Advertising, Behaviour Change, Behavioural Economics, Marketing Strategy, Persuasion, Predatory Thinking, Social Decision Making

Sperm-bank promotion strategy. It’s a toss-up.

Today the news that the UK’s National Sperm Bank, set up a year ago, has only nine donors so far, and is about to unveil a promotional campaign to ramp-up the volume of in-flows.

I can’t wait.

On the surface, it seems a straightforward problem to solve. But read on…

Turns out the sperm bank needs ‘super-sperm’ not just ordinary, run-of-the-mill, 33-Acacia-Avenue sperm. This is because it needs to survive the constant freezing and unfreezing process inherent in the final customer service procedure (giving infertility sufferers the chance of a child).

Out of 100 potential donor applicants, only ten survive the screening process and only 1 of those 10 will actually become a donor.

The lucky participant must attend the clinic twice a week for four months and, in exchange for £70 a session, abstain from ejaculating for two days before each visit, which essentially ensures an entirely monogamous relationship with the clinic, for the duration of the programme.

And that’s before you get to the customer selection process. People in the market for sperm tend to be quite choosy, apparently. They want donors of 6’ or more, for instance, which rules out 90% of potential UK donors straight away. And they all want doctors or barristers – most of whom are too busy, too rich, or both, to sign up.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that most donated sperm in the UK currently comes from Denmark and USA.

The forthcoming advertising campaign will ape a successful precedent in Denmark, in which men are challenged to prove their manliness by demonstrating the ‘vigour’ of their ‘guys’. A follow-up planned for Christmas is going to ask men to consider giving “an alternative Christmas gift”.

I’ll be delighted if either of these approaches works. But I wonder if they’ve learned as fully as they might, the lessons behavioural economics might teach.

In one sense it’s a bit like the Royal Marines campaign, which broadcasts the fact that 99% need not apply. “We’re only for the hardest nuts,” they say.

But the sperm-bank version would have to be – surely – “Have you got the ballsiest, bounciest swimmers in the business? (And are you also over 6’, handsome, intelligent, well adjusted and gainfully employed in a respected professional occupation). If so come and subject yourself to our test and win yourself the prize of wanking into a test-tube for four months in exchange for not much money and the eternal admiration of all your friends – who you’ll definitely tell straight away”.

Better surely to normalise the act of one-off donation, along the lines of blood donorship (where they don’t tell you – and please don’t ask – how many already donated blood samples need to be excluded from the transfusion bank).

That way the largest possible number of men could begin to imagine it was normal, your duty even, to donate, without becoming alarmed as to the potential consequences or commitment.

Once you’ve got your contingent of suitable donors in through the door, you could then explain what they’ve got themselves, and their “guys”, into.

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Advertising, Behavioural Economics, Marketing Strategy

Seek familiarity, not fame

Everyone who comes in through our door wants a “viral” these days.

I explain as patiently as I can that “full-service” doesn’t include that sort of thing anymore and we’ve all had our jabs in any case.

They then look a bit confused until I put them out of their misery.

“Oh!” I say, “you mean a punchy little film created for next-to-no-money that suddenly hits the webby-big-time and gets shared by countless millions of chortling geeks, all for free?”

“That’s it!” they say, brightening visibly.

I guess it’s just a function of our preoccupation with celebrity and the parallel attraction of something for nothing.

But there’s usually a problem.

Scan the list of most shared videos online and count how many have commercial/branded origins?

Now take that list and count how many have succeeded in a way that is consistent with their brand idea and character and doesn’t contain a moonwalking Shetland pony.

(Although that was quite a good one.)

There are some, but we’re entering Lotto-style percentage territory.

What you can’t check is the same picture looked at the other way round.

How many truly appalling, cringe-worthy attempts have been made to leap this particular existential chasm, and how many mangled examples of ill-conceived, out of character nonsense now languish at the bottom of the trench, their abject failure indelibly tattooed on them for all to see: “143 views”.

More extraordinary still are those organisations that seem to think that they can swap their successful strategy of carefully deploying professionally crafted integrated marketing communications assets for an approach where you essentially stick everything on red and hope you hit the jackpot.

My point goes further, though, than showing how slim your chances of digital glory are.

Because even when it works, it doesn’t do you as much good as you might imagine. Successful brand marketing is about achieving everyday familiarity not about getting famous.

If the difference between these two things seems mostly semantic to you, consider the following:

Branded products are trusted over non-branded products. This is a fact. Branded products are more considered by potential customers than non-branded products. They also command higher price points and (usually) margins too. These things are also facts.

But why is this?

Marketing people, who seek constantly to impose rational order on the behavioural chaos that surrounds them, will usually argue that it’s because they have come to stand for something on which the customer can rely.

This is true. But it’s not as true as they imagine.

Research we conducted into a very undifferentiated, apparently price-driven market threw up some rather astonishing results.

Before I explain these results I need to emphasise a crucial difference between two commonly used marketing research measures: spontaneous brand awareness and prompted brand awareness.

