Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!

It’s the 1960s. Four-year-old Craig is sitting alone in a small room staring at a marshmallow. The woman who placed it there has promised she’ll be back in fifteen minutes. If he can’t wait, he can ring a bell. Then she’ll return and let him eat the marshmallow. But, she explained, if he waits the fifteen minutes, then he can have two marshmallows. It’s his choice: a small reward now or a bigger reward later. Craig doesn’t bother to ring the bell. He gobbles up the marshmallow thirty seconds after the researcher leaves the room.

On average the children in that Stanford University experiment waited less than three minutes. The true significance only became apparent years later. The children who had waited longer demonstrated remarkable advantages. They achieved higher academic scores. They were more mature, and less likely to be aggressive and misbehave. Many experts now believe that an ability to delay gratification is the single greatest predictor of a happy and successful life.

It’s not difficult to draw a comparison with the temptation of short-term brand marketing and advertising. World-leading advertising effectiveness expert Peter Field describes short-termism as “the single greatest threat facing marketing.” Today it seems ambitious to talk about any execution, in any channel, running for more than a year. What’s changed? Is today’s consumer really that different? Are they so fast on the uptake that they are now permanently converted to a brand or product after just one or two exposures.

Much has been written about Behavioural Economics by researchers and all reach reassuringly similar conclusions. Firstly, that decision making remains largely an emotional affair. Secondly, that there are some simple principles that explain how we really do make decisions.

One of the most influential principles is “herding,” or “social proofing.” In advertising, “herding” can be achieved with repetitive mass exposure. A consumer can’t see directly how many people are using the advertised brand or product, but they know millions are seeing the same message they’re seeing. This means they’ll feel ”normal,” or part of the crowd, if they buy it too.

And it’s important to consider that TV advertising has, let’s admit it, remained very effective. It’s a principle that should be more relevant than ever in this fragmented digital age. It is, in a word, “frequency.” Sometimes in the quest for modernity we have become embarrassed by this powerful idea (along with its cousin, “reach”). The fact is that people are more likely to believe, remember, act on, and form habits around a communication that they encounter multiple times over a sustained period.

Today an outstanding idea can reach millions due to the power of the Internet. But Reach is not the same as Frequency. Think of the various restaurants you’ve visited. And amongst the regulars there’ll be some great ones that you went to once, and loved everything from the service to the food to the décor. Yet when you next needed to choose a restaurant, you forgot about them, and you ended up at your old favourite. Frequent, long-term exposure creates habitual behaviour.

The challenge is to bring these mass-broadcasting principles, Reach and Frequency, into the digital age. And, importantly, to remember that good things still take time.

So marketers, and their agencies, need to be more patient, and give campaigns time to work. But how? The marshmallow experiment revealed another interesting point.

Stanford researcher Walter Mischel was originally focused on understanding the strategies his marshmallow kids would use to resist temptation. He saw they could wait longer if they distracted themselves by covering their eyes, hiding under the desk, or singing. It’s difficult to imagine a marketer employing these techniques when faced by a disappointing quarterly result. And yet…

Paul Polman took the reins as CEO at Unilever in January 2009. Despite the recession, he declared in 2010, “It’s easy to be a short-term hero, to get tremendous results very short term and be off sailing in the Bahamas. But the goal for this company – and it’s very difficult to do – is to follow a four- or five-year process.”

At the heart of Polman’s strategy was a particularly bold masterstroke. He moved away from quarterly reports, stating that “since we don’t operate on a 90-day cycle for advertising, marketing, or investment, why do so for reporting?” Polman proved he was serious when he stopped offering earnings guidance to the stock market. Not everyone took this well, and Unilever dropped 6% to £13 a share. Within a year (the business equivalent of 15 minutes of marshmallow time), it was back at £20.

But what about the long term? In a November 2013 interview Polman said, “When others were cutting costs, shutting down factories, we were investing. Now we are 4 to 5 years further, our business is up 30 percent; our share price has more than doubled.” Blocking out the measures that reward and motivate short-term thinking helped drive business growth.

Perhaps marketers, advertisers, and consumers could benefit from an idea that the KIPP academy, an organisation of public charter schools, introduced in Philadelphia. They started giving their students a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow.