The case for irrationality

We conducted a study recently on a major drinks category in supermarkets that threw up a rather interesting result; a result that, while intuitive in nature, calls into question a lot of what we build our understanding of marketing, advertising and research practices on.

In the study, a key brand in the drinks category was merchandised very differently in New World and Countdown. In New World it had pride of place, right in the centre of the shelf; the clear ‘brand leader’ position. In Countdown, it was ranged on the bottom shelf, off to the side.

Not surprisingly, in New World the brand sold in significantly greater volumes than in Countdown. But what was truly fascinating is that the brand was actually seen differently by buyers in each store. Buyers in New World actually imbued the brand with significantly stronger imagery than those who bought at Countdown. The brand was seen as better tasting, warmer, more social and of a higher quality.

The same brand, with the same packaging and communication was seen differently, depending on where it was placed on the shelf. Chances are that this intuitively makes sense to you, but what it suggests has quite far-reaching implications for how we practice marketing because consumers are using some less-than-rational processes to arrive at their brand purchase decisions and perceptions. Shelf position, in this example, is being used as a simple ‘rule of thumb’ to determine product quality and popularity, rather than any kind of serious analysis of product attributes.

We see this same ‘lazy’ decision-making all the time across many different kinds of studies. Buyers of new cars tend to rule out all but two or three car brands before they start really investigating what will be best for them and 40 percent of groceries in UK supermarkets are now bought on special (suggesting this is a handy alternative to real thinking at fixtures).

People, as a general rule, aren’t looking to optimise the decisions they make; they are looking to simplify them. In almost every study we conduct, the clear evidence is that they seek to ease cognitive burden placed on them by life. And this is a phenomenon well understood and recognised in academic circles, particularly those interested in social psychology. Indeed, the whole behavioural economics field is built on these ideas.

But despite the enormous body of knowledge that exists around how we short-cut, simplify and post-rationalise our decision-making—both academic and emerging from the market research that gets conducted every day—the way we go about marketing, communicating and understanding consumers continues to ignore these realities.

We still, by and large, look to understand consumers on some kind of mythical ‘journey’ towards purchasing, where they become aware of our product/service, build knowledge, foster desire and then act. We still ask people why they did things, accepting verbatim as truth the rationalisations they give us. And we persist in presenting rational arguments to people in order to ensure they can actively compare and judge products.

And beyond all of this, we continue to add more complexity to the very decision-making environments people are looking to simplify by adding new products, new channels of communication and greater levels of personalisation.

The first published reference to the Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action model of decision-making that formed this idea of ‘the consumer journey’ was in 1904. 109 years ago. Perhaps it is our desire to see ourselves as rational beings that keeps us attached to core marketing tenets such as this, but we see strong evidence that far greater opportunity exists for us as marketing practitioners in embracing the random, flawed and irrational true nature of consumers.

It’s about understanding people as they behave, not solely via their rationalisations before or after; understanding where potential exists for rules of thumb and our ‘fast-thinking’ system to be leveraged to drive brand growth, rather than ignoring these; and, above all, understanding how we can start seeing consumers as humans, rather than as processes. It’s time for marketing to stop pretending that rationality exists. 

  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of The Research Agency. 
  • This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing. 

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