Why are you buying that?

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Choosing a gift for a friend can be a stressful experience. Even when we see that person smile and offer thanks, there is a feeling of doubt. Hours later, you read a glowing review of the product. You can relax and feel better about your purchase, though your friend’s reaction may have been a front. What just happened?

Behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology might both be at work, yet this field of study with respect to marketing exploits is only beginning.

Matthew Willcox, the executive director of Draftfcb’s Institute of Decision Making, will present a talk titled, “Why Consumer Irrationality Isn’t Irrational” on the fourth day of 2013 Advertising Week in New York.

Willcox’s disciplined approach to this study prompted some questions in the lead-up to the event. For starters, the Digital Age must be having a huge effect on modern decision-making. It seemed like the last few years must have disrupted the process drastically.

“From my perspective, the big change in behavior isn’t a change in how people behave. Rather, it’s in our continually better understanding of behavior,” Willcox said in an email. “A couple of years ago, The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that we are in the middle of a golden age in behavioral research, which has led – as John Bargh of Yale has said – to an intellectual revolution that removes the conscious mind from its privileged place at the center of human behavior. From this perspective, tens of thousands of bright minds are studying human behavior every day.”

In addition, the work of top researchers is appearing in journals at a higher volume than ever before. Willcox will introduce Vladas Griskevicius, a University of Minnesota professor and co-author of “The Rational Animal,” for the talk.

“The work of people like Vlad helps provide us with a context for understanding people’s choices,” Willcox said. “All of this means that marketers have the opportunity to understand their consumers’ motivations better than ever before. But this ‘killer app’ hasn’t really been embraced in practice as much as it should be.”
For this reason, Draftfcb’s Institute of Decision Making came into being. Willcox believes academia’s revelations on decision-making will drive the way marketers will act in the coming years.

“It’s perhaps the new ‘big thing,'” he said, “as significant as the emergence of digital or mobile in terms of where the future of marketing is headed.”
In Willcox’s bio on Draftfcb’s site, there is mention of his belief that an important part of marketing “is simply to make people feel good about their decisions.” He expanded on that idea.

“How we feel about our decisions has a huge effect on our happiness, our confidence and our effectiveness as individuals,” he said. “Even a simple choice – like getting a sandwich at lunchtime or choosing a bottle of wine – can linger like an unpleasant smell if we feel we haven’t made the right choice.” The principle works the other way as well. Good choices lead to good vibrations and a form of self-congratulation.

“There is evidence that when our choices are affirmed we experience an expression of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that is also associated with the feeling of pleasure,” Willcox said. “This might explain why people spend so much time researching products they have already chosen!”

Should consumers and marketers be led to believe this academic research doesn’t take into account those gut reactions on a showroom floor, Willcox said that won’t ever change.
“Intuitions, or gut reactions, are an incredibly important part of all decision-making,” he noted. “Without our gut, we would be significantly less decisive than we are.”
As with any other profession, marketers build on their experience with past campaigns to succeed in new ones. Willcox says this tendency will generally lead to quality results, but the biases of the profession should be considered in the final product.

“For example, even if the market situation requires moving away from an established campaign, a marketer may feel intuitively bad about doing this, as they may emotionally overvalue that campaign. In this case, they should try to ignore the nagging, inner voice of their intuitions.” Who is capable of pulling off that feat on most occasions?

The true greats – like Steve Jobs – seem to have a natural alignment between their personal intuitions and their brand purpose,” said Willcox. “The rest of us need to pause and examine the motivational roots of our intuitive or gut response.”

That sets up a fascinating talk on the Times Center Stage Thursday, Sept. 26.
Thisarticle was originally written by Eric Schaal as part of Allvoices’ coverage of Advertising Week, the world’s largest and most important advertising gathering. This series is supported by Advertising Week.
Check out http://www.allvoices.com/advertisingweek for more coverage.