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The Irrational Side of Consumers’ Decisions

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Les Binet and Sarah Carter get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them… like the myth that thinking drives brand choice.

A few months ago, at a conference, we were approached by a marketer responsible for a huge global brand. She had a dilemma she wanted to discuss with us. What is the “functional hierarchy” that consumers use when choosing a soft drink? For instance, do they start by deciding what size can they want, then decide on a flavour, and then choose a brand? Or do they do it in a different order? What other factors do they consider?

Grrrrrr… Why do marketing professionals talk like this about “consumers”? Consumers are just ordinary people like ourselves, and a moment’s reflection makes it blindingly obvious that none of us makes decisions in such a rational, sequential way.

Try it. Go to the supermarket, stand in front of the soft drinks, and try to choose between them in the way that our marketing friend suggests. Weigh up the different factors, and work your way through them, one by one. How long did that take you? Now, imagine doing that for every single item on your shopping list. How long do you think your weekly trip to Sainsbury’s would take? Decision-making flow charts and functional hierarchies may look nice and tidy on a Powerpoint chart, but real life decisions just ain’t made like that.

Anyone who has any understanding of real people knows that the way we make decisions is usually illogical, contradictory, and messy. We are guided by feelings, intuitions, hunches and habits. We say one thing, then do another. We’re more Homer Simpson than Mr Spock.

Now, finally, academia is giving us hard evidence of all this. Psychologists and economists are beginning to paint a very different picture of how people make choices. It is becoming increasingly obvious that most of the mental processing that guides our actions is associative rather than logical, emotional rather than rational. Conscious, verbal thinking seems to play a fairly minor role most of the time. And the parallel processing architecture of the brain makes a mockery of sequential flow-charts like the one our friend described.

The bottom line is that people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the products and services they buy. Most of the decision making is done on gut feel, even for big-ticket items like cars and houses. Our choices are mostly steered by intuitions and feelings that none of us really understand, and conscious thinking is mostly a matter of cross-checking (or rubber stamping) those intuitive decisions.

We may not much like it, because we spend so many hours of our working day wrapped up in the intricacies of our particular brands, but the truth is that ordinary people don’t think about much about brands, categories or markets. In fact, human beings don’t do much real thinking about any of their actions. As Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, put it: “Humans are to independent thinking as cats are to swimming – we can do it when we have to, but we’d much prefer not to.”

So why does all this matter? Well, consider the following example. A client recently told us that he devoted most of his marketing budget to in-store activity, because that’s where most decisions are made. We asked him how he knew that. He replied that research showed that most people didn’t know which brand they were going to buy before they entered the store. They hadn’t come to a conscious, rational decision outside the shop, so they must be doing it inside.

Once you understand how people really make choices, it becomes obvious that this kind of thinking is completely flawed, and that the client in question is probably making a big mistake.

It seems to us that this “thinking” myth is one of the most dangerous and pervasive in marketing today. It explains our misguided obsession with “messages”, “propositions” and “reasons to believe”. It is the reason why so much of our research is useless. It leads to advertising that under-performs. The implications are huge, and we’ll cover many of them in the months ahead.

Les BinetEuropean DirectorDDB Matrix

Sarah CarterStrategy DirectorDDB UK

Guest Author DDB Worldwide

Posted November 28, 2011 at 7:14pm

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