Four big marketing illusions

by Tom Albrighton 9 June 2014 Copywriting, Persuasion

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how marketers use a kind of doublethink about their work. We tend to overestimate the love and loyalty that ‘consumers’ can be made to feel for brands, even though our hopes aren’t borne out by the way we ourselves live, think and shop.

I used my own experience to support my argument, and encouraged readers to do the same. But however much we nod our heads in unison, the plural of anecdote is not data. So I was fascinated to read this post, by policital advisor and bevavioural economist Steve Van Riel, on the mistakes people make when talking about the opinions, intentions and actions of voters in elections.

Steve sets out five proven psychological biases that distort the way we think about other people’s thinking. His focus is politics, but the ideas can be just as easily applied to marketing. And that’s my aim in this post.

You know less about customers than you think.

The illusion of asymmetric insight is the belief that the knowledge we have about other people is deeper or more detailed than the knowledge they have about us. Usually, we believe that others can be known by their actions, whereas we can only be known by our private thoughts and feelings.

As Steve puts it in his post, ‘People confidently believe that they understand the reasons why other people do things. At the same time, people are sceptical that others could truly understand them.’

There are many examples of asymmetric insight in everyday life. For example, it’s arguably the driving force behind the impulse to censor graphic videogames or prohibit the use of certain words. While ‘we’ are sophisticated and detached enough to play the games or say the words with impunity, if ‘they’ are playing them or saying them, it must be affecting them, or signify something obvious about what’s going in their heads.

For me, this goes to the heart of the way marketers see the people they’re trying to reach. All too often, we predicate our work on the expectation that others will think or act in ways we never would ourselves. While our own buying choices are subtle and nuanced, affected by the many moods and preferences of our complex personalities, people ‘out there’ are simple creatures, easily manipulated into playing a Facebook game or buying at a discount.

People might buy for reasons you can’t see.

Consider how marketers deduce motives from observable actions. For example, they might look at someone repeatedly shopping at the same store and call it ‘loyalty’. In reality, the behaviour may be more to do with personal circumstances, geographical convenience or – more likely – a whole range of semi-conscious thoughts and impulses all mashed up together.

your eyes can deceive you

‘Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.’

This sort of simplification is based on naïve realism, or the belief that the world is exactly as we see it. It’s ‘realistic’ because it’s based on the evidence of our senses, but it’s ‘naïve’ because it neglects things we can’t perceive.

Naïve realism makes us downplay or ignore the possibility that people will see through our marketing strategies. If people do what we wanted them to, we assume they responded to our message in a relatively simple, mechanistic way. In reality, though, they may have acted for much more complex reasons, probably including both consciousness of self and consciousness of our campaign.

For example, they may have seen right through the attempt to manipulate them, deeply resented it and made a note to remember it – but still gleaned information that prompted them to make a purchase out of self-interest, curiosity or even downright perversity.

In Generation X, Douglas Coupland defines ‘2+2=5ism’ as ‘Caving in to a target marketing strategy aimed at oneself after a holding out for a long period of time. “Oh, all right. I’ll buy your stupid cola. Now leave me alone.”’

It’s deeply ironic that even though the idea of ‘informed customers’ is now commonplace, the tactics we use to attract them are arguably more cynical than they’ve ever been. As we dangle digital baubles to get people to post content about our brands, we never imagine that they can see our ruse for what it is.

The point is that our marketing might achieve a short-term ‘positive’ result with long-term implications we don’t appreciate. We might have gained a sale, but lost goodwill or brand equity. It’s like bribing chidren with sweets – you get them to behave while inadvertently teaching them all about manipulation.

If we simplify the reasons for our success, we may find it hard to replicate it in the future. And when we come to deal with customers face to face, we might be surprised that their preferences or personalities aren’t quite what we expect, based on our marketing experience.

Naïve realism is an argument for more honest, transparent and peer-to-peer marketing messages. If you’re making an argument for the benefits you offer, customers’ reactions are easy to interpret. But once you bring in incentives, diversions or distractions, the relationship becomes a tangled web, with many levels of value exchange and psychological subtlety.

Not everyone sees the world the way you do.

