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There is No Magic Bullet

By Peter Steidl

I participated in a discussion thread on Mumbrella about the interpretation of research findings. Nothing technical at all. Just a question of cause and effect.

For example, when a survey finds that heavy users say more often than light users that they love the brand they buy, we cannot conclude that loving a brand leads to higher volume purchases. Or when people who buy consistently a particular brand say that they trust that brand, we cannot assume that trust was a key factor in the purchase decision. Or when 95% of consumers say they make their final purchase decision in the supermarket, we can’t conclude that most purchase decisions are made at the point of purchase.

Consumer Decision Making

We store memories of past experiences. When we face a new situation our non-conscious mind reviews these past experiences which then impact our decisions. We all habitualize routine tasks to free up our conscious mind for more important or enjoyable things. This is why the vast majority of grocery purchases is habitual – no purchase decision involved at all. We share some drivers – in particular dopamine. And we tend to have similar neurotransmitter trends correlated with age: like when men get older dopamine and testosterone decline and cortisol increases. We all share something very important with respect to our brain architecture and the resulting processes: Nobel Prize Laureate Kahnemann called it System 1 and System 2 – being essentially our ‘old’, nonconscious mind, and our ‘new’ conscious mind. Marketers are more likely to use terms such as ‘Executive Mind’ and ‘Habitual Mind’ (as suggested by Neale Martin), which does not capture all of Kahnemann’s model, but then he is a scientist and Neale a marketing consultant.

The more we learn, the less we know

These are just a few aspects we can take as ‘facts’ – knowing full well that research may at any stage deliver new insights that make these facts obsolete, but at this stage, we can say that hundreds of experiments and research studies support the validity of these key factors shaping purchase decision. This complexity is what makes marketing so interesting. There is no single factor that drives purchase decisions or determines preferences. The consumer’s mind is complex and there are many, often contradictory, factors that end up determining the purchase decision. We have learned much about how we can shape this decision, but the more we learn the more we understand that there is so much more we still don’t understand.

While even the most complex computer game is trivial compared to the consumer’s mind, I still feel that there is an analogy here that’s useful: There are some basic rules we have learned through solid, scientific research studies. These are the game rules. But beyond that, we need to explore and learn – in an intuitive as much as cognitive way – about the consumer and the context within which purchase decisions are made. Through exploration, we finally grasp another ‘rule’ that can explain a bit more of how this ‘game’ works and we can advance to the next level.

Once there, we realize that the game has now become more complex, with even more aspects to explore and understand. And so we observe, explore, use trial and error to learn and eventually progress to the next level and the next.

Difference between computers and human beings

But there is a huge difference between a computer game and the consumer’s mind. With the consumer’s mind, there are infinite levels to explore, learn, and move on from – nobody ever wins. There is no final level, no final wisdom, or skill that allows you to win the game.

Marketing is all about the journey and if you expect that somebody will one day find some magic buy button, concept, or idea that is all-powerful you will end up as a cranky old marketer who feels he has been cheated in his professional life. If, on the other hand, you love exploring, learning and testing then marketing is arguable the best career choice you can possibly make: you could have done all that too if you would have become a surgeon, but the good thing is that if you make a mistake you only lose a few market share points…

Author: Peter Steidl