Notes from a presentation at the Design Museum Mornings event held at Hill Holliday on October 24, 2014.
Advertising and design professionals have a lot more in common than our infrequent encounters would suggest.
First, we need each other. Things that designers make deserve good salesmanship. Equally, we in advertising need good products to sell. Without each other, we all would be out of business.
Second, and more importantly, design and advertising are solving fundamentally the same problem. We all are in the business of behavior change, we are in the business of getting someone to do something they are not already doing.
But we don’t socialize together often. When we do, it’s usually on a neutral territory – at things TEDx, or the events at MIT or the NERD center. But we don’t go to each others’ conferences. We don’t share the same awards. We rarely read the same books. We barely follow each other on Twitter as this network diagram of your guys’ Twitter connections shows.
I am glad we have this opportunity to get together.
At our research group, we spend a big chunk of our time on making our tools. Sometimes they are quite literally tools: algorithms and devices. But often they are new ways to think about our clients’ problems, new ways of seeing things. Today, I want to show you something we’ve been working on over the past year, and it is based on two ideas that came from the design field, and specifically from Don Norman’s books.
The first idea is the idea that visceral reactions can be more important than logical conclusions.
The other is the idea of mental models.
The Tooth Fairy and the Funnel
Mental models are constructs that we use to explain to ourselves how things around us work. They are maps that we use to navigate the world around us.
Mental models are important because just like real maps, they guide our behavior. And just like with maps, it is important for the mental models to be both accurate and plausible.
Mental models can be accurate but implausible; people will refuse to believe them. The heliocentric model of the universe, which is more accurate than the geocentric model, had remained hard to believe for a long time.
Then there are models that are plausible but inaccurate.
Here’s a mental model that will be familiar to everyone here who has kids or has ever been a kid. It’s commonly known as The Tooth Fairy. It is a very simple model: you put your baby tooth under the pillow, the Tooth Fairy comes, and in the morning there will be some money.
So this is a simple model that we construct for our kids and it is driving a number of behaviors. It makes the kid hand-write a note. It makes him brush his teeth. It makes him go easy on the candy.
And even models as simple as the Tooth Fairy can have non-trivial economic consequences.
Visa conducts a Tooth Fairy study every year, and this year it found that the average amount of money left by the Tooth Fairy under the pillow is $3.40. If you do some napkin math, all this baby tooth money amounts to about $300 million dollars a year. That’s about the same amount as the annual revenue of about 1000 small dentist practices combined.
So here we have a mental model that is obviously not an accurate representation of how things really work, and yet is plausible enough to have a sizeable behavioral and economic effect.
What does it have to do with advertising?
In the early 1900s, manufacturing is starting to become mass manufacturing. To be able to plan ahead and to make sure that these new large manufacturing capacities remain profitable, businessmen now need their advertising not only to sell things that are already available for sale immediately but to create a sustained demand for products that are yet to be made.
Advertising begins to take shape as an industry and starts to develop its own set of shared principles. One of these principles was about how you shouldn’t try to close the deal before attracting attention and getting the person interested. It was important not to mix up the order. A magazine for salesmen illustrated this idea with a picture of stacking buckets that can only fit one way.
This principle found its way into the first advertising book published in 1918, which has assured the idea’s a) wide acceptance, because now everyone who goes into business is indoctrinated with it, and b) an incredible longevity, because new advertising textbooks tend to build on the knowledge accumulated in the old ones.
But as with any idea that lives that long, it has largely lost its original context and has morphed over time into one of today’s most pervasive models of marketing and advertising — the marketing funnel.
The funnel is everywhere, and takes many different shapes.
In its basic form, the model states that customers go through certain mental states before purchase, and that we need to plan our advertising activities according to these stages.
This model is useful for a number of things, but it is useful in the same way the Tooth Fairy model is useful to a 6-year-old – you stick your marketing plan under the pillow, and in the morning you reach for the cash.