Spontaneous brand awareness is measured by asking a question like:

“You’re thirsty and fancy a (non-alcoholic) drink. Which brands come to mind most easily?”

Prompted brand awareness is measured by asking a question like:

“Have you heard of Coca-cola?”

(Sorry if you already know this.)

We discovered that brand consideration was almost perfectly correlated with spontaneous brand awareness.

The correlation between brand trust and spontaneous brand awareness was also extremely high, in excess of 0.8.

Familiarity

We were a bit shocked. But we shouldn’t have been.

Actually the recent research into behavioural science confirms the power of familiarity. It seems our brains are hard wired to prefer the things they recognise and to fear unfamiliar things, people and concepts.

If you want a really shocking demonstration of how these effects influence all our judgements and prejudices, visit yourmorals.org and take a few of their online tests.

When you get into the science itself, it’s all part of the way in which our brain conserves energy, using data from previous experiences rather than recalculating anew each time.

We make choices that have worked for us in the past. When we have no experience, we search for instances of other people (as like us as possible) having positive experiences and we use that as a proxy.

“500 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong”, we say to ourselves and the job is done.

Another effect (called the “availability heuristic” in Behavioural Economic Science) means that we also tend to overestimate the prevalence of things we are familiar with and/or have experienced recently.

“Is this phenomenon widespread?” we ask ourselves. Off scurries the brain, searching for examples. If it can find two or three examples easily, it concludes the phenomenon is indeed widespread. If no examples come to mind, it concludes the opposite.

Here’s the next thing.

There is practically no correlation between prompted brand awareness and either brand consideration or brand trust.

So being famous (‘have you heard of) doesn’t get you trusted or considered. But being familiar (‘which brands can you think of now’) does.

I’ve used data from an undifferentiated market (where products are considered quite similar to each other) because that’s where this effect is most marked.

The more differentiated your product is within your particular category, the less important everyday familiarity will be, relative to other brand dimensions. But don’t underestimate its power, even in these instances.

Until you are talking about real fashion brands and high-end luxury purchases, familiarity remains the single strongest driver of both consideration and trust.

Despite this, an amazing number of marketing people insist on using prompted brand awareness as their key measure of success even though they can link it to no commercial effect.

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Advertising, Behavioural Economics, Persuasion

I’d rather have the courage of your convictions

Years ago I ran the global advertising account for a huge multinational company.

It was my first experience of ‘stakeholder engagement’ on a global and massive scale.

The company prided itself on being a ‘consensus culture’.

So two dozen plus people had to sign-off on the global corporate ad campaign.

Since these were senior executives who thought their daily dollar unearned unless they had ‘added value’ to the things on which they were consulted, this was something of a challenge.

But I found a neat way round the problem.

It turned out that these senior people had one concern greater than the need to add their own twopenny-worth to the process.

They were extremely concerned to know how their peers were voting.

Having read “The Righteous Mind” by the wonderful Jonathan Haidt, I know why this is.

Actually we rely more than we would care to admit on the opinions of others, rather than our own judgement.

We use our peer group – the people whose approval enhances our status and self-image and whose censure has the opposite effect – as a sounding board for our own sentiments. More often than not we’ll change our mind to ensure our views fit the consensus, whilst all the time persuading ourselves that we are masters of our own mind and others merely agree with our common-sense view of our surroundings.

Which made my task considerably easier.

“Nigel, I’d love your view on these new commercials we’re proposing”, I’d begin, “I showed them to Colin in Kuala Lumpur last week and he said they were a breakthrough for a company like ours”.

“Yes, It’s about time we stood up for what we believe”, Nigel would agree.

The following week I would talk to Simon,

“Nigel says it’s time we stood up for what we believe”, I said.

“Quite right,” says Simon, “And the way you’ve used our people in the commercial lends it great credibility”

“Simon says using your people in the commercial lends it great credibility”, I’d tell the next guy.

Eventually, I would actually go and see Colin in Kuala Lumpur, with everyone’s feedback in my bag (and with a bit of a lump in my throat).

Every time, after hearing the opinions of his peers, Colin would say – entirely of his own volition,

“This kind of thing is a breakthrough for a company like ours”.

I know you’ll think me underhand and deceptive. But these individuals – 90% of whom knew next to nothing about creating commercials – were genuinely delighted with the decisions they had taken.

And because skilful and talented creative people had crafted the ads in good faith to a brief written by a planner who cared about the company’s commercial success, everything ended extremely happily ever after.

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Behavioural Economics, Marketing Strategy, Persuasion

When did you stop beating your customers?

I don’t for a moment imagine that the clever and experienced marketing people employed by Britain’s banks have failed to keep up with the latest thinking in behavioural economics. I know quite a few of them and they’re all super sharp cookies.

So I’m really scratching my swede as to why they’re all spending so much money reminding us how shabbily they’ve behaved for the last umpteen years.

 “We’ve changed,” they’re all shouting.

“We’re on your side now,” they’re all bleating.

“We’ll make things simple for you,” they’re all promising.

