I was invited to speak at the AQR's conference in Valencia in May. I've reproduced my talk here since so many have asked to see the it. It's one of those presentations that's more pictures than words so I've included my notes to help it make sense.
This afternoon I feel like a bit of a fraud. I am up here to talk to you about a model Inkling have developed around standout. In fact I am the type of person who, whenever someone says ‘we’ve developed a new model’, rolls their eyes and immediately switches on the cynical side of their brain
Because we all know, there is no one way that comms work and no one model that works in every situation
So what I’m not going to do in the next 20 minutes is try to sell you Inkling’s model of standout
What I really want to talk to you about is what prompted us to create it. What I want to sell you on is the need to solve a particular problem in the way that we talk to clients about Behavioural Science
That’s the title of this afternoon’s segment. But, for all the attention Behavioural Science and System 1 Thinking has been getting, has it really led to a revolution in the way we plan and activate comms?
Let’s take a moment to step outside the bubble of a conference dedicated to consumer research. How “mainstream” has behavioural science really gone?
Probably quite a few people own a book on it.
But compared with many of the other Big Ideas to hit comms in the last couple of decades, the influence Behavioural Science has had on what brands and creative agencies actually produce has been relatively modest
Why is it that most practitioners outside this room - and probably quite a few of us in it - would struggle to give even one solid example of having consciously applied System 1 Thinking to a comms brief?
We can’t claim it’s because the whole area is still too new. The ideas are based on theories that go back to the beginning of neuropsychology, and in terms of making it accessible for all, books like Predictably Irrational and Nudge came out a decade ago.
Sometimes, it feels as though behavioural science is mainstream everywhere but advertising
The reality is there are some inherent tensions in the application of Behavioural Science to marketing practice. If we really believe that this idea is a “big one” we need to resolve these
The first, and the one I feel I experience as a barrier most often, is complexity. System 1 Thinking sounds so straight forward: ‘people don’t always make decisions with the rational bit of their brain’. Easy.
But as soon as you get to the question of how they do make decisions, hundreds of cognitive biases and contextual stimuli come into play. Which ones matter? Which ones do I need to know about to write this brief, evaluate this campaign? Ultimately, when it comes to applying it, for many Behavioural Science still feels like hard work.
There’s also scale. Not of the idea itself but of the ideas it produces. We are in an era of BIG: big data, big cultural shifts, big changes in technology. There’s a reason the conference organisers decided to call this segment BIG ideas - BIG is in.
And businesses are looking for big solutions; insights that will inspire multiple departments, drive whole new product lines, help them leap over barriers to reach whole new groups of customers
Yet the solutions offered by Behavioural Science can sometimes feel a little… small.
Of course, these kind of small wins can make a big difference to the bottom line. But if we want this to be a Big Idea we need to start using Behavioural Science to tackle the core challenges facing modern brands, not tinker round the edges of performance.
Too often, when Behavioural Science is introduced into the conversation it’s in the context of adjustments to the execution, not insights that should shape the strategy from the start.
Which leads into a third issue: empowerment. Behavioural Science gives us a deeper understanding of why people make the decisions they do. More understanding is supposed to lead to more influence over those decisions.
Except, a lot of the time what Behavioural Science actually tells us is that we have very little influence. Opportunities to change people’s minds are narrow. Biases are so ingrained it takes a mountainous media budget to shift them.
What if you’re a brand that doesn’t have a massive media budget? What if your sway with retailers isn’t strong enough to allow you to do much in store? In those situations, the laws of Human Behaviour can end up sounding not like a new opportunity, but an insurmountable obstacle
Compare this to the ‘Big Ideas’ that have truly changed comms and marketing culture in recent years - the ones that have gone seriously mainstream.
They are a lot less technical and a lot easier to get your head round. You don’t have to have read a book to make a pretty good stab at what ‘Fame’ could mean for the way your brand behaves, or understand any technical terminology to see how a ‘Brand Purpose’ - Persil, what is our bigger mission - could inform briefs from traditional comms to content to experience.
In comparison to these ideas Behavioural Science can look terribly complicated and HUGELY unsexy. Of course, there’s one big difference between these ideas and the idea of applying Behaviour Science to marketing…
Those are ideas about how comms work. Behavioural Science is an idea about how people work.
That is, of course, its biggest strength. Concepts of communication will come and go with fashion. Understanding how people work offers a more permanent basis on which to build strategy.
As Bill Bernbach has said, “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to vary.”
But it is also the challenge for Behavioural Science. It’s what makes it complicated - people are complicated. And more fundamentally, as an idea about people rather than a description of a comms behaviour, it is one step removed from application
The challenge for us in the insight business is to bridge that gap. To take the theory of Behavioural Science and turn it into practical, workable tools that clients can apply to their brief
So today I’m going to give you an example of how we went about that, in the hope it will inspire you to find your own ways of doing it.
In terms of the strategic issue we’ve been applying it to, well we picked what is probably the biggest question for clients right now…
Standout. The word advertising comes from the Latin advertere - to turn towards. At it’s most basic advertising is about getting people to look at you.
But probably the hardest job facing marketeers today is simply to get noticed.
But it isn’t just the volume of content consumers are offered that makes cut through such a challenge, it’s the nature of that content..
It’s no longer about just getting more attention than your competitor products How on Earth do brands compete for attention with finding the love of your life…
To a certain extent, advertising used to be entertainment. Something to look at while you were waiting at the bus stop. With the advent of mobile and wearable tech, that role is now arguably pretty unrealistic. How can you possibly be more entertaining than Netflix?
It’s because Stand Out is such a fundamental challenge for brands today I really believe it’s the one that will allow us to prove the value of behavioural science and System 1 Thinking to the marketing community.
