Between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago – even before – events took place that would ripple down the millennia to affect products such as shampoo bottles and cereal boxes.
Before you think I’ve lost my Palaeolithic marbles, let me explain. Around this time, modern humans entered Europe from Africa and coexisted with woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers. That was until Man discovered spears and helped kill off both species some 10,000 years ago.
During this period of coexistence, Man learnt that these animals were a source of food and, through painful experience, also a source of danger and death.
Man accumulated and applied attributions about these animals, passing them on to subsequent generations via creative endeavours such as cave paintings.
Although the process of evolution was well underway, one may posit that Man’s confrontation with beast accelerated the development of ‘stereotyping’, and it took another step forward to becoming an integral influence on our decision-making.
Today, stereotyping has a very real effect on our ‘hunting’ of everything we consume, and for those in the marketing profession and related industries such as design, how we approach our roles and responsibilities.
In our daily lives, we all make use of stereotypes and there are good reasons why we have them. They are central to the way our brains have evolved. It would be difficult to live a normal life without them. It makes sense to have a powerful, instinctive and emotional reaction when finding yourself face-to-face with a woolly mammoth or sabre-tooth tiger. And although we may not be quite as aware of it, we have an instinctive, emotional reaction when we find ourselves face-to-face with a bottle of shampoo or cereal box.
When we stereotype, we are making attributions about an entity or person on the basis of the category they belong to, often in the absence of information other than that which we already have at our disposal, such as previous experience. We do it for a very good reason: to help us make sense of the world, so it is less taxing on the brain and uses less cerebral resources. They take place through an automatic process and can be triggered by the slightest experience or encounter.
Stereotypes are cognitive structures that store our beliefs and expectations; images and ideas with specific meanings in our culture, which can be rapidly activated if the right prompt appears.
The downside of having these stereotypes is that they can turn out to be wrong. There is a significant body of research indicating that over time, people can self-stereotype. This is a process whereby beliefs learned early in childhood become reinforced in adulthood and eventually become internalised. As a result, in later life one might believe, for example, that they belong to a group for which a particular brand is relevant and vice versa. In other words, we see ourselves more consistent with stereotypes about a group to which we belong than we otherwise would.
Stereotypes are formed through nurture (our upbringing), our relations and interactions with social groups around us and through genetics.
So what does all this mean for design and those responsible for creating, developing or managing it?
Below are three specific issues to consider in more detail:
1. Perpetuating or shifting stereotypes that the people buying your brand may have
The stereotypes that people buying your brand may have could be useful ones you want to perpetuate or may be totally unfounded. They may have had a bad experience of the brand when they were young or perhaps their parents had a bad experience and passed on these associations and attributions. Are these shared by a sufficiently large group to warrant further investigation? If they do exist, are they positive or are they limiting? How easy will it be to perpetuate or subvert them?
2. Challenging the stereotypes about a brand that you are working on
You too may have subconscious stereotypes about a brand you are working on. These might be through your own personal experience acquired over the years as a consumer; through corporate myths, inadvertently transferred in brand books or induction meetings; or simply through what you have heard in chatter around the office. Are these stereotypes consistent with those held by the people buying your brand? Again, are they positive or limiting?
Let’s say, for example, you are working in the automotive industry and are looking for some killer insights. Where do you go? To the US, famed for its love of the car? You might be better off going to Chile, where the average number of miles travelled by car in a year is the highest in the world at 28,000.
3. Challenging the stereotypes about the people in the market for your brand
Lastly, you may harbour stereotypes about your consumer that unwittingly influence your decision-making. How can you be more self-aware? For example, how often do you stand in the supermarket aisle and spend time really watching your consumer shop? And I mean really watching them.
If you commit yourself to uncovering one startling fact per week about your consumer, the very act of doing this can change your own thought patterns and disturb stereotypes.
In the context of design, if the end game is more engaging, commercially effective solutions, then we need to ensure balanced thinking.
To some extent, we have woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers to thank for revealing the disturbing truth that the enemy of balanced thought lies within us.