Predictably Emotional: The World Is Unpredictable, But Our Audiences' Psychology Isn't
The last few months have forced us to come to terms with a fundamental truth of life: we live in an unpredictable world. But here’s some food for thought: taking into account the mutability of our life experience and the mind-boggling variety of possibilities we face every single second, why do we ever think that any aspect of our lives can - or should - be predicted?
Why bother predicting?
The answer to this question has to do with our evolution as a species. Our ancestors (the ones who successfully replicated at least) had to adapt to a dangerous environment in which there were many moving parts, much like we do now. Previous life experiences allowed them to create rules in their minds about the way in which the world normally works, which allowed them to proceed into the future with a feeling of relative stability. (Source)
Survival of the... quickest
From an evolutionary perspective, our brains have evolved to look at the available information and quickly deduct what is likely to happen in the future. (Source) If I see a tiger dash towards me and every other time I saw that happen, my Neanderthal friends died or got hurt, then it's helpful to predict that I’m in for the same outcome if I don’t start running, fast.
This, of course, happens in a split second in my mind. And that’s a key point: it happens in a split second. We’ve always needed to act quickly. This fundamentally transforms the way in which we make decisions. We don’t wait to get all of the information that we can possibly get before we act. (This is the root of the extrapolation bias.)
Most of the time in our evolution, we had very little of all the possible information we needed to make a decision. If you wait until the tiger is nibbling on your ear to be sure you should start running, your family tree ends with you. All of us, no lucky exceptions, are descendants of the savvy homo sapiens who were best at making fast and accurate predictions with little to no information.
Fast forward to now, and our minds haven’t changed as much as you’d think. We are still very much wired in the same way as we were back then. This is valuable insight to marketers who recognise the need to work with human nature rather than against it. This is the fundamental principle of behavioural economics.
An error that marketers make is believing that people are predominantly rational beings with occasional spurts of emotional behaviour. Analyse the marketing messages you see on a day to day basis and you’ll notice that a large part of them are geared towards the rational drivers: potential benefits, comparisons to competition, details about the product etc. But most of the time, that’s not what really gets our attention, is it?
If you’ve been paying attention to any of the behavioural economists over the past decade, you will know that people are emotional beings who post-rationalise their behaviour. (If you’re not so familiar with this, Dan Ariely’s TED talk is a great intro.) So telling them about all the rational reasons why your product is superior will most likely not make them queue in front of your store for hours - however, if you understand the fact that you need to appeal to their emotional drivers first, you might be onto something...
The anatomy of a decision
The way my mind works is this: I am exposed to a situation with whatever amount of information is available, I have an emotional reaction, I respond - and then I make up a rational story as to why I did it. (Source)
Let’s move this from theory into practice. Let’s say I go to buy detergent. I see the Tide branded one because it’s at eye level, I like the colour, that orange kind of reminds me of oranges and I like oranges, mmm orange juice - I should buy some orange juice! - oh and I remember how my grandma always used Tide and I always loved the smell, the logo reminds me of my home for some weird reason, it would be nice to see mom. I should call her! etc.
The quagmire of positive emotions and associations, combined with other factors such as it being in my price range and remembering the general quality of the product, makes me reach out and I buy the detergent - then I go home and tell my flatmate I bought it because it was on sale. The funny thing is, we probably wouldn’t even realise that isn’t true. (Now imagine if instead of my flatmate, I go to a Tide marketing focus group and tell them that price was the swaying factor… and they believe it!)
This is the way humans work. And this truth, when understood by marketers, has the potential of completely transforming the way we communicate with our audiences. If you acknowledge the fact that your audiences are predictably emotional and make decisions primarily because of their emotional drivers, how would that change the way in which you engage with them?
The decision-making process of our audiences is very much influenced by evolutionary factors, which behavioural economics highlights. Making predictions is just one of them - if you want to go down the rabbit hole, I recommend ‘Predictably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely;
People will see your brand communications and make emotional quality predictions about your product. Make sure that the initial emotional perception of your product is positive, salient and memorable;
Your audience is mostly driven by emotional factors in their decision-making process. Make sure that you appeal to their emotional drivers while also giving them enough rational information to reassure them.