A major problem with marketers is that they tend to overestimate the interest buyers have in their brands, says Richard Chataway, founder of Communication Science Group.
Richard Chataway is the founder of Communication Science Group (CSG), a UK-based consulting agency that makes available academic thinkers in applied behavioral science to help marketers and communications professionals become more scientifically grounded. Together with his firm, Detavernier Strategic Communication is currently developing an evidence-based media training module.
Richard is one of the most experienced practitioners in behavior change communications in the United Kingdom and has worked for the UK and Australian governments in public health comms. Richard is also the author of the recently published The Behaviour Business (Harriman House) and is a Member of the Board of the Association for Business Psychology.
We had a conversation with Richard on the science of marketing, COVID-19 risk communications, the key ideas he developed in his new book, and much more.
How Brands Grow
Jo: We both have in common that we attach great importance to the work of the Australian marketing academic Byron Sharp. Tell me a little bit about how he has inspired you.
Richard: I have been helping companies with marketing advice for quite a few years now, and know that people do not function in exclusively rational ways. Thanks to the work of Byron Sharp, I was able to connect my behavioral insights with marketing models that actually work. Take the outdated AIDA model for example, where people go from Attention to Action over Interest and Desire.
From behavioral science, I know that people do not overthink their actions first.
So to me, there was a conflict between what marketing says and what science teaches us, and when I was in Australia, from 2012 to 2015, I became aware of Byron Sharp’s work and his book How Brands Grow. Here, I found somebody who applied the science on how people behave to marketing. He had the scientific approach, the data, to back up his claims about what does and does not work. Sharp made clear that a lot of marketing is based on gut feelings and not an evidence-based approach or science. One of his important insights is the need for brands to gain mental availability with consumers
Jo: Yes. It is all about mental and physical availability, says Sharp. How does mental availability differ from one of his other key concepts, the need for brands to be distinct?
Richard: The associations you have with a particular brand or product need to mark that product. There is a lot of debate around distinctiveness and differentiation. They are not the same. You can be distinctive without being differentiated. If you look at a lot of categories, there are a lot of products that are the same. Consumers really have a hard time differentiating between brands. So distinctiveness is important – if you are not distinctive, nobody will be able to tell you apart.
I will share an anecdote with you. The concept of distinctiveness was clearly illustrated to me when I moved to Australia. I went into a supermarket for the first time and it was really difficult because I did not know any of the brands. So we tend to forget how these distinctive features from brands help us with our purchasing decisions.
Jo: You were looking for the colors and shapes of brands you grew up with?
Richard: Yes, when all the semiotics around different brands are removed, it becomes difficult to activate any unconscious associations, and that is the role of marketing, to achieve that goal. We all use cues we are consciously unaware of and behavioral science tells us how this works. And then marketing science, as developed by people like Byron Sharp, teaches us how to build the brand associations.
Jo: Sharp focuses very much on B2C, but his findings are presented as also applying to B2B. Which B2B brands excel at applying behavioral science findings?
Richard: I really liked the campaign “nobody got fired from IBM” which plugged nicely into the bias of loss aversion where we are afraid to lose things and will do anything to avoid that from happening. The message here is to buy IBM, because it will reduce your chances of being fired. There are some assumptions we make about B2B decision making. We think that people, once they are in an office, become rational decision-makers, but the opposite is true. There are as many subconscious drivers of behavior in the business world as there are in the supermarket.
A few years back, Gartner and Google conducted a seminal study on the importance of personal value to B2B decision makers. Sure, as a B2B buyer, it is not your money you are spending, but if you think of it, the consequences of a less than fortunate decision are potentially grave, so loss aversion is a strong driver of B2B buying behavior.
What purpose is good for
The evidence on purpose as a driver of buying is not strong.
Jo: Should companies be talking purpose with their stakeholders? Should they address Black Lives Matter with their patrons?
Richard: The evidence on purpose as a driver of buying is not strong. There are risks to purpose driven stances. Companies should want to behave in an ethical way because it is the right thing to do first and foremost. For some products, purpose can be intrinsic to the product. This is the case when it corresponds with the core features of the product. When an important part of your distinctiveness is that you use natural ingredients, then this is something that is important to the brand.
So similar to this, if you are advocating for Black Lives Matter but have not a single African-American employee on your board, that will not be useful. On the other hand, purpose can still be useful to drive cultural change within a company, of course. But I would then recommend you start with the culture first, and then communicate about purpose to your customers only once the culture is where you want it to be
Where marketers need to science up
Jo: What is the one thing marketers do wrong still in 2020? Where do they need to science up?
Richard: The bias a lot of marketers have is that they assume they are the target audience, that the target audience cares about the product. In my book, I say that marketers need a sign in their office that says “I am not the target audience”. The reality is that people only spend a split second making a decision about buying a product. So marketers tend to overestimate the degree to which people care about the companies that employ them. One example among many is the proliferation of social media channels, as if consumers want to engage with brands everywhere they go online.
Jo: The concept of the “conversation company” is built on less than solid grounds, you are telling me.
Richard: The social media channels need to be performing some kind of function. That could be as part of a sales campaign or maybe just to provide customer service. Another key thing I learned from Sharp is that marketing is really all about growth, it is not about driving awareness, it is not about driving engagement.
Jo: What is the controlling idea of your book?
