Marketing is the Galapagos Islands of human behavior.
In the world of marketing, emotions trump truth. One powerful signal is worth one-thousand facts.
Since the creation of mass media, a small number of sophisticated individuals have molded mass consciousness.
As Edward Bernays wrote:
“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
Today, we live in an attention-choked, trust-starved world. The vast majority of our decisions are hampered by imperfect information and made in a flash. As a crutch, we use signals to orient our actions and drive our decision-making. In short, we depend on marketing.
Human evolution depends on marketing too. Low-pitched voices are an adaptation to exaggerate body size. Men are, on average, 10% taller and 20% heavier than females. Yet, there is a twofold difference in pitch between the sexes. Since humans base their size estimates on voice pitch cues, low-pitched, deep-voiced speakers are perceived as being larger. Guided by insights like this one, marketers explore human behavior and exploit its quirks.
What is marketing?
Marketing helps us fake and flaunt our biological fitness. A flower is a weed with a marketing budget. They signal their health by releasing strong smells and blossoming into vibrant colors. Since the chemicals required to produce strong smells are also necessary for the production of nectar, bees are attracted to scented flowers. Humans use signals too. Marketers tap into the animalistic self. If you’re car doors open upwards, you’re rich. If you have a Mac, you’re creative. If you wear Supreme, you’re cool. That is marketing.
Marketing is building a reputation so customers know you have something to lose. If a business has a reputation that persists across time, they can’t cheat people in the short run, so they have to focus on the long run. By investing scarce resources, marketers signal their faith in their product. When everybody knows about a product, its reputation can be damaged. TV is inefficient. That’s why we like it. Subconsciously, we understand this: “As Seen on TV” isn’t the same as “As Seen on Facebook.” That is marketing.
Marketing changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Perspective is everything. In the words of Rory Sutherland: “If you stand and stare out of the window on your own, you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot. If you stand and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking philosopher.” Nike shoes are overpriced pieces of cotton and Eva Foam. Throw LeBron James on a billboard and all of a sudden, you’ll run faster, lift heavier, and jump higher. Buying a diamond necklace from a street salesman, even if the stones are real, isn’t as satisfying as walking into Tiffany’s, walking up to a suit-clad salesman, asking for a necklace, and paying a premium for the one in the center of the chandelier-lit, Tiffany-turquoise box. That is marketing.
Marketing turns one-time games into repeated games. Game theory teaches us that cooperation is higher in repetitive interactions than single shot ones. Guided by instinct, consumers hunt for signals of repetitive games. In single shot games, businesses can rip people off and get away with it. However, in repeated games, brands will go out of business if they cheat people. Even if it’s subconscious, consumers know this. Experience creates trust: “Established in 1772” is a more powerful signal than “Established in 2014.” By advertising experience, brands signal care, commitment, and loyalty. The extra scoop of fries at Five Guys is an immediate expense with a long-term payoff. The logical man, says “make the cups bigger,” the accountant says “cut the extra fries,” but the customer says “I like Five Guys because they are never cheap.” Instead of milking the transaction, Five Guys signals their long-term commitment to their customers. Businesses signal their commitment towards the future with expensive long-term investments. For example, fashion brands advertise their long-term outlook with expensive real-estate. A brand who pays for prime real estate is less likely to screw you over than a bare-bones, pop-up fashion store. When a company goes above and beyond for their customers, they’re showing a long-term commitment to them. Since they care about maximizing lifetime value, brands who play repeated games are more likely to tell the truth and respect their customers. That is marketing.
Marketing is wasting money so customers know you care. In nature, what matters most is not the content of a message but the extent of its trustworthiness. Many flowers produce a smell, but bumblebees prefer smells which are produced by plants which are capable of producing nectar. Thank you notes warm the soul more than text messages. Too much efficiency can ruin an experience. Door-mans are redundant in the age of sliding doors. That’s the point. The inefficiency of a doorman makes us feel prestigious. Likewise, we send wedding invitations on gilt-edged cars, not by email; in swirly fonts, not Times New Roman. Newspaper print editions command more respect than their online equivalent. Reading the New Yorker print edition feels better than reading the same article online. Peahens admire peacocks for their large tails, precisely because large tails are loud, inefficient, and extravagant. As Rory Sutherland observed: Ferraris are appealing because they’re wasteful. They’re fragile, unreliable and cumbersome. Drive over a two-foot speed bump, and it might break down. And yet, anybody who can afford to waste money on a Ferrari can afford to waste money on a significant other. If women were attracted to men who drove expensive cars, they’d marry truck drivers. Marketing helps us shine in the eyes of others. It’s primitive and instinctual, irrational and sexual. That is marketing.
Marketing gives customers the words to promote your product. Marketers don’t just care about the initial customer. They also care about the initial customer’s friends. Well-known brands thrive in social settings, where we can show them off. Cars, clothes, and jewelry come to mind. In these categories, brands help us impress others and advertise our identities. In their advertisements, they drop keywords and memorable stories, which customers use to share the brand with friends and family. That is marketing.
Marketing is about the medium and the message. As consumers, we’re look at the message and the meta-message. Marketing is sensitive to context, so it doesn’t always create demand for a product. In Eastern Europe, under Communism, marketing often lowered product demand. Since most products worth owning were in short supply, marketing signaled the inferiority of a product. Even if the content is the same, due to the effort involved in sending the message, a hand-written thank you note will warm your heart, but you’ll forget about a thank you email. Even if the food is the same, cooking dinner for your date is kinder than ordering the same food from a local restaurant. By paying for a billboard in Times Square, a brand creates common knowledge, generates social proof and signals mass market appeal. That is marketing.
Marketing works best when it doesn’t feel like marketing. Since advertisements are not meant for conscious consumption, the best advertisements mirror their context. Advertisements should not stand out too much. In fact, they should entertain us and complement the experience. On TV, you’ll find premium ads; on social media, the best ads are raw and shaky; they look like the blurry photo Aunt Jane would post after pouring down too many drinks at Thanksgiving dinner. Take the ads away from Vogue — the glamorous ads away from the glamorous content — and customers will cancel their subscriptions. The ads make the magazine. Like all advertisements, their effects are hypnotic and subconscious, and as a result, they’re overlooked and underestimated. That is marketing.
Marketing is everywhere. It extends beyond the walls of business and has existed in nature for millennia. In humans, you’ll find marketing in the clothes we wear and the gifts we share. You’ll find it in the clothes we wear and the gifts we share; speech, posture, cars, homes, handshakes. You name it.
That is marketing.
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Thanks to Nick Maggiulli for feedback on this post.