Imagine you are on a diet. May be because of a desire to lose weight, could be just part of a new regime to adopt a healthier lifestyle. You’re doing really well, sticking to your new dietary regime and counting the calories like a seasoned pro. Then a well-meaning friend or loved one offers you that last slice of cheesecake. You succumb to temptation, devour that tasty sugar hit, and your diet is blown out of the window.
Sound familiar? It’s probably happened to most of us at one time or another. But why? A simple answer is that we all differ in our ability to exercise self-control, which is of course true, but there is more to it than that. To fully explain the last-slice-of-cheescake effect, we need to consider the brain that is finding all that sugar tempting and take a quick trip back in time to our species’ past.
Suppose the whole of human history was just one twenty-four-hour day. Stable settlements – farms, villages, and so on – would not begin to emerge until around 23:59 at the end of that hypothetical day. For most of our history, modern humans lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, inhabiting an at times harsh environment not dissimilar to the African Savanna region today. It was a world far more challenging than the comparatively sedate lifestyles that even the busiest of us enjoy today and, crucially, it was an environment in which calories were scarce. So, that last slice of cheesecake could have been of huge survival significance to our ancestors. And that’s the ultimate answer to our failure of self-control!
The brain did not evolve in that final minute of our hypothetical day. It is a product of natural selection pressures present in the ancestral environment and was shaped to maximise our chances of surviving, reproducing and passing on our genes to the next generation. Put another way, the brain is a biological computer that receives inputs from the environment, processes them, and generates a suitable output that we call behaviour. This computer is not calibrated to the modern world, however, but to the environment within which it evolved. So, although we know that last slice of cheesecake is potentially harmful to us now, we find it hard to resist because the need to devour calories would have been essential to our survival and is “hard-wired” into the brain.
This is the central premise behind our behavioural science approach to marketing. The brain is composed of a vast network of neural circuits that handle all of our information-processing needs, largely at a non-conscious level, but those circuits were shaped by natural selection to address the challenges faced by our ancestors and not the modern world. Our inability to sometimes resist a nice juicy burger or a slice of cheesecake is simply a consequence of the continuing influence of brain circuits that evolved to ensure we seek out and consume foods high in fat and sugar content. A motivation to consume what we now call “junk” foods, if you like.
The things we manufacture, desire, purchase and consume are all products of our brain’s evolutionary heritage. They are the result of our need to survive, reproduce and pass on our genes, The circuits in the brain that emerged in the ancestral environment still exist and they represent the ultimate motivations behind many acts of consumption today. These circuits are the real reasons why we crave fatty foods, find beaches and the open countryside so appealing, and why we use the latest fashions and technology products to attract the opposite sex and see-off potential rivals. And as technology becomes more advanced and less expensive, it is becoming easier and easier for behavioural scientists to shed new light on the neural circuits driving consumer wants, needs and desires. It is a very different and more scientific take on human motivations than those espoused by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, or by those so-called “hidden persuaders” such as Edward Bernays and Ernest Dichter. Consumer motivational research these days is more about uncovering the original purposes of a behaviour, charting the neural circuits generating that behaviour, and understanding the stimuli around us that may enhance or hinder that motivational process.
Why does all this matter to marketers? Because understanding the non-conscious motivations driving consumer wants, needs and desires allows us to develop more effective and appealing marketing stimuli. Got a bottled beer to promote? A simple ad showing that beer being drunk by a group of friends in a bar will generate some extra sales because the beer is being presented in an appealing social context right for the product. Got a rival beer to promote? Place your bottled beer in an ice bucket on an beech, the blue ocean visible in the background, and you will get more sales for your brand than your rival! Why? Because humans favour savanna-type landscapes, wide-open spaces with an abundance of resources such as water, so the consumer’s brain finds the beech ad more appealing at a non-conscious level, increasing the likelihood of purchase.
This is the focus of my own work – uncovering the deep-rooted drivers (DRDs) of consumer behaviour from our evolutionary past and exploring how brands can better leverage these in crafting their marketing message. The pages in this section of my website present a useful framework for understanding and applying these DRDs in everyday marketing activities. I shall also post a growing repository of examples of the marketing insights a behavioural science approach can bring.