What exactly happens during the night is anyone’s guess, because neither the Tooth Fairy model nor the funnel provide an accurate explanation of the cause and effect.
A shopping trip is a string of decisions: a few big ones, and hundreds of small ones that happen largely outside of our awareness. Without a good understanding of the cause and effect in consumer choice, it is not entirely clear whether people buy stuff because or despite of what we do here.
So we began looking for a new model that would explain how the brain chooses. We started with this hypothesis:
People Tend to Buy What They Want
“People tend to buy what they want.” I would be the first to admit that this looks like a contender for the non-discovery of the century.
But because it is so obvious, it seems like nobody has really considered what it means “to want” something. What is “want”? How does “want” work?
In the marketing literature, there are many theories about why people buy that rely on words such as “respect”, “love”, “trust”, “warmth”. I guess it’s been always assumed that all these words are interchangeable with “want”. But they aren’t.
To see how “want” works, let me take you on a shopping trip.
Imagine you are a single guy at a Target store on a mission to pick up a new shower curtain. Now, how much do you really care about shower curtains? Probably not much, but someone told you it’s about time you got one.
You walk over to the bath aisle, and see these four options.
The first one, A, you rule out right away, too girly. The next one, B, is not quite that girly, and it costs the same. Then you see the one with the cityscape, C, and you kind of like that cityscape. The last one, D, is pretty plain, but it’s 10 bucks cheaper than the other three.
Which one are you going to choose?
There are two psychological concepts that are useful here. One is the hedonic axiom – all organisms behave in such a way as to maximize pleasure and minimize distress.
The other concept is the hedonic continuum – at a given time, all stimuli can be arranged on a spectrum from the least to most pleasant.
Here are our curtains laid out on the hedonic continuum.
As you look at the curtains, in your mind, you are weighting product features in terms of their hedonic value to you, and you are going to go with the one from which you expect the highest hedonic value.
This is the preference dimension that everyone knows about. A lot of exceptionally interesting work has been done to understand how people evaluate their options and construct their preference sets. That’s what a lot of marketing dollars are spent on – to get you to prefer one option over the other. I would guess that a lot of product design dollars go there as well, judging by the number of features crammed into products that don’t seem to require them.
But preferences are just one dimension. There’s a second one.
Just as you are about to grab curtain D, you turn around and you see this: a shower that looks like a YouTube page with a window in it. (It’s a real thing, by the way.)
Now, a number of things are happening in your brain at once.
You think of all the selfies you can take and post on Facebook. You think about the party you were planning to throw next week and how the guests will line up to take their own selfies with your curtain.
You think about how awesome everyone will think you are.
Psychologists call this “incentive salience”. It means that, first, a cue – in this case, a shower curtain — triggers a desire for a particular psychological reward that is now brought to the foreground and magnified. The reward in this case is being admired by your peers. And second, the cue itself becomes associated with the reward and becomes an object of desire itself.
Unlike a few minutes ago, you are now thinking about how good it feels to be admired, and you view this curtain not just as a shower curtain that protects your bathroom from splashes, but as a means to being admired.
The curtain has just moved from being one of many things into a being a category of one – a thing that protects a bathroom from splashing AND earns you admiration.
You not only like that curtain, you want it. If preferences are one dimension, then desire is the second one.
Sun Tzu said: “The greatest victory is the one that requires no battle”. Fighting over the customer’s preference is an arms race with an uncertain outcome. Making the customer want assures victory even before you arrive at the battlefield.
This is where we want our brands.
The iPhone is in the category of one. Typically, people who buy iPhones don’t go out to shop for a smartphone. They go to buy an iPhone. The iPhone is more than just a sum of its features, it gives you something other phones don’t.
When you see something you want, you pupils are dilated, your skin conductance is increased, and your heart skips a beat. In psychology-speak, you are experiencing a heightened level of arousal.
