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No! Yes! What was the question again?

Chris Field
Chris Field

Ask a silly question and you get a silly answer, as the saying goes. As we know to our appalling cost following last year’s Brexit referendum, if you ask the wrong question, you might get an answer you don’t want.

If you ask if people want those nasty Europeans running your country, then you’re going to get a resounding ‘no’ – and then you’re out of Europe. Now that we are leaving the EU, it’s clear there was no rational debate, and the leavers were allowed to focus on money and migrants.

If we’d had the chance to ask the question another way, and had a different debate (which the remainers were too smug to bother organising), we would have had a resounding ‘yes’ to stay in.

My point is, fundamental questions of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ do not depend on rationality. Ask a young child a question that they would always reply ‘yes’ to, and then shake your head – chances are you’ll get a ‘no’. Then ask a negative question but support it with a nodding head, and you will usually get a ‘yes’.

This is not about fooling young children, but fooling each other. We are all enormously susceptible to the language – verbal or otherwise – that companies and governments use to make us do what they want.

That’s good news for me – I depend on these arts of persuasion in business as much as in real life – but I wonder if consumers really trust their own opinions any more, or simply respond based on how they feel at the time.

This explains why we say ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ to the same question, but put twice, within hours or days of each other. This suggests to me that retailers are probably wasting a lot of their marketing spend appealing to their customers’ reason. Why educate consumers with logical arguments, product specs and performance metrics, when increasingly they are looking at a product and going ‘oooh, shiny!’

Marketers more experienced and sophisticated than me will say ‘but Chris, we already do this’. After all, advertising is meant to make our mouths water, while below the line, press and retail are meant to provide the logical journey to purchase.

I may be wrong, but I think the whole structure is broken. Too many marketing dollars are being spent chasing consumers whose behaviour has changed so radically that adding a social media element to the marketing mix without changing the fundamental approach just won’t work.

Three things are missing:

  • An acceptance that we have a problem in reaching new generations, which we’re quick to satirise but don’t really understand.
  • A lack of techniques from other industries that will help us understand their behaviour – namely cognitive psychology.
  • A lack of knowledge about customers. We are simply not applying intelligent tools to all that Big Data to reveal a true picture of individual customers.

The result? Our customers say ‘yes’ and then ‘no’, and we don’t really know why. And asking them why is often unhelpful – if their purchase was prompted by a feeling rather than a thought, then they are unlikely to have any recall.

Like my children when asked why they did something, I know that the eternal answer will always be ‘I don’t know.’

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