Today we begin a 3-part series that will attempt to develop a "theory of everything" for advertising. Okay, maybe not a "theory of everything", but...a theory, anyway. Or maybe it will be just another load of bullshit. Who the hell knows? After 7 1/2 years of writing this blog, I think I've finally figured out what the hell I'm trying to say. It's going to get a little heavy on hypotheses and philosophy, so buckle-up and hang on tight.
As we sit here today, we have two competing models of consumer behavior.
The first model suggests that consumer behavior is basically logical. This theory asserts that people behave rationally and do not throw their money away on stupid crap. There is a lot of persuasive evidence for this model. A good example is in retailing. Retailers know that they can stimulate sales by lowering prices, offering discounts, and utilizing other types of promotional activities. This is clear evidence for a rational basis to consumer behavior.
The second model asserts that consumer behavior is essentially irrational. This theory, brilliantly demonstrated by Daniel Kahneman, holds that people are not really aware of their motivations and are ruled by emotions. The evidence for this model is equally persuasive. In this space, I have previously related the story of the Toyota Corolla that was the exact same vehicle as the Chevy Geo Prism, cost $1,500 more, and outsold it 3 to 1.
So we are faced with a problem. We have contradictory models of consumer behavior that both seem to be valid. Either there is another model which we cannot see underlying them both, or we need a more comprehensive explanation that unifies the two.
In quantum physics an elementary particle can be understood as either a particle or a wave. I am going to suggest that in marketing consumer behavior also has a dual character.
Also in quantum physics there are no certainties -- just probabilities and likelihoods. I am going to suggest that in marketing, advertising, and media our strategies have no inevitability about them. Just probabilities and likelihoods.
On the nature of light, Einstein said:
"We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do".Another type of duality is described in the uncertainty principle which posits that you can know a particle's position or its velocity, but you can't simultaneously know both.
I believe this type of duality and uncertainty is true in advertising and marketing as well.
- Under certain circumstances, a brand can be described as having a powerful effect on a consumer. And in certain circumstances it may have little to no effect.
- The same person may buy a brand whose advertising she likes, as well as a brand whose advertising annoys her.
- The same person may buy products that are clearly differentiated, and products that are generic.
- The same person may buy products that are exceptionally good values, and some that are hideously overpriced.
In other words, there is an inherent contradictory duality that confounds us and mocks our most cherished beliefs about consumer behavior.
I'm going to invent an obnoxious term here, but it's necessary to communicate what I'm trying to say. The term is "behavior-plasticity."
- A customer may behave as if she is strongly attached to a brand, but she can also be easily detached from it. It seems contradictory, but my experience tells me it's true.
- A customer who seems to be perfectly targeted by a media type, may turn out to be completely immune to it.
- In the same product category, an emotional message or a logical message may be equally effective, or equally ineffective.
"Behavior-plasticity" -- or the duality of consumer behavior -- is the most mysterious and confusing element of marketing. It is the one factor that marketing people continuously misunderstand in their struggle to describe and predict consumer behavior.
Believing in the orthodoxy of one marketing philosophy, one media philosophy, or one creative philosophy is a trap that disguises the mysterious and fascinating real-world behavior of consumers.
Human beings are both particles and waves. Their behavior can be described in ways that are contradictory, but equally true.
I know what you're thinking...
" ...Okay, Mr. Big Shot, so now you have me all fucking confused with all this uncertainty crapola. So what the hell are we supposed to do?" Well, stay tuned for our next two exciting episodes and all will be revealed.
Big thanks to Maria Winston for the germ of this idea.