At Huxly we revel in understanding consumers in all their glorious complexity, because we think it makes for sharper, more resonating insights, and better marketing. To do this well, we all need to develop the skill of reading between the lines, to reveal the hidden motives for the way we behave.
Authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hansen call this phenomenon "The Elephant in the Brain" an "introspective blind spot that makes it hard to think clearly about ourselves and the explanations for our behaviour".
In their fascinating book of the same title, they show us that together with the very virtuous motives that consumers often willingly express in focus groups, there are often other less attractive or downright selfish motives going on in the background. These motives can often relate to sending the right signals to others, that help us manage others' positive perceptions of us. They might be demonstrating which tribes in society they belong to. Or they might be ways of demonstrating that they adhere to or reject certain norms in society.
Consider consumers who buy environmentally friendly products, such as a Toyota Prius. In part, the purchase can be explained the authors say, by a desire to make the right environmental choice, but what else? What does making such an altruistic purchase say to others about you? Perhaps it says that you respect the environment and act for the common good. That might well help you fit in with a group of friends who share your values. At the same time, it allows you to have a new car, and demonstrate wealth and status within your community. The distinctive shape of the Prius further strengthens this signal. To back up this point, they describe other pieces of research which have proven that consumers are more likely to buy environmentally friendly products when others are watching than when they are not.
Don't feel bad. It's not that we are inherently sneaky, our brain is just hard wired to do this because it helps us to get ahead socially, and our social effectiveness as a species is one of the good reasons our species has flourished and survived. It's because, as Simler and Hansen explain, we live in a social world where other people can judge us, and so "we emphasise our pretty motives, and downplay our ugly ones".
The challenge for researchers and marketers is that consumers are not always aware of these hidden motives, or may not be willing to admit to them. Here's a great example of making the elephant appear. Traditional toilet cleaner advertising focuses on killing germs effectively, but Harpic's "What does your loo say about you?" campaign touched on a something deeper, an "elephant in the room" that most consumers might unlikely be willing to blurt out in a focus group, but which was deeply resonating.
It's not just about making your toilet clean. Instead it was about mitigating the fear that strikes most people when a visitor asks, "Can I quickly use your loo?"
What are we afraid of? Exposing the guest to harmful bacteria? No. It's fear of being judged. Avoiding the feeling of shame, a "power emotion" so eloquently described by Elias as "the anguish we feel at being seen by others in degrading circumstances" (Elias, 2000)
It's a stunning piece of insight that lead to a very relatable campaign.
Our philosophy at Huxly is that it's important not to take things at face value, and to think more deeply about the psychology underpinning how consumers are behaving and use techniques to reveal those elephants.
So next time you're briefing an advertising campaign or setting out to create a new innovation concept, remember that there's a whole world of consumer motivations that consumers may not be comfortable to talk about, and may not feature on your concept board, but will nonetheless be fundamental to the success of your products.
We've got some great approaches to exploring social insights – get in touch if you'd like to know more.
Karen Poole, 8th June, 2018