ve insisted on operating in.
For if we we wish to be effective, we are about creating connections.
Connections in the mind.
Connections between people, companies and brands.
And connections between people and other people.
In an age defined by its relentlessly blooming connectedness – people to people, people to things, and things to other things – that seems a far more accurate and useful perspective on what we all do.
“Only connect”, as E.M. Forster wrote.
(A familiar theme revisited. One more time).
The world is a difficult and sometimes hostile place for ideas. It always has been and probably always will. New ideas have always have a hard time seeing the light of day, let alone finding an audience. Whatever field one looks to – art, design, cinema, architecture, engineering, science, and so on, great ideas still go undervalued.
Too many good ideas get killed or rejected, too many are overlooked. Too many of those of us who hold the purse strings, who own the venues of performance and publicity, who manage the channels of dissemination, who exercise the levers of influence, find courage and conviction abandoning us.
But as technology reduces the cost of both production and distribution it’s harder than ever for cultural content to find an audience. For we are awash with plenitude. We are living in an age of cultural oversupply. Pick any category of human production. From breakfast cereals to cute cat videos on YouTube, from erotic fiction for middle aged women to trendy sneakers, from organic restaurants to action movies, from high culture to low culture, there is more choice and variety than we need. Than we can possibly consume.
And with that plenitude, we are also let’s face it, oversupplied with crap. Crap books, crap films, crap restaurants…
Perhaps this is not surprising at all. Perhaps cultural production simply conforms to what the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon termed ‘Sturgeons Revelation’ (or Sturgeon’s Law as if is often referred to).
As he put it in in the March 1958 issue of Venture magazine:
I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.”
Plenitude such as this erodes value. And more. As behavioral economists teach us, we are inclined to pay greater attention to and a greater value upon that which is scarce. Amidst our oversupply of both the good and the bad then, we’re not merely battling for people’s attention, but against their indifference.
And indifference is indeed a fearsome obstacle – as the fantasy writer Joan Vinge has written:
Indifference is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it.”
The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel has written and spoken much on the subject of indifference and why it is so powerful. In a speech at the White House in 1999 speech, he said:
Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end.”
Whether we are artists or salesman, we can buy or rent exposure. The battle as intelligent advertisers long ago woke up to, is not mere exposure. But for people’s hearts and minds. For people actually giving a damn.
There is good evidence for this from the IPA.
The IPA 2009 report’s ‘How Share Of Voice Wins Market Share: New Findings From Nielsen And The IPA Databank’ notes that: “The critical metric that determines the level of a brand’s market share growth is its excess share of voice (ESOV), defined as share of voice (SOV) minus share of market (SOM).”
To to some degree, market share can be bought. However, the unfair advantage that any marketer can choose to leverage is the power of creativity.
In its report ‘The Link Between Creativity And Effectiveness’ – again based upon the DataBank data – the IPA provides an analysis of the relationship between creatively-awarded work and effectiveness.
The sample used for this study were the 257 IPA Effectiveness cases studies for which Gunn Report scores were all available.
As an aside, given that 257 represents less than 1% of UK advertisers, and around 1 in 7000 pick up the minimum major creative awards needed to be recorded in the Gunn Report each year, the fact that no fewer than 46 (18%) of the sample of IPA campaigns appear in the Gunn Report database already suggests that there is some kind of relationship between creativity and effectiveness.
Obviously this isn’t proof and so this study examined whether this 18% of creatively-awarded campaigns outperformed the 82% of non-awarded campaigns in hard business terms.
The short answer, is yes.
The IPA’s analysis reveals that that non-awarded campaigns, on average generate 0.5 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV.
In sharp contrast, creatively-awarded campaigns generate on average 5.7 points of share growth per 10 points of ESOV.
In other words creatively-awarded campaigns generate around 11 times (that’s right, 11 times) more share growth per 10 points of ESOV than creatively-non-awarded campaigns.
But while we can rent eyeballs, we cannot buy people’s people’s minds. Their interest, enthusiasm or affection.
Sven Birkets, the author and director of the writing seminars at Bennington College in Vermont and editor of the literary journal AGNI, ponders the words of the French philosopher Simone Weil, who said: ‘Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer’, reminding us that ‘to attend’, etymologically, is to ‘stretch toward’, to seek with one’s mind and senses:
Paying attention is striving toward, thus presupposing a prior wanting, an expectation. We look at a work of art and hope to meet it with our looking; we already have a notion of something to be had, gotten.”
