Whether it is a product in a supermarket or a candidate for Parliament, are choices made rationally by the exercise of free will and comparison or in the blink of an eye by intuition, persuasion and manipulation? Voting for your MP may not be as straightforward as choosing a bar of soap or a loaf of bread but the subtle roles of messaging, imaging and persuasion are similar.
We are in the midst of the tumultuous Indian general election. The landscape is crowded with national and local parties offering their chosen candidates to the electorate. Candidates are ‘packaged’ in the party’s brand identity and appeal to be chosen for their better qualities and promises of performance.
The electorate is diverse and represents conflicting demands and needs. Communicating an effective message to gain the most response from such a fragmented electorate demands deep insights about the voters and skillful packaging of the candidates on offer. Successful manipulation of the electorate’s choices creates long-term brand leadership.
Gaining an understanding of the complex mix of rational and instinctive cues that need to be manipulated for best electoral response is the goal of every party. Modern methods of opinion polls and computational tools using ‘big data’ analytics have converted the psephology of predicting election outcomes into a specialized and fairly predictable discipline.
On the other hand, for the voters, choosing a leader to represent them may not be as straightforward as choosing a bar of soap or a loaf of bread but the subtle roles of messaging, imaging and persuasion are similar. No wonder then that a lot of attention goes into determining how exactly consumer choices can be influenced by more persuasive communication or packaging. Studies of mass consumer behavior have continued to evolve with the growing sophistication of modern retail. From plain vanilla consumer surveys to focus groups to store simulation and now even brain imaging and the emerging findings of neuroeconomics (more about that later) – anything goes as long as it will yield predictable results about consumer choice.
Choice – in a blink
By now it is generally understood that the average shopper in a modern supermarket barely gets less than 5 to 7 seconds per product to select and pick what she wants. (For example, www.quirk.com quotes a study by Food Marketing Institute, 2017 mentioning an average of 30,098 items faced by shoppers in a typical supermarket.) Under such circumstances, it is said, shoppers use mental shortcuts, termed heuristics, to lighten the cognitive load and achieve practical results, which may not be fully rational or optimal.
Behavioral science terms heuristic decision-making biases as ‘System 1’ thinking. It is marked by automatic, almost unconscious reaction to visual or sensory stimuli. The popular Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, sums it up aptly, “We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision-making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”
Mapping the consumer brain
It is this remarkable process of intuitive decision making that is now leading neuro-scientists to study more closely ‘the biology of human choice.’ With the help of brain imaging technology, neuro-scientists are beginning to learn how to predict consumer choices. The new discipline is termed neuro-economics and the research aims to identify the portions of the human brain that store memories of past experience or one that stores ‘value’ and finally how the brain works intuitively to suggest the best option. Writing in www.technologyreview.com, Emily Singer (Predicting Consumer Choices with Neuro-economics) says, “Brain imaging gives insights into how people make decisions, including what they want to buy.” She goes on to quote Colin Camerer, a professor of behavioral economics at Caltech, “We want to find out if there’s something going on in people’s brains that forecasts whether they will buy an item or not, particularly for stuff people say they are excited about but then don’t buy when they get to the store.”
Camerer is described as one of a number of experts who have brought together brain imaging and economic modeling to establish the discipline of neuro-economics. The studies have already revealed, with the help of MRI imaging, that parts of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain are involved in planning complex cognitive behaviors and the deep brain based striatum receives information from many other regions of the brain.
The question before researchers is how to predict, from a pack design stand point, the way a brain will react once it receives information and sensory stimuli. As Singer goes on to point out, “Researchers hope ultimately to discover the difference between what people say and what their brain activity shows. For new products that people don’t have much experience with, maybe the brain has more intuition about whether they would try it than what comes out of their mouths. This discrepancy may help explain why many new products fail, even when focus groups are enthusiastic about them.”
It is for these reasons that neuro-economic research has not yet yielded foolproof apps that will 100% predict what consumers will choose but there is significant evidence to suggest that neuro-economic predictability is well above what could be attributed to mere chance. Another major factor that is likely to have a bearing on neuro-economic choices is the influence of ‘word-of-mouth’ (or other people’s decisions) on choices that are finally made. As quoted in Singer’s article, “two (or more) brains may couple together and there may be different types of people – viz., those that are sensitive to outside influences as against those who are not. With brain imaging you can eavesdrop and find variables that wouldn’t have been found otherwise.”
Choices make life complex
But while the potential benefits of neuro-economics for the brand marketer may be some time away in the near future, the bonanza of predicting consumer behavior with the help of data analytics already appears to be here. For example, www.dotcominfoway.com, a CMMI Level 3 digital marketing company, suggests that, “buying a product or a service in the present era is accompanied by a lot of comparisons and checking out for deals. A mere positioning of product to a potential buyer is not going to make the sale. Converting an interested buyer into a customer, in the era of digital overexposure, requires a deeper scrutiny of users’ digital movements. This involves tracing the digital footprints of your prospective buyers with the help of smart and intuitive data analytics tools.”
Such tracking has always been difficult but with the evolution of data analytics tools on the one hand and the growth of competitive choices before the consumer, on the other, the task has become extremely complex. Consumers are constantly getting new offers, new technologies and new products via multiple media channels. With such a profusion of buying options at their disposal, today’s consumers’ buying behavior is fickle and almost unpredictable by conventional tools. Choices indeed make life more complex and effective pack design strategies must evolve to meet that very challenge.
Choice by persuasion
In the end it might be safe to conclude that whatever consumers consider ‘free choice’ is the result of manipulation of their free will by persuasion. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it, “(Research) suggests that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.” As mentioned here earlier, most acts of consumer choice are governed by automatic, sub-conscious System 1 thinking; as for example in a grocery store or supermarket. On the other hand, System 2 thinking is more rational and requires cognitive effort. It is useful for less frequent purchases such as buying a car or a home appliance. There is more at stake and more factors are involved in making a final decision. However, in both cases the power of choice manipulated by persuasion and sensory stimuli cannot be understated.
So, when you go out to vote during this election, think about the mechanisms of the choice you are making. Is your choice influenced more by intuitive, System 1 thinking based on the packaging of the candidates as presented?
Will the ‘products’ you select deliver on the promise with which they are persuading you?