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12 February 2013

Things consumers never say about advertising


By Martin Harrison, Huge (part of SoDA)

One thing I have yet to hear a consumer say about advertising is, “Over time, it steadily positively reinforced a deeply held idea about how I’d like to be.” But then, I’ve yet to hear someone say, “I actively seek out facts that chime with my pre-defined point of view and ignore those that don’t”. That said, I haven’t really looked, I suppose.

Anyway, let me tell you a story about habit. Some years ago, I worked on the direct mail account for a large circulation weekly UK magazine. Our strategy was to drive sales through coupons; send out four/eight/twelve coupons and customers would duly redeem them, boosting circulation by 5-10%, depending on mailing volume. We had one mailing file that would redeem at 85%. 85%!

Nothing beats experiential!

But as soon as the coupons ran out, circulation went right back to where it was. We couldn’t drive any kind of long-term effect. All we were doing was paying for a circulation boost. Paying handsomely. We tried sending more and more coupons, reasoning that if they read the bloody thing for three months straight, they’d surely get into the habit of buying it. Maybe four months?

Clearly, something was wrong. So, together with my planner, we wrote a brief: get readers into the habit of reading the magazine. We then went off to learn about habit.

The amazing thing was the literature boiled down to about three academic papers. And they didn’t really agree with each other. We were trying to get consumers to do something that seemed obvious and basic, to form a habit, and it turned out nobody really had a really firm idea of what a habit actually was.

It was the first time I came across the wonderful phrase ‘cognitive misers’.  The brain is an expensive asset, using up the vast bulk of the body’s energy. Thinking is hard work so the brain developed the ability to ration out what it will let you think about. One way that it does this is to form habits: shortcuts for repeated tasks.

Even more remarkable is that once a habit is formed, the brain does not like to change it, even when, and this is key, a better alternative is presented.

Let’s say you drive to work every day. If you do, you know how automatic that gets. You get in your car and then you’re pulling into a parking space. You have a moment of horror when you realise that you have no idea what actually happened for the last 20 minutes.

So you’re in work, and someone says, “Oh, you live there? Did you know, if you cut down Acacia Avenue then turn left, it brings you out at the Kwik-E-Mart? Takes five minutes off the journey, easy.”

The next day, you pull into your car parking space and think, “Christ, I meant to try that new route. Oh well.” You repeat this the following day.

In the background, in what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1, your brain has decided it’s not worth the cognitive effort involved in forming a new habit, so dismissed the shortcut  without you ever really noticing.  That’s scary, no? It’s like your brain is the husband in Rosemary’s Baby.

Take, for example, the classic ‘irrational’ behaviour outlined in The Paradox of Choice. When consumers are confronted with six types of a product, they buy one. When presented with 24, they buy none. It’s not really irrational, it’s the brain stepping in and deciding, “Sod this, have a sandwich.” It’s not worth the effort to choose.

Suddenly, the challenge we had set ourselves looked formidable.

Luckily, there are a couple of things that can lead to habit formation. The habit needs a trigger of some kind: a time, a place: something that allows the brain to slip into automatic.

But an interesting and powerful note is that you need to perceive yourself as the type of person who might form that habit. This is a tricky concept to unpack (we argued about it a lot) but I think a friend summed it up when he said “I think the reason I struggle so much to give up smoking is because I love being a smoker. It just makes me look better.” Put another way, you’re much more likely to find yourself half way to work on your bike if you are a naturally physical outdoorsy person than if you don’t like exercise or fresh air.

So we tested two creative routes. The first was an attempt to anchor the behaviour in a time and place. When you buy the magazine on Tuesday, you should read it in this way and at this time to get the best from it. To be honest, this route always felt vaguely grubby.

The second route explained how much more interesting and better informed those who regularly read the magazine were. (You may recognize this strategy; it wasn’t that newspaper) They redeemed the coupons and then carried right on reading the magazine. It beat the first route out of sight.

So that’s one thing consumers never say about advertising: “It works when it reflects the me I want to be”. That and “I wish I could extend this experience cross-platform”.

Editor’s note: Here are Cream Global’s choicest examples of brands that made use of marketing aimed directly at consumers in a targetted way:

  1. Toni & Guy
  2. Vatel (restaurant)
  3. Range Rover

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