Because there are ways to measure one’s arousal level, we now have two dimensions for evaluating one’s response to a brand cue.
First, we can measure where one places the brand on the hedonic continuum – how much you like or dislike it relative to other options. In other words, we can evaluate preferences.
Second, we can measure one’s level of arousal in response to the cue to establish whether a particular option is associated with a reward one desires.
This gives us a system — we call this system Mindheart — that can tell us how people feel about a set of brands
Here we measured and graphed 200 men’s feelings about Maybelline and Black & Decker. You see that there’s a lot of indifference towards Maybelline among men, and a lot of desire towards Black & Decker.
We can also use it to compare how different groups of people feel about the same brand. Here’s an example of how men and women feel about Hooters. You see a lot more pleasurable high-arousal responses (no pun intended) among men than among women.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our experiments showed that the brands that have more people in the desire quadrant are likely to be chosen by more people.
And we also just saw that to get people to desire your product, you need to associate it with something people already want.
People don’t buy products. They buy keys to their desires.
There’s this famous saying about how people don’t buy drills, they buy holes. Only they don’t really buy holes either, they buy themselves some peace and quiet at home, or a warm memory that comes back every time the look at the picture on the wall, or the admiration of their friends, or a sense of accomplishment.
We call all these things emotional rewards.
There’s a large body of academic thinking that goes back a hundred years about what these emotional rewards are. One of the first attempts to classify them at the end of the 19th century produced a list of 4000 of these rewards – or instincts, as they were called then. We’ve distilled these rewards down to ten.
Power is the feeling of dominance over others. Autonomy is the feeling of independence. The sense of purpose is just that – the feeling that you serve a larger purpose. Belonging is that feeling that you get when you put on a jersey and go to a game — you are now a part of something bigger. Intimacy is that feeling you get when you spend a night chatting with a friend you haven’t seen for ages.
Charles Revlon said it best: “In the factory we manufacture lipstick, in the store we sell hope.”
DeBeers ads may sell diamonds, but what are you really buying with your two-month salary? Before this famous campaign that launched in the 1950s, diamonds were only one of many options for engagement ring gems. Today, diamonds are in the category of one. You don’t really get to choose between diamonds and other gems anymore because there are a lot of psychological sticks and carrots that keep you on track.
Axe sells a superpower in a pressurized container. (Exhibit A: the Billions ad. Watch the guy’s face.)
Dove and its campaign for real beauty sells you a promise that you won’t be alone. People who don’t feel attractive feel others are judging them and as a result they tend to socialize less and isolate themselves more.
Knowing what people want gives you a sort of an X-ray vision, a sixth sense.
People who work in user experience like to say that a good product is the one that’s useful, usable, and desirable. Knowing what people want helps you design desirable products, by definition.
There’s a famous story about Betty Crocker and their new cake mixes back in 1953. They were fantastic mixes, easy to make, delicious. They weren’t selling very well.
What the company did was they removed powdered eggs from the mix and let women add the eggs themselves to satisfy their desire not to feel sidelined, useless.
What type of an organization would you build if you knew what your people wanted? My friend Parmesh works at Godrej, a large Indian conglomerate. He told me how they are rearchitecting the company’s culture by changing one question they ask their candidates. Instead of asking “What are your grades?” they now ask “What are your dreams?”
Imagine a company of people that share a dream instead of a GPA. Imagine what these people could achieve together.
So you see how a using a different mental model can help you arrive at completely new places, places that have better advertising, and perhaps better products.
And that’s one of the many things that advertising and design people could talk about next time they get together, which I hope will be happening often.
For the event, we created a network diagram that showed Twitter connections between the event attendees. You can download the pdf version of the diagram here.
Network diagram: analysis by Henry, design by Andres, tech by Bill and Jared
Pictures of shower curtains are from Target’s website, except for the YouTube curtain, which you can buy on Amazon.
Visa publishes results of its annual Tooth Fairy survey on this page.