The use of dwelling on the past

A method for predicting consumer response to brands has its basis in how survival tactics of prehistoric people have shaped modern buying behaviour

Marketers searching for consumer insight to help develop new products and build brands should go back to their roots, according to the emerging science of evolutionary psychology.

The principles behind evolutionary psychology seek to trace current human behaviour back to prehistoric humans in the belief that our basic psychology remains largely the same due to the slow pace of evolutionary change. By understanding the needs and the behaviour of prehistoric people, it is possible to gain an insight into modern behaviour.

Research company Cognosis believes that one of the most fascinating areas of evolutionary psychology is sexual selection, which studies the human need to find a mate and pass on genes to the next generation. A whole range of human needs, emotions and behaviour – wealth, power, intelligence, status, health, fitness and beauty – can be linked back to this basic human need.

The premise also proves that the characteristics men and women look for in a mate are fundamentally different. For males, ensuring that their genes were successfully passed on meant finding a mate healthy enough both to bear children and survive to nurture them. A key indicator of this was youth and beauty. Females, who did not hunt and were dependent on males to provide for them, needed older, wealthier males who would provide food and resources for them and their children. Research into the characteristics sought by men and women in personal ads shows that these preferences remain with us today.

More importantly for marketers, men and women know what the other looks for in a mate and seek to ensure that these qualities are on display. It is this need to attract the opposite sex that has such a fundamental influence on the products that men and women buy today. For this reason, Cognosis believes that evolutionary psychology can offer marketers an insight into how products should be positioned.

For example, women spend large amounts of money on products for their skin, hair, eyes and teeth to enhance their appearance. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to spend their money on items that exaggerate their achievements and connote money, power and control, such as cars and watches.

By studying evolutionary psychology it is possible to determine which messages will attract men and which women. For men, products and messages that focus on sex, power and control are obvious winners. Jaguar (“Born to perform”), Gillette (“The best a man can get”) and BMW (“The ultimate driving machine”) are good examples of this. For women, beauty, natural attraction and allure represent rich territory for brands, from Chanel to haircare brand Tigi.

While these fundamentals will continue to remain true, changes in society and, in particular, changing lifestyles are introducing new twists. As women have become better educated, new life choices and career opportunities have opened up to them. This has helped to make women more confident in areas of life that have not been traditionally female. As a result, brand messages aimed at women are becoming increasingly confident in tone, espousing greater self-expression and extroverted behaviour, for instance Ford Fiesta’s “Get out more” and Archers’ “Come out to play” slogans.

In some cases, the traditional roles and boundaries have not only become blurred, they have been reversed and some luxury goods brands using this fact to target their messages at high-earning women. Gucci, Moët & Chandon and Louis Vuitton, for example, feature reversed traditional roles in their advertising. They portray women as the dominant partner, often using imagery depicting female domination of men.

At the same time, male confidence appears to be eroding in areas outside the traditional core segments of alcohol, sport and cars. As a result, brand messages are becoming more apologetic and new product adoption is only being justified on the basis that it is either cool, sport-related or reflects an independent nature. Examples are rife in the male cosmetics and body care sector. A Right Guard deodorant ad, for instance, features a man about to surf over a cliff with the strapline: “We can’t do anything about the smell in his pantsíö”

The theory of evolutionary psychology highlights the fundamental differences between what men and women want, and how they interact. However, few brands appear to recognise this in their marketing despite the fact that many could benefit from doing so.

Banks, for example, could use evolutionary psychology to understand better the different attitudes men and women have towards spending and saving. This would enable them to provide products and customer services that cater for each gender’s particular needs. Mobile phone operators could also use it to learn more about the ways in which men and women communicate and develop different service plans. It could also help health and beauty brands tackle the problem of opening up the male cosmetic market.

Evolutionary psychology may not provide all the answers, but it can offer a deep insight into common human behaviour and is a new, slightly quirky area for marketers to explore.

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