False consensus is the belief that our own views are objective, universally held or ‘normal’, while opposing views are subjective, unusual or outlying.

Because we believe we see the world as it really is, we tend to overestimate how many people agree with us. If they do endorse our views, they’re simply confirming the truth, rather than sharing our delusion. But if they disagree with us, something must be stopping them from seeing ‘how things really are’.

The opium of the massive

The opium of the massive

We can see this in the hand-wringing discourse over the eating habits of lower-income families. ‘If only’ we could educate people about healthy food, runs the argument, their health – and happiness – would surely improve. (Of course, our own red-wine consumption is evidence of a stressful life, or a cultured European sensibility, rather than ignorance or weak character.)

Thing is, when you’ve got no money, health concerns are more distant. What you want is instant gratification, to take your mind off your problems. And that means a trip down Greggs, not an organic veg box. Emotion trumps logic every time.

As marketers, false consensus convinces us that people will be easy to persuade through logic and information. ‘If only’ we can demonstrate the benefits of our product clearly enough, people will buy it. Of course, we’re neglecting the emotion on both sides of the equation: our own affection for the product, and others’ potential apathy or antipathy towards it. Often, people will resist change or defend the status quo for no logical reason at all.

I think this is probably a ‘necessary illusion’ for many marketers, and maybe for entrepreneurs too. Without the conviction that others will like your campaign, or your product, you’ll never have the energy to take it to market. But you might still be wrong about it.

Many of the B2B campaigns I’ve been involved with have been based on a shared belief along the lines of, ‘Our product is great and will help clients; we just need to get them to see it.’ Sometimes this belief is stated out loud, and sometimes it’s implied by people’s actions.

It’s not hard to see why. The converse belief – that the product is marginally useful, uncompetitive or outdated – calls major investments or commitments into question, and may shake the foundations of the firm’s self-image.

If done right, the discipline of planning a marketing campaign should involve some searching questions about who’s going to buy the product and why. Subjecting a value proposition to the ‘so what?’ test is a great way to smoke out a false consensus. But it’s usually too late to turn the ship around anyway.

Stereotypes aren’t typical.

The idea of the conjunction fallacy was first proposed by pioneering psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who explained it with the example of Linda:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Most people answer 2, because it is more vivid and more in tune with Linda’s personality as they perceive it. It therefore ‘feels’ more plausible. In fact, 1 is more likely, because the probability of two things occurring in conjunction is always lower than the probability of one thing occurring on its own.

If we imagine Linda as a feminist bank teller who wears indigo jeans, listens to Beth Orton and drives a Volkswagen, she becomes more and more real in our minds, but we are actually even less likely to meet her in the real world. The more attributes we give her, however plausible they may seem, the less probable she becomes.

There are obvious parallels here with the use of marketing personas. To give our efforts some direction and humanity, we develop fictional characters to represent different target segments. In copywriting, it can be very productive to write to an individual – ideally, an actual person that you know in real life.

Whether real or not, though, working with a persona can lead us away from the complex needs of a large and diverse group of real-world customers. We could cater to the needs of a ‘Linda’ but forget that she represents a vanishingly small proportion of our market. Although we might feel we’re being ‘customer-centric’, we’re only actually being centric about a single customer – who might not even be real.

By combining various factors in a single personality, personas can obscure contradictory requirements that oblige us to make choices or compromises. What if half our target market demand higher quality, but the other half will only buy at a lower price? Multiple personas might help, but would still hide a lot of complexity.

Language shapes the way we think.

In a way, all these problems begin with the words we use at work. Just as political analysts speak of ‘voters’, so we speak of ‘consumers’. In reality, we’re all voters, and we’re all consumers too. Terms like ‘consumer’ and ‘voter’ are just hats we wear, or boxes we draw around certain aspects of ourselves.

By labelling others in a certain way, we set up a false distinction between their experience and ours, or make them less human in our minds. Similarly, by categorising their behaviours, we obscure the complexity of their personalities and reduce them to a single dimension. Often, we end up seeing the world as we are, rather than as it is.

Maybe we have to think this way, in order to solve the complicated marketing problems we face. But once we’ve come up with the answer, we should always remember how much we simplified the question.

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