Richard: The central premise of the book is that if you are in business, you are in the business of behavior. If you are not applying to your business knowledge on how people behave, you will not succeed. I lay out the challenge and provide a framework and examples on how to apply behavioral sciences to different domains of business: product design, employee behavior, marketing and many more.
Jo: I have a question on content marketing for you. How far are we with understanding how thought leadership content should best be ideated and formatted? Let’s say I am in the business of repairing a roof. Should I write a blog post on 5 tips on how to repair a roof or should I toil on 5 tips on how to avoid pitfalls in repairing a roof? What do we know about both how people process educational information and how they perceive the expertise of authors?
Richard: There is a lot of good evidence on this. Some experiments have been conducted on the impact of the communicator. Let it be clear that who communicates is as important as what is communicated. Authority bias is an important concept to understand in this context. Let me use the example of how toothpaste brands go about their marketing. Sometimes in their advertising they will use a dentist in a white coat. This person will be used when communicating about the positive health benefits of toothpaste. If the message is about how fresh it makes your mouth feel, ordinary members of the public are used. In one instance you need an authority figure, this is when you talk about the health benefits, but in another instance, when you are communicating something non-scientific, it is better to work with someone people have affinity with, a peer.
Now, on your question about the messaging. Loss aversion is an important bias you might want to account for with your content. What is more salient about fixing the roof? Five tips as such does not look very appealing to me. Five pitfalls to avoid makes for a much more compelling angle mainly because of the loss aversion that it speaks to. Highlighting the negative consequences will definitely be more emotionally resonant with people.
Jo: Talking about emotional resonance, how is COVID-19 impacting how people are processing marketing communication? I would intuitively think that people’s attention span has not improved, just to give one example.
The business of behavior
Richard: There has surely been a high degree of saturation with messages on COVID-19. A lot of brands have been communicating a lot on COVID-19, so there is a problem with distinctiveness. Also, remember what I said about the bias with marketers thinking that people care about their brands. To achieve resonance, you will have to make the messages personally relevant to your audience. I was astonished by the amount of corporate communications that I received that started with “dear customer” in lieu of “dear Richard”. Digital marketing 101 is really that you personalize the message. Behavioral scientists call this the cocktail party effect. People pick up a message when you mention their name. That is a really easy, effective tool to use in any one-to-one communication. In this situation, it is even more critical that you do that otherwise you will not cut through the noise.
A lot of the communications I saw did not recognize the situation consumers were in, so we have companies talking about the tough times they are facing themselves, while forgetting about the consumers in their messaging. Brands need to recognize this. When you are a hotel business and you are introducing new cleaning practices, talk about how you are doing this to protect your employees and patrons, don’t lead with how you are undertaking the changes because you are being forced to by the government.
Balancing rational and emotional communication
If you are communicating, you need to appeal to both System 1 and System 2, to emotional and rational arguments.
Jo: How should we balance the rational and emotional elements of communication? Should all content appeal to both rational and emotional arguments?
Richard: All purchasing decisions, be they B2C or B2B, have a bit of both to them, using both System 1 and System 2 thinking. Of course, the nature of the decision of buying a chocolate bar is different from buying a house, so one is more System 1 than the other. On the other hand, people can get influenced when buying a house by the smell of freshly baked bread. And when you buy a chocolate bar, you might for a second hesitate if you see that the bar next to the one you grabbed for first is sold at a discount.
There is, at any rate, even in B2B buying decisions, room for emotional content as the aforementioned Gartner and Google research has shown. Often System 1 makes the decision, and then System 2 explains it. “We think of our rational brain to be the Oval Office, but it is in fact the press Office” is a great quote from Jonathan Haidt. If you are communicating, you need to appeal to both System 1 and System 2, to emotional and rational arguments, where you do not only trigger the behavior but also hand over arguments to rationalize it afterwards.
Communicating on COVID-19
Jo: How do you evaluate the way the UK government has conducted its COVID-19 communication?
Richard: The UK government’s response has been very mixed. When I worked in 2010 for the UK government, we trained people on change communications best practices and used the example of the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, and one learning from that pandemic was that people were more likely to follow the health instructions from health advisors than from politicians. What was interesting about the government’s response to COVID-19 was that when they did their daily briefings, you had the senior health advisors present and they would talk about recommended behaviors. So that was good.
There was also a lot of good messaging such as the “Protect the NHS” slogan which worked very well – this was a clever way of tapping into people’s love for the NHS. But then after that the messaging became more muddy. For example, the communication on wearing masks where people were told that the measures would only take effect in a week… did we mean to give the virus a head start? Decisions were made that did not make much sense and messaging was not consistent. The government pivoted from Stay at Home to Stay Alert messaging but what did the latter even mean? The enemy is invisible, so staying alert is no easy feat.
Jo: There was a lot to do about “behavioral fatigue” – it was said by the government that if restrictions came into force too early, people would become increasingly uncooperative, just as the outbreak would hit a high point – some scientists contested the concept.
Richard: Well, there is some evidence for it. There is no evidence, however, that it applies to pandemics, so a lot of academics were rightly concerned about it. The other problem was that behavioral science was perceived by some to be the end all and be all of the government’s response. That was not the case however. You can never solve the problem of COVID-19 with only behavioral science.
Did you enjoy this piece on the role of behavioral science in marketing?
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