The art of marketing has a scientific chip on its shoulder

Modern marketers are increasingly turning to science to give their art the legitimacy they clearly believe it’s lacking. It’s a rare client briefing these days that doesn’t include a perspective from a behavioural economist, an econometrician or a cognitive neuroscientist. To make evidence-based decisions, brands need to wrangle data into insights that can inspire fact-driven choices.

Mostly, I think this is wise. With bean counters running businesses, the geek truly have inherited.

Behavioural science I embrace wholeheartedly. Marketing communications is designed to get people to start doing something for the first time, to stop doing something altogether, to do more of something or do less of something; to floss, to quit smoking, to up the exercise or to drive slower. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays invented public relations with his slender tome Propaganda in 1928, and DDB’s founder Bill Bernbach effectively invented planning (a debate for another time) in the late 1940s under the influence of an obscure British academic, Graham Wallas. One of the early movers at the LSE, Wallas’ all-but impenetrable Art of Thought from 1926 became the bedrock of DDB’s approach to strategy thanks to James Webb Young’s retelling of Wallas in the very readable A Technique for Producing Ideas.

Econometrics has had a transformative impact on marketing. Thanks to the ability of its super-brainy practitioners who can build genuine, cause-and-effect models of what works and what doesn’t, brand custodians now know which half of their marketing investment is wasted, and dear old John Wanamaker can rest in peace, his over-quoted maxim a maxim no more. With sufficient investment in econometrics – always much less than the money its application will save a brand, often many tens of times over – marketers can know with certainty which channel or channel mix is doing what, how and why.

It’s cognitive neuroscience that leaves me least convinced, even though it’s closest to the academic pursuit I took furthest. Perhaps that’s the reason why I always question the claims made for neuromarketing, and why I’m so drawn to debunkers such as @neurobollocks and @Neuro_Skeptic. I approach brain science explanations of human decision-making about brands through three pairs of spectacles.

  1. The pair belonging to me the artisan, into my 27th year in the land of the hidden persuader
  2. The pair belonging to me the doctoral-level experimental psychologist
  3. The pair belonging to me the skeptic

So it was, with three pairs of metaphorical glasses perched on my nose, that I attended WARC’s second Brainy Bar event last week, exploring what experiments in explicit and implicit processing can tell us about why and how we make brand choices.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like WARC, I very much like the appliance of science to the arts of marketing, and I’m happy that the evidence-based approach is – finally – becoming the rule and not the exception in planning across all channels. Especially those that live in the digital space. One of the great paradoxes of digital has been the false dawn that the exponential rise in available data ushered in. Because we could measure everything – every click and swipe and breath along the customer journey – so we should have been able to understand what caused what. The truth, until recently, was rather different.

No. My objection is very definitely not marketing’s Zanussi-like appliance of science. It’s rather the headlong rush, and under-informed enthusiasm with which some – perhaps many? – brand folk are grasping at neuroscience. They see that the brain lights up in response to this configuration of food packaging or that balance of words and images and they assume a direct, cause-and-effect relationship.

We know more about the brain than ever, it’s true, and yet our understanding of the world’s most powerful super computer is still only in the foothills. We know that blood flow and electrical activity implies brain activity in areas of the brain associated with specific processes. But the brain is not a simple structure with a module that does X and another that does Y. It’s a super-complex network of parallel distributed processing – modulated by dozens of interacting neurotransmitters – in which it is the combination of activity in multiple locations that delivers action or cognition or decision-making.

Now to be fair, the WARC and Walnut Unlimited and Oxford Professor of Gastroporn speakers talking at WARC’s Brainy Bar last week went out of their way to bust some myths, and to encourage marketers and agencies to be cautious and circumspect. And it’s worth walking over glass to hear Ogilvy’s behavioural scientist in residence, Rory Sutherland, say almost anything. But by the nature of the thrilling stuff they showcased, I fear, we all got a little carried away with what the latest studies show, about decision-making in the Scottish referendum or food photography.

It’s great that neuroscience is getting a look in at the coal face of marketing, the profession that spends most time and money – politics aside – in trying to change attitudes, behaviour and advocacy. What is required is a little more circumspection, a little more skepticism, a little less neurobollocks (or rather a little more @neurobollocks), and a serious influx of post-doctoral neuroscientists into marketing communications. Otherwise, I fear, neuroscience will remain a fairy-dust sideshow and not be bolted into the heart of truly evidence-based communications designed demonstrably to change how we think.

Psychology is the study of human motivation and behaviour. And to use it to best effect in marketing requires an ability to understand, integrate and apply the science of attention, perception, memory, and reward. And that’s not something you just pick up by attending the odd seminar.



Seven things we learned from Brainy Bar 2

  1. Exposure to gastroporn – particularly “protein in motion” – makes you crave food and primes you to make worse food choices subsequently.
  1. The most popular tube journey in London is Leicester Square to Covent Garden, a journey it takes longer to take than to walk.
  1. One fifth of bees don’t obey the waggle dance and strike out independently. Without the rebels, hives would starve to death. 90-plus percent of irrational pollen forays are pointless, but boy – the few that aren’t locate treasure troves of pollen.
  1. When you ask people to tell you why they choose to do or favour something on emotional grounds, they can’t tell you. The emotional brain is opaque to introspection.
  1. We have been able to “do an Uber” – order a cab by phone – since 1911. It’s only the state of uncertainty (not being able to see icons of cars getting stuck as they try to reach us) that makes Uber in any sense disruptive.
  1. Davos man – homo oeconomicus with a travel budget – is obsessed with business as an efficiency competition. This is not the only game in town, particularly where innovation is concerned.
  1. A flower is just a weed with an advertising budget.