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Marketing and human behaviour building: See your customer in 4D

19th Jul 2013
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Marketers have to work with or for clients, customers, consumers, potential clients, target groups, people, etc. But regardless of the names we use to describe who marketers are dealing with, the naked truth is that all these terms stand for humans. What you call them has no real importance. You as a marketer have to work with and for humans.

At first glance this is trivial. I personally don’t believe it is so obvious that in our daily work we deal with humans and my belief is based on observation, not on hunches. Too often marketers as well as other professionals simply ignore human nature. I honestly hope that ignoring human nature is due to mere lack of knowledge on the topic.

The core of a marketer’s job is to understand, predict and influence human behaviour, or at least a very small part of it. Quite often, endeavours aimed at understanding or influencing the behaviour of people, clients, customers etc. are based on assumptions that are not fully accurate. These assumptions regard the elements that influence human behaviour and human judgement.

The general assumption is that human behaviour is the result of the interaction between cold-reasoned judgment and the personality or character of the individual. Quite often we believe that our customers, colleagues or simply people around us are very similar to Mr Spock from Star Trek. We believe that people are some sort of reasoning machines. To some extent this is true, in the sense that humans are capable of wonderful reasoning. Looking at the modern world we live in, we should acknowledge that the buildings we live and work in, the bridges we cross to get from here to there and the myriad of high-tech tools we use every day are the product of cold-rational reasoning. However, most of human life is not guided by this type of thinking.

Heuristics

In fact, most of human thinking is based on the so-called rules of thumb, or in more sophisticated terms – heuristics. When we go to buy a pair of jeans or groceries we do not engage in very elaborate thinking. We simply want jeans that fit well and look good. We want to get it over with shopping for groceries and get back home to watch the football game or play with our children. When your colleague goes to make some photocopies, very likely she has something else on her mind and presses the buttons of the photocopying machine without giving it too much thought. Her goal is to get things done and not to maximize the efficiency of using ink and paper in the office, even if the boss told everyone to be careful with the office supplies because the firm needs to cut costs.  

The second source of human behaviour that is established in popular belief is the character or personality of the individual. We infer that what a person does is the reflection of her character. We believe that bad things are done by bad people whereas good things are done by good people. To a limited extent this view is correct. Indeed, there are individual differences among people and they are valid predictors of human behaviour. However, these individual differences are good at predicting patterns of behaviour and not instances of behaviour. For example, personality traits such as conscientiousness can predict professional success which is a long term pattern of behaviour. At the same time, this personality trait is not a very reliable predictor of an instance of behaviour such as the quality of a presentation given in a certain day at work.

Much of marketing related activities are centred on getting to know who the customer is; to create a profile of the prototypical client. Subsequently the marketers will adapt the product, the distribution, the communication, etc. to fit with the prototypical client.

In essence, there isn’t anything wrong with that. However, this approach is incomplete. If the marketer’s job is to understand, predict and influence consumers’ (humans’) behaviour, the marketer should know that human behaviour is not determined only by who the person is. In fact, personality is the weakest predictor of instances of human behaviour. We tend to believe that what we do is determined (solely) by who we are, but this is not the case. A few paragraphs later, I will present the other sources of human behaviour. If marketers, or any other professionals that want to understand and influence human behaviour, focus only on who the customer is and subsequently adjust their offering, they ignore influencing behaviour through other means.

Four dimensions

Let me illustrate with an example how factors other than personality influence behaviour. Imagine Dana, a young ambitious person. Her boss asks her to give a presentation to some very important prospective clients. Her boss decides to give this responsibility to Dana because she is very hard working, methodical and somehow perfectionist. In personality jargon this would be translated in Dana has a very high score on the personality trait conscientiousness.  However, Dana’s presentation is less than satisfactory and her boss is unhappy. Do you think that Dana’s score on conscientiousness suddenly decreased? The answer is clearly no and Dana is as hard working and methodical as she ever was. The explanation for her unsatisfactory performance lies in what has happened in the previous days. Two days ago, as she was working on the presentation three colleagues came and asked her to join the celebration of another co-worker. Dana was reluctant because she still had to work on the presentation. However, her colleagues insisted and told her that she is not a good team mate if she doesn’t join the celebration; that members of the team have to properly honour their colleagues on their birthdays. Dana decided that she could finish the presentation the next day and joined her colleagues. The next day some unexpected emergencies arose at the office and she couldn’t finish the work. She would have stood over time, but she had a date with a nice guy and she had already postponed their date three times. Dana decided to go on the date and get home early so that she could wake up at 4AM to finish the presentation. Unfortunately, Dana got a really bad indigestion from the sea-food she had on her date and could barely sleep. She did some work on the presentation between two instances of sickness. Just as Dana got to the office, she received a call from father learning that her mother is ill and was admitted into hospital. As you can see, nothing has changed in Dana’s personality. However, situational factors are quite often more powerful than someone’s character.  

