Probably because it is a difficult discipline to predict, we marketers love the idea of systems that are proven to deliver results. Whether it is putting the call to action in a certain font, including a free pen with a mailing or emailing at a specific time of the day, anything that can help convince consumers is considered fair game.
So it is no surprise that marketers, and particularly advertisers, have long looked at psychology to help predict what will work and what won’t. I’ve previously talked about Mark Earls and the theory that, basically, we all want to belong to the herd, an ingrained, unthinking, attitude that makes us enormously susceptible to peer pressure.
Much of herd theory is related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2002. His work (including the seminal Thinking, Fast and Slow), shows that the human mind is comprised of two systems. The first (system one) is intuitive, making decisions automatically, while system two rationalises the ideas of system one and sometimes overrules it. Essentially, what this means is that we think far less about decisions than we believe we do, and are much less rational than people expect. As Kahneman put it, “We are to thinking as cats are to swimming. We can do it if we have to, but we don’t particularly like it.”
Theories such as these are a godsend to marketers. If you can convince system one to like/buy something then chances are it’ll slip past the lazy watchdog that is system two without anyone noticing. Potentially scary if you are a consumer (or a citizen during an election campaign) but perfect for ad agencies.
Hence, as a recent story in The Economist points out, the phenomenal success of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Gorilla advert, which delivered an ROI three times the industry average. In reality the advert had nothing to do with chocolate at all, but led with emotion (rather than information) and brand (rather than product benefits). Ad men love Kahneman’s theories because:
(a) They get the chance to do fun, extravagant ads that could win prizes rather than list the benefits of cough syrup
(b) Traditional ways of measuring ad impact don’t work with system one-led ads. So there won’t be an annoying (uncreative) market researcher telling you your ad doesn’t resonate with the audience.
As the current crop of Christmas adverts shows, reason and rationality have very much gone out the window, with a focus on brand, emotion and slowed-down songs sung by female pop stars. But I don’t think all is lost for the system two adverts – if they are clever, informative and delivered with humour they can appeal to our rational selves, and by being the opposite of the mainstream can stand out by being different. There’s always a trade-off – if all things were equal, most of us wouldn’t choose to fly Ryanair, but system two looks at the price difference on tickets and forces us onboard. So, before they get carried away, marketers and ad men shouldn’t throw system two out with the bathwater (or should that be gorilla?).
As everyone by now has been reminded by their children/mother, there’s less than a month to Christmas, cueing mass panic and a rush to Amazon.
Rather than starting shopping I thought I’d look at the marketing behind Christmas and how it has evolved over the past centuries. From the Christian Church to John Lewis brands have attempted with varying degrees of success to link to a midwinter celebration. Here’s a top four of marketing successes:
1 The Church
Before people start getting upset about the hijacking of the Baby Jesus’ birthday by commercial interests it is worth going back to pagan times. Before the Christian Christmas began there was a major celebration of the midwinter solstice, around the end of December. There’s no record of when Christ was actually born in the Bible, so essentially the church merged the existing pagan festival with Christ’s birth from around the fourth century as part of a move to increase converts and popularity.
2 The Victorians
For popularising other traditions (such as present giving around the day itself, rather than at New Year, and Christmas trees) we have to thank Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, helped by the pen of Charles Dickens. The stereotypical Christmas scene of snow, robins and greenery comes directly from Victorian times, despite the current lack of ‘seasonal’ weather on the day itself. What better way to spread colonial strength than by giving the world an excuse to celebrate?
3 Coca Cola
There’s a widespread belief that Father Christmas’ red and white costume comes directly from Coca Cola’s 1930s ad campaigns. This may not be completely true – his forerunner St Nicholas dressed in red and white bishop’s vestments – but it is certainly something that the soft drinks giant cannily exploits to this day.
4 John Lewis
Over the last twenty years the competition to own the Christmas experience has led to more and more lavish advertising campaigns. Thanks to a heavy dose of hype these ads now attract press coverage on their own, with commentators discussing their relative merits, and now monitoring the social media buzz. Undoubted winner of the past few festive seasons has been John Lewis, which has knocked Marks & Spencer off its perch as the must see Christmas advert. This year it has spent a reported £7m on its animated Hare and Bear campaign, which generated over 14,500 tweets in its first few hours of release.
So, why is it important? Firstly, Christmas has come to dominate the retail landscape, with many chains doing the majority of their business in the months around 25 December. Secondly, spending is still cautious (despite what official figures say about the UK moving out of recession), so competition for every pound spent is fierce. If you can tap into the Christmas spirit not only will you generate seasonal goodwill, but you will also bring in revenue from customers who will remain loyal over the whole year.
This means that while it is easy to sneer at the over-excitement about TV ad campaigns, they are only the successors to previous attempts by brands to ‘own’ Christmas and therefore win over their audiences – whether to sell soft drinks, Victorian values or even Christianity itself. As the investment shows Christmas is far too important to be left to Father Christmas. Myself, I’ll stick to Scrooge………