Virgin Money – who I never really lumped in with the “really-evils” anyway – are promising me “Banking you can see through”.

“I’ve always been able to see through it, matey,” I mutter to myself.

Every penny they spend reminds me about the problem. Every ad they issue makes me question (again) their motives.

And – as is usual in financial services – they’re all doing and saying the same things, reaching for the same solutions, exploiting the same insights, gleaned from the same customers, in the same focus groups, through the same research companies.

And they’re reminding me that banks are all still the same: still shit and still wishing they weren’t.

If you can’t be bothered to read “Thinking Fast & Slow”, I’ll give you something easier to absorb:

  1. Telling people you’ve changed just reminds them what a monster you used to be (people in advertising used to have a name for this phenomenon called, “When did you stop beating your wife?”)
  2. If you must advertise, find something you’re actually good at (perhaps even a little better at than others?) and try and make that thing desirable to the people you’re trying to attract (You may not succeed with everyone, but at least they won’t hate you for standing up for what you do best and trying to have a go)
  3. If there is literally nothing even potentially desirable about the things you do and the people you are, keep your head down, rather than flushing even more of your customers’ and your shareholders’ money down the bog.

As my hero Tom Lehrer once said, “I feel if a person can’t communicate, the very least they can do is to shut up”.

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Behaviour Change, Behavioural Economics, Persuasion, Social Decision Making

How to get a bed for the night

I never give money to beggars anymore. If I want to enrich the makers of Special Brew, I’ll buy some myself.

But today I did.

A slightly-younger-than-me black man stopped me in the street as I was popping out for a sandwich. He apologised for bothering me.

He was a floating resident at a seamen’s mission around the corner, he explained. I knew the place.

He said he was ex-forces, down on his luck. Lance-Corporal something-or-other. Before three o’clock, he needed to find four people to give him two quid each, so that he could continue to stay there.

That was the pitch.

Five seconds later, he only needed three more people.

It was as concise a shakedown as I’ve ever heard – and beautifully delivered:

  • He let me know he needed shelter.
  • He showed me he already had a solution – one that I knew and approved of (unlike Special Brew).
  • He advertised his army credentials: placing himself in a society I respect.
  • He instilled a sense of urgency by introducing a limited timeframe.
  • He communicated that I would be one of several helping him (classic behavioural economics)
  • He gave me a specific and easy way to help – clearly well within my means.

Textbook (perhaps written by the British Army).

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Behaviour Change, Social Decision Making

Opening Isinbayeva’s mind

Minds are like parachutes, they say. They work best when they are open.

But actually most of our minds are closed most of the time. And it is extremely hard work opening them.

To the astonishment of most of her co-competitors, Yelena Isinbayeva, the world champion pole vaulter, spoke out yesterday defending the new Russian laws, which ban people from giving information about homosexuality to under-18s.

In fact it’s their astonishment that’s astonishing.

Building on the breakthrough work done in behavioural economics by Kahneman, Tversky and many others, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has built an impressive and persuasive theory about the nature of social and moral decision making.

He paints a picture of humans as “90% chimp, 10% bee”: Motivated predominantly by self-interest and the protection/promotion of small family groups, but also able to suppress [some] self-interest and make compromises in order to co-exist with other humans in larger groups that can compete more effectively.

Haidt provides compelling evidence that rational debate between opposing points of view rarely changes opinions. It seems we are all rubbish at seeking evidence in a balanced and objective way, to challenge the things we think we believe.

If we wish to believe, we seek evidence that supports our position. If we wish to disprove something, we search for the evidence that does that. In either case, we don’t search very hard. Changing our mind takes effort and uncertainty – two things we are genetically programmed to avoid.

Using the opinions and mores of those that surround is the most prevalent example of this predilection for idle evidence gathering. Ms. Isinbayeva, bolstered by the supposed authority provided by national legislation, presents Russians as distinct and different, “Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We consider ourselves normal, standard people, we just live with boys with women, women with boys.”

Jonathan Haidt argues two primary prerequisites for opinion and behaviour change:

  1. You must feel you hold a minority opinion.
  2. Secondly, you must feel that, as a result of holding this minority opinion, you will be harshly judged or censured by a community of people whose views have an impact on your emotional or physical well-being.

This suggests that until the world’s community of athletes – Ms. Isinbayeva’s peers and her ‘professional’ society – becomes more important to her than her sense of identity as a Russian, her views will not change (assuming of course there is no unprecedented social and cultural liberal revolution in that country any time soon).

If we challenge her and threaten to strip her of her role as an Olympic Youth ambassador, the evidence suggests her position will only harden.

We need to embrace her and convince her that athletes are a world community and have an opportunity – even a responsibility – to act as an inspiration to everyone, beyond promoting narrow national interests. We need to persuade her that she can share in, benefit from and promote the progressive values this of this young, dynamic, international community, because of the admiration in which they are  held by us non-Olympians.

We need to show her she can be a citizen of the world, not just a pole-vaulting Russian.

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