Obviously, when we talk about stand out we are NOT talking about getting seen. Humans SEE almost everything that is falls into our field of vision.
What we’re really talking about is getting processed.
1/3 of the brain is devoted to processing what we see. And processing in this instance, mainly means filtering. There are 100 million cells involved in deciding what to filter out from the information our eyes put in.
Or in other words, 1/3 of our brain is dedicated to telling us what to ignore. An understanding of how our brain does that is invaluable. But how to integrate a conversation about brain cells and neurology into conversations with clients about how to make better ads.
One option is to point out all the many, many specific biases and cognitive processes that are involved in how humans filter information. And that is where a lot of the popular conversation around Behavioural Science is at the moment.
Think of books like Richard Shotton’s recent Choice Factory.
On the one hand it’s an easy conversation to have - it allows for lots of specific examples and some fun anecdotes that make for good dinner party chat
But drilling down to this level is also what gets you locked into conversations about small executional details and leaves some clients overwhelmed at the number of things they need to take into account
Inkling’s model was designed to be simpler. In truth, it’s really very simple - and we make no apologies for that.
What we were looking to do was strip the conversation back and avoid getting mired in the nitty gritty that has dogged discussions about System 1 theories. We’ve synthesised the many individual theories that have implications for standout into three essential considerations: Expectation, Mission and Triggers.
It’s a model we’ve developed over a number of projects, ranging from comms, to packaging briefs to media evaluation.
Let’s start with expectation. And this is a really good example of how often the conversations around Behavioural Science can quickly get too technical to be applicable. It’s really a very simple thought, but one that is quickly overcomplicated.
A little while ago I sat through a debrief in which one of the researchers referenced a study by Esterman and Yantis (see quote pictured above).
Picasso managed to sum up the same point more elegantly - what his bull series demonstrates is that the brain is very good and very quick at processing visual information when the essential components fit with our expectations. Even though it has been abstracted and distorted we can still recognise the form of a bull because the core characteristics we expect from an image of a bull are there.
Where this gets really interesting, and relevant to brands, is when you consider the flip side. When visual stimulus doesn’t fit with our expectations - because the core structural elements have been too significantly transfigured - even if the context, labelling, surrounding information makes it really clear what we’re looking at, it slows down our processing.
And the thing about the human brain is that it is a speed freak. If something is going to take too long to process, 9 times out of 10 the brain will simply tell us to ignore it. If something does not fit with our core expectations we are less likely to notice it.
This really calls into question accepted marketing wisdom. I started my career at BBH, an agency that was built on the notion of disruption. And since BBH kicked it off, the idea that to cut through you need to be different has become dogma within our industry.
But is that actually true? Are there times when the brief should be about conformity?
The evidence from behavioural science is: yes.
Not all the time and not in every aspect of your brand communications. But we need, like Picasso, to identify the structural components of a category and ensure that our brand is always delivering on them. By doing that we can see where we can disrupt and where, if we are to really cut through, we need to conform to expectation.
Moving on to Mission. Again, this is an area where there are a huge number of individual biases and theories - inattention blindness, selective attention, visual masking and so on.
But what they all boil down to is one quite simple idea: when you are focused on getting something done, you become blind to everything that doesn’t help you achieve that mission
Once we’ve told our brain that its mission is A - whether that’s reading an article online, buying a bottle of wine, or looking for a tumour in a cat scan - we become spectacularly bad at noticing B. In the example above, Dr Daniel Simons’ dancing gorilla.
We are hard wired to screen out information our brain deems not relevant to the task.
This raises questions around the current industry obsession with programatic buying, exposures and imprints.
At the moment, when we talk about cut through it’s increasingly a conversation about media environment - the clutter that sits around our comms. How do we buy media in a way that breaks through that external clutter.
In reality - and to be fair this is something those in qual have always said - the external context is far less important to the question of cut through than the internal context of what’s going on inside the viewer’s head.
Why do we spot a familiar face in the crowd? Well obviously because it is more familiar.
But what that means in terms of what’s going on in your head is that, rather than one or two generic neurones firing up, a whole neurone network - emotions, memories, and connecting imagery - sparks into action.
It’s the very fact that more of our brain lights up that triggers our eyes to stop and take in that person in detail. To process them rather than screen them out.
And the same is true of objects, we are hardwired to respond more forcefully - to pay more attention - to objects and images with more complex mental association networks.
What does that mean for stand out?
Simplicity is not always what cuts through. We’ve been indoctrinated into a direct response school of thought that says to cut through the clutter we must strip things back to the most direct, most obvious and most monotone expression of an idea.
The reality is, that humans respond to layers. Communications with multiple personal, situational, cultural and social triggers are the ones that our brain will tell us to linger on.
I did have a different image here, but with the enumerate websites that have sprung up in the last week dedicated to trying to decipher Childish Gambino’s immensely complicated and semiotically rich video I thought it was worth referencing it.
In terms of how to go about working with this model, it isn’t about obsessing over factoring every dimension to every brief. But rather understanding which are the key filters for the task you are trying to achieve.
At the conference I showed how we have put this theory into practice for British Airways and Brancott Estate wine, I can't share them here but if you'd like to hear more I can talk you through them.
I’d like to end by reiterating that figure of a third of our brain power dedicated to processing and filtering what we see
In our increasingly convoluted media and tech landscape it’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer volume of content competition
But the reality there is almost no amount of information or stimulus that we can throw at our consumers that they are not perfectly capable of screening out and ignoring if it doesn’t offer them anything worth paying attention to.
It isn’t how much our consumers see that should worry us, but how much they ignore that should humble us.