Behavioural science back in vogue


  • Business
  • Saturday, 22 Jul 2017

Graves: Everything we thought we knew about how to change a person’s mind turned out to be wrong and even backfired.

How to position brands, capture target audiences and change customers’ behaviour

FOR decades behavioural science has stumped classical economic theory. But now marketers are using this science to position brands, capture their target audiences, and change customers’ behaviour.

Behavioural science, which has taken off, propelled by the popularity of bestselling books such as Nudge, Predictably Irrational, and Thinking, Fast and Slow, reveals the real motivations of humans in everything from decision making to changing perceptions.

Christopher J. Graves, founder of the new Ogilvy Centre for Behavioural Science, part of the global Ogilvy & Mather advertising and communications company, tells StarBizWeek that understanding consumer behaviour is more important than ever at a time when traditional demographic research has failed to predict events such as the Trump election victory and Brexit vote. 

He defines behavioural science as a combination of expert fields that reveal the many inherent human biases that make predicting behaviour so difficult.

It explains why it is nearly impossible to change someone’s mind, why people tend not to make the smartest decisions in their own interest, and why emotional feeling overrides rational, logical thinking.

Taking the lead in behavioural science and putting it in practice in the marketing and communications arena, Ogilvy & Mather is set to assist marketers in better understanding this subject and to ensure they can sell their brands effectively to different customer segments. 

Towards this end, Graves, who has been studying the subject and its application to marketing for almost a decade, says there are five key elements in understanding and analysing a customer’s personality.

They make up what psychologists call the “Big Five OCEAN” traits, an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion (versus introversion), agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each factor represents a sliding scale.

For example, in terms of openness, it is important to gauge how open one is to experience, whether that person is on the extreme end like a thrill seeker versus someone who sticks with an established habit.

The aspect of conscientiousness shows whether a person diligently does more than what is required on one extreme or if the person is slacking, disorganised, taking things easy and relaxed on the other end. Highly agreeable people tend to be very trusting and warm while people who are less agreeable are sceptical and hard to win over.

Neuroticism on the other hand, measures the anxiety and emotional stability levels of the individual. With a good and sound understanding of the different types of personalities in behavioural science, a marketer can successfully position their brands more effectively based on the various human traits.

“This helps a marketer to sell brands according to personalities. They will need, for example, not only to market brands based on personalities, but also market differently the same brand to consumers.

“A research study conducted by Cambridge University found that if products were positioned and sold to match personalities, they will give a huge lift in terms of success. Despite this more precise, data-driven approach to understanding customers, creativity is still crucial.

“Once you have identified the human biases, and the individual personalities, the framing of the narrative and the creative execution are the magic that create emotional triggers, and neuroscience studies show us that human decision-making is primarily governed by emotion,” says Graves.

New app

Graves has spent two years building a new app for Ogilvy to translate the thousands of behavioural science findings into practical applications for marketers. He adds: “I have found that we can learn a tremendous amount from three big, historical accidental discoveries.”

“Firstly, most of what we thought we knew about how humans make decisions was wrong. The discoveries of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed we depend heavily on the emotional governors in the brain not the rational ones.

“Secondly, everything we thought we knew about how to change a person’s mind turned out to be wrong and even backfired. The powerful ‘confirmation bias’ leads people to reject any evidence that does not confirm what they already believe. So piling on more facts only makes things worse.

“For example in the United States, the polarisation taking place is only expected to get worse with the advent of more information.

“Lastly, we can learn how to craft the most effective stories by triggering so-called ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain with highly vivid and concrete language,” Graves points out. Unfortunately, most companies use abstractions and jargon which do not move people at all, he says.

A mirror neuron is an electrical transmission in the brain that fires both when a person acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species.

Before joining the Ogilvy Centre for Behavioural Science in 2017, Graves has served 12 years as global chairman and CEO as well as regional Asia-Pacific CEO for Ogilvy Public Relations. He also served as a member of the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide board and executive committee.

He was awarded the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency in 2016 for his work in behavioural science in communications.

Graves is an active and highly-rated public speaker and appears as a guest expert on television news, and as a guest anchor on CNBC. He has chaired sessions with world leaders and CEOs at the World Economic Forum (Davos and Summer Davos in China) for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, Ogilvy & Mather Malaysia CEO David Mayo agrees with the potential of behavioural science and is confident that it will soon “seep” into the marketing and communications main stream in Malaysia. 

“Behavioural science can leap frog in a market like Malaysia as there are huge opportunities in communications here. The traditional and digital media is strong and we will speak with our clients on the importance of this science in their decision making and how it will improve their sales,” he adds. 

Some of Ogilvy’s leading clients in Malaysia are Nestle, Coca-Cola, CIMB, Heineken and Inti College.

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