Why do so few marketers have any sense?

Taste, smell and touch are proven to change behaviour, so why are they not included in more marketing briefs ask Ashton Bishop and Gary Wilkinson?

The 2013 Roy Morgan Image of Professions survey puts advertising people right down the bottom sandwiched between real estate agents and used car sales people.

Bishop (left) and Wilkinson

Bishop (left) and Wilkinson

The common thread of these bottom dwellers seems to be manipulation or the perception that somehow marketing people are manipulating consumers into buying things they potentially don’t need (the inherent degradation around the way we use the word ‘consumer’ may also have some sway in the matter).

Anyway, if marketers are so masterful at manipulation it strikes us as curious the seeming general resistance to many of the insights that behavioural economics is laying at marketing’s feet. Why do we ignore the effect of the senses on how people act?

Now if we assume that we’re playing in an open market and each brand is allowed ‘fair representation’ why is there still so much focus on the marketing campaign and relatively so little focus on the ‘conversion’ environments and the little inches we know that can make a massive difference here.

Maybe it’s because we’re more comfortable with top-down vs bottom-up influence. Top down is where your conscious mind makes an ‘executive decision’ that’s then rewarded with positive chemicals from the ‘older’ part of the brain. For example you hug somebody, then it feels good. We tend to accept this without too much challenge.

Bottom-up is where there’s a more clandestine influence of all our senses that your executive brain seemingly nods along with. For example if you sit next to a briefcase or other symbols of money and power you are likely to act more greedily. This is where things get tricky. See we might believe that might work on some ‘other people’, but we’re reluctant to believe it would work on us. And the fiddly bit is that if we actually focus on the object or consciously become aware of the ‘game’ it loses its effectiveness.

The power of this type of priming was demonstrated in 2003 by Kay and Wheeler with the Ultimatum game. There are two people and ten dollars. The first person gets to say what the split will be (eg: $5 each, or $9 to person one and $1 to the other person) then the second person says either ‘ok’ or ‘nothing’ in which neither party would get anything. The game is a cornerstone in disproving that we’re economically rational and raises many interesting insights about perceptions human self-worth; but it’s the power of the environment to sway the outcome that’s just gob-smacking.

When the game was run in a neutral setting the first player offered a 50/50 split 100% of the time. However, when photos were placed around the room to prime for business (think stock photos of dollars, brief cases, expensive fountain pens) only 50% offered an even split. And of course when asked why, not one person cited the environment as the cause.

The power of environment was explored further with the 2010 work of Josh Ackermann, Christopher Nocera and John Bargh. Here the experimenters got people to haggle for cars in soft and comfortable chairs and compared the results verses hard-backed, stiff chairs. As predicted the ‘hard’ bargaining was much more likely to occur on hard chairs when it comes to car lot negotiations. The chair was hard so they drove a hard bargain.

The observed effect is called embodied cognition where we translate the physical world into our current emotional state and actions. The 2008 work of Lawrence Williams and John Bargh proved that holding a warm cup of coffee or a heat pack makes us feel both warmer in reception to another person and also more generous.

It even extends to smell. Utrecht University proved in 2005 that the simple introduction of the smell of cleaning agents in the air could make students three times more likely to clean-up their mess after eating cookies. We’re sure there’s a Colonel in Kentucky who could also add some gravitas on the effectiveness of smell to sales.

Why then do so few marketing briefs specify colour, touch, sound and smell as tools to be considered and used in creating appealing environments. We’re yet to see a mystery shopping report that really considers the overall effect of the environment on the customer experience.

Maybe it’s the difficulty of isolating and measuring the individual and incremental effect of optimising these individual elements that means they’re just ignored. But with such a compelling body of scientific research at our disposal surely it’s the responsibility of every marketer to review all the environments they’re creating for their customers and make sure that sight, smell, touch, taste and sound are all working together.

Ashton Bishop is the head of strategy at Step Change Marketing and Gary Wilkinson is a behavioural psychologist and founder of Blisspoint Research.


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