As for prayer, notes Birkets:
It is… an expression of helplessness, a putting of oneself before a superior force… However the action is defined, it involves a wanting or needing.”
And so for Birkets attention is not a neutral focus of awareness on some object or event:
[it is] A question looking for an answer. There is a big difference between our attempting to pay attention to something and having our attention captured – arrested – by something.”
Like Birkets, this – the capture and arrest of attention – is what interests me.
Between us and success and the capture of attention then, will always lie the potential for people to be indifferent towards what we have made and put out into the world. And the existence of an audience largely indifferent to our efforts and outputs should send a chill down the collective spine of the industries of cultural production.
So how can we make our idea, talent, pitch, or product matter in a crowded marketplace, on a crowded planet? How can we seduce and enthrall? How can we go beyond mere exposure and attention and create real fascination? How can we create demand, rather than have to force our efforts upon people?
The algorithms that weave their way through our lives today help can filter and edit our searches, prioritizing the inevitable deluge of results. They might enable us to wait for consumers to notify the market of their intent to buy, rather than us only relying on pushing stuff out to people regardless of whether they want it or not.
But whatever changes they are wreaking, they have done nothing to render obsolete the old art and magic of entrancing and bewitching.
Sven Birkets, ‘The Art of Attention’, aeon magazine
Joan Vinge, The Snow Queen
Very few people can look a wholesale social, cultural and psychological transformation taking place on an unparalleled scale steadily in the eye…
McLuhan’s point is that when it comes to the impact of new media on the human consciousness – both individual and collective – content is an irrelevance; we have to look not at what is on the screen, but how the screen is used. McLuhan saw in the early 1960s that all the brouhaha about what imagery was shown on television and what words were spoken was so much guff; the transformation from what he termed “the linear Gutenberg technology” to the “total field” one implied by the instantaneity of electricity was all that mattered, and this was a change in the human mind as well as the human hand. McLuhan’s global village is indeed all about us now, and it already exhibits social, psychological and cultural behaviours that are entirely different from those implicit in the technologies of mass broadcast and individual, concentrated absorption…
For those who think that narrative art forms are in a state of crystalline stasis it’s worth taking a slightly longer view: film is only just over a century old, the novel as we commonly understand it a mere two centuries old – the copyrights that protected them are about 150 years old. At the moment, the wholesale reconfiguration of art is only being retarded by demographics: the middle-aged possessors of Gutenberg minds remain in the majority in western societies, and so we struggle to impose our own linearity on a simultaneous medium to which it is quite alien. The young, who cannot read a text for more than a few minutes without texting, who rely on the web for both their love affairs and their memories of heartache, and who can sometimes find even cinema difficult to take unless it comes replete with electronic feedback loops, are not our future: we, the Gutenberg minds have no future, and our art forms and our criticism of those art forms will soon belong only to the academy and the museum.”
How can we better help our clients (and indeed ourselves) look this transformation in the eye?
How can we help ‘Gutenberg minds’ make the transition?
What are we doing to trace and understand these new social, psychological and cultural behaviours?
And what will it mean to produce content for a ‘post-Gutenberg’ world?
The need for more (and better) problems
When did creativity become a pseudonym for producing advertising? And when did strategy become a means to a message?
At a time when technology enables boundless creativity, when digital interactions are blurring the line between product, product experience, and marketing communications, and changing how people search, choose, and buy, we are all – clients and agencies alike – in danger of limiting the scope and potential of creativity. As Lawrence Green has put it:
The task of any imaginative agency, any creative company, is to understand and serve it client’s business problems. Too often, our business has sliced and diced its tasks in the style of a sub-prime mortgage bundler. A corporate task set by the chief executive, reframed as a comms task by the marketing director, refined by the brand consultancy and reduced by the ad agency to the stuff advertising can do: Grow awareness, nurture engagement. Too many links, too indirect and weak a connection between commercial possibilities and creative resolution.”
Elsewhere, away from adland, others have argued that we need to be ‘growth hackers’. Josh Elman has described growth hacking as describing “a new process for acquiring and engaging users combining traditional marketing and analytical skills with product development skills.” According to Elman:
In the past, marketing and product development departments were often at odds where marketing groups would be spending significant amounts of money to acquire users but couldn’t get any development resources to build something as simple as new custom landing pages. And on the other side, product development teams would often build what they think users want and will attract users without deeply measuring and understanding the impact of their changes. This concept of “growth hacking” is a recognition that when you focus on understanding your users and how they discover and adopt your products, you can build features that help you acquire and retain more users, rather than just spending marketing dollars.”
