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17 January 2017

Nobody loves a psychopath


When you come right down to it, what is “business” exactly?

At its core it’s probably as simple as one guy going out in the world and producing some value, and then receiving value from another party in return.

If this is true, then it stands to reason that in order to maximise the value we receive in life, we have to maximise the value we give. One follows the other. Indeed we see this proven everywhere we look in life. The friends who bring the most to our lives are the ones to whom we are most loyal. The employee who adds the most to our business is the one who gets paid the most.

This seems like common sense. But if this is true, and if business is just a logical extension of human relationships, then why do we not follow the same value provision principle in marketing?

Marketers are constantly looking at problems with a value extraction mindset, rather than a value provision one. What are we going to get out of this? Can we quantify it?

Often if we can’t draw a direct and immediate thread between action and reward – one so simple that it can be represented on a spreadsheet – then we consider the action to be inherently pointless. This is the very basis of the theory of “return on investment”.

Now, there is a kind of cold logic to this approach of viewing all action without immediate reward as being superfluous. Indeed we even see it deployed in people from time to time. We call these people “psychopaths”.

I mean, when you think about it, what has better ROI: helping an old lady cross the street, or mugging her? If we look at it on a basic level then surely the mugging is the smart course of action. I can certainly put that into my Excel model and pat myself on the back for a job well done at the end of the day.

However, as human beings we know that generally speaking the kind of people who help old ladies cross the street are, as a rule, more successful in the big picture than the type who mug them. It may seem illogical, and yes, hard to quantify, but somehow we accept this truth.

But with our brand hats on, we can’t accept this. We rarely do things just because they’re worthwhile, having faith that we will receive our reward somewhere down the line in the universal big picture. Instead we just try and grab the reward directly.

This explains many much hated marketing behaviours – from manipulative messaging, to interruptive noise, to pushy sales techniques, to under-the-radar data capture, to self-centred blathering with little relevance to the audience at all. This why 88% of consumers think brands are selfish, with 72% saying that they spend most of the time just talking about them-selves, according to Psycho Brands, a new study of 2,000 consumers. Unsurprisingly, some 92% of respondents also believe there is a disconnect between what brands say and what they do, which suggests there’s a major trust gap.

We make our brands behave like psychopaths all because of our inability to see the big picture and the long term, and then wonder why we don’t inspire love and loyalty. We need to move our focus from the inhuman mindset of value extraction to the human one of value provision. How can we best help, educate, inspire, or entertain people in our chosen fields? And how can we make this behaviour a matter of course, not a one-off experiment to be ditched when we don’t see immediate riches?

Just like a person, a brand has a long-term lifecycle. It has to grow and mature, earning goodwill bit by bit, action followed by action. This is the secret that genuinely loved brands like Apple, Patagonia, Lush and so on understand, and which the rest puzzle over.

To join them just ask a simple question on your next campaign: not what can your customers do for you, but what can you do for your customers? It sounds horribly obvious, but how much marketing that you can think of does it really apply to? How many briefs have been written emphasising value? How much marketing can you think of that people are actively grateful for?

Just like helping that old lady, you won’t see any immediate windfall. But you will be taking a first step to becoming human.

By Alex Smith, Planning Director at real world marketing agency Sense


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