My approach on understanding, predicting and influencing human behaviour is based on a model that includes four major factors that influence human behaviour. I call it the 4 Dimension Model of Behaviour. One of the dimensions is Personality. Although it is not a very powerful predictor of instances of behaviour, personality is a reliable source of long term patterns of behaviour. The other three dimensions are Social Influences, Personal Internal State and Physical Environment.

Earlier on, I have emphasized on human nature and one major characteristic of it is that humans are social beings. We live in organised societies and each of us has our relevant others such as family, friends, rivals, co-workers, people who we admire and people who we despise. As social beings, humans are influenced by the social environment. When we are in a novel or ambiguous situation in which we do not know what the appropriate thing to do is, we tend to copy the behaviour of other people around us. This happens to a larger extent if the other people are somehow similar to us.

Imagine that you are visiting a foreign city and you get hungry. In the city square there are a few terraces that sell food. On which terrace are you going to sit and eat? You know absolutely nothing about any restaurant. Are you going to sit on the terrace that has only one table occupied or at the one where only two tables are free? Very likely you will choose to sit on the one where many other people are already sitting on. If other people sat there it means that they know that there the food is good. At the same time, you have absolutely no reliable information on the reasons that led those people to sit on that terrace. You imply that they know something, but you have no proof of it.  

Other times, we do what other people do simply because we want to fit in a group. If at your office there is a money collection for, say donating to the local animal shelter, and many of your colleagues are giving ten euros, very likely you will also give ten euros despite the fact that this month you are short on cash. You need to fit in with the relevant social group of co-workers and this makes you behave similar to them. These are some illustrations of how human behaviour is impacted by the social influences dimension.

Biological needs

Another characteristic of human nature is that we are biological creatures and have biological needs. If you have ever gone shopping while being hungry you have probably noticed that you have bought a lot more than you planned and needed. Very likely you have realised this only after you arrived home and eat something. Hunger creates an approach state of mind. We want to get food and this makes us buy more things. The most interesting thing is that when hungry not only do we buy more food items, but also more non-food items.

Human nature also includes our emotional states, our feelings. Sometimes we experience very powerful emotions such as fury or bliss. When we are under the influence of strong emotions, most of our behaviour is very different from the behaviour we exhibit when we are in a cool state of mind. If you are furious because your boss didn’t keep his word on sending you to that conference, don’t write him an email saying that his is a low life creature. Even if taking out all your fury makes perfect sense on the moment, in a couple of days you will regret the bad words you addressed him.

These biological and emotional influences on our judgement and behaviour are transient. Usually people are not hungry for long periods of time and thankfully we are not furious for more than a couple of hours. Most often we are blind to their influences and, in general, we are almost incapable of predicting their impact on our behaviour and judgement. All these influences on behaviour belong to the Personal Internal State dimension.

The fourth dimension of the 4D Model of Human Behaviour covers the influences of the physical environment. One such category of influences concerns our senses. Throughout the long evolutionary process humans have developed ways in which to perceive the surrounding environment through the five senses. Although the environment in which we live now is very different from the one in which our very distant ancestors lived, our senses serve us quite well. However, the reactions and psychological mechanisms that are triggered by our senses are the same as tens of thousands of years before.

For example, for our very distant ancestors food was scarce and ingesting and digesting as much highly nutritious food as it was possible to find was perfectly natural. This is why we like sweet or fatty foods. In today’s world such drives to eat fat and sugar are not exactly useful and this is because today, at least in the western world, highly nutritious food is abundant. A related illustration is that of the influence the smell of freshly baked bread has on purchasing behaviour. When smelling the freshly baked bread our sense of smell tells the digestive system to get ready for a treat. Digestion begins, but if there is no actual ingestion, the sensation of hunger occurs. In turn, hunger changes our thinking by inducing the approach mindset and this, in turn, leads to us buying and spending more.

Let’s go back a bit to Dana’s unsatisfactory presentation. You have learned earlier that the lack of quality was not due to whom Dana is as a person, but rather those social factors, physical influences and a change in her internal state, both physical and emotional, were much stronger than her personality. If you are a marketer, don’t you think this is the case for your clients’ behaviour? Don’t you think that all these three types of forces influence their behaviour to a larger extent than do their personality traits? Who you client is might give you a base-line long term pattern of behaviour, but actions and instance of behaviour are influenced mostly by the other three dimensions from the 4D Model of Human Behaviour.

Discarding any of the four dimensions from the 4D Model of Human Behaviour is equivalent with ignoring human nature.

Doing business without properly understanding Human Nature is like cooking without using herbs and spices: there is nothing wrong with it, but it simply doesn't feel right. 

Nicolae Naumof is a decision designer and behaviour builder at Pikant and Naumof. He will be running a series of lectures for DesignThinkers Academy with the first one running 3/4 October on the "Architecture of Choice".

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