Of course what Elman is describing is not new at all. It is simply good marketing. It just probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.
So all this begs some questions:
How can we look beyond what advertising can solve?
How exactly do we expand the scope and value of creativity?
How can we identify opportunities for growth?
How can marketing properly shape itself around the consumer?
How can marketing define itself by what it solves, rather than by what it makes?
How can product development and marketing be reunited once more?
In all of this, theory and rhetoric will not help us. We need something more practical.
I am no a fan of templates and processes. We create after all, bespoke solutions for the unique challenges faced by each client. But I am a fan of anything that gets us asking better questions. And it is at this point that we must step back to the future. For Stephen King gave us just the sort of questions we need. They are oddly neglected in the compendium of his best work – A Masterclass in Brand Planning, and are worth revisiting.
King’s Consumer Buying System
King’s model – the ‘consumer buying system’ – appeared in his Manual of Tools of the Trade for Advertising Planners that he developed for JWT in the late 1980s.
It is by no means a panacea. And it certainly cannot solve the systemic dysfunctions of both agencies and client organizations that prevent us from a broader application of creativity. Nonetheless, it can encourage the well-intentioned and the ambitious to ask new, and better questions.
King had developed his model principally as a means of shaping and guiding a communications plan. His focus was largely on both the role and the choice of communications channels.
However, in as much as his model was largely a means of understanding consumer behaviour, its application and value goes far beyond that. As King wrote in his introduction to the model:
The objective is to take your brand, examine the stages in the [Consumer Buying System] and ask, ‘How can we move the consumer through the process?’”
I make no claim for uniqueness in any of what follows. There is many a good marketer who employs their own version of King’s model.
(That said, and by way of a pedantic aside, King’s model predates McKinsey’s model by decades. Thus demonstrating that those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it).
Below are the phases of the model, as described by King.
It is worth noting that King was a big opponent of the one-size-fits-all approach, and recognized that the path to purchase varied depending on the category. Buying a bar of chocolate is different from buying a Picasso, or breakfast cereal, or a pair of trainers, or a holiday, or a car.
And so, by way of a preface, it’s worth bearing in mind, as he wrote:
The time frame for this process will vary enormously from category to category, for example, buying a car could take the consumer a year, whereas buying a box of cereal, from running out of the previous box to the next purchase, could take just hours. Thus some stages are less relevant to some categories, and not all consumers within one specific category may pass through all the stages. For example, when “buying” a new long-distance phone service, some consumers are simply stimulated to change their phone company by an advertised offer, whereas others will collect and evaluate information on long-distance providers to improve their comfort level with the company.”
At each stage we should be asking – what exactly is happening?
New questions, new solutions
If we must, we can call it a framework for ‘growth hacking’. Certainly the sort of thinking, questions, and the types of solutions that King’s model encourages is instructive. As soon as we start unpacking people’s behaviours, we start inventing all manner of stuff that isn’t advertising:
If we in adland only ever see ad-shaped problems, we’ll only create ad-shaped solutions. But if we see people, all manner of new and exciting stuff starts to happen. As ever in marketing, progress lies in asking better questions and more imaginatively examining the lives, habits, needs, wants, desires, frustrations and dissatisfactions in people’s lives.
As King said of his model:
Since all marketing activities are aiming to reinforce or modify people’s sequence of ideas and actions, the buying system really is the starting point for all marketing and planning activity.”
That said, client organizations and their marketing departments too must assume their share of responsibility. Often, it seems, they are divorced from product development, isolated from IT, embroiled in turf war standoffs with other functions, unwilling or simply unable to provide agency partners with real business issues to solve, and more comfortable passing off ad requests and ‘insight’ babble as bona fide client briefs.
King, ever prescient, identified the need and opportunity for thinking more broadly about brand building:
Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods. Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency. What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job”
If we can only grasp the necessity of beginning our thinking with real consumer issues and needs, rather than what type of creative product (social, viral, advertising, content, POS, etc., etc.) we will make, or what line of fashionable rhetoric we will subscribe to, then we might stand a better chance of unleashing the true potential of our collective creativity.
Indeed we might at last start actually living up to the theory, claims, and promise of marketing.
Judie Lannon & Merry Baskin, eds., A Masterclass in Brand Planning: The Timeless Works of Stephen King
Josh Elman, ‘What Is “growth hacking” really?’
McKinsey & Company, The consumer decision journey