Your customers aren’t constant, it’s moments that matter more

People don’t act the same way every day, their behaviour varies according to their mood and situation, so brands are better off targeting those.

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“I’m a million different people from one day to the next.” So sings The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft in ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. And psychology supports him.

Imagine spotting a homeless person in the underpass on the way to work on Tuesday. You offer to buy breakfast. A few days later, another street, another beggar, and you don’t offer anything. Are you still the same you?

Well, in a way, you’re not – you made a different decision in response to a person in need.

This variation in quite fundamental aspects of character, such a kindness, is natural but very often neglected. We tend to overemphasise a person’s personality and downplay environmental influences.

It’s a mistake called the fundamental attribution error.

And it explains why we marketers often default to targeting groups of people stratified by demographic or attitude, when we could be a lot more nuanced.

What we can learn from priests in a hurry

The strength of external drivers over internal personality has been demonstrated time and again in psychology.

One classic experiment was conducted in 1973 by Princeton psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson. They recruited 40 seminary students and gauged their personalities by asking why they were studying to be priests — for personal salvation or to serve others.

The students were then asked to cross over to a nearby building for the next stage of the study. This is when the experimental element came into play — some students were told to hurry as they were already running late, and another group were not.

Outside, a colleague of the researchers posed as a man in need of help, slumped on the ground and apparently struggling to breathe. All students had to pass him en route to the next location.

Results showed a large variation in helping behaviour according to whether they were rushing. In fact, only 10% of trainee priests stopped to lend a hand when in a hurry, compared to 63% of those who had plenty of time. The correlation between having time and helping was much stronger than any correlation between personality and helping.

Context mattered far more than character.

And it matters much more than we think — when the researchers asked another group of participants to predict what would have the greatest influence, they consistently expected that personality would determine willingness to help more than pressure of time. The fundamental attribution error in action.

Mood and moments

There are any number of contextual elements that affect what you decide to do. Whether you’re in a rush is clearly important. And perhaps this explains why you offer breakfast one morning, and not the next. Or maybe you were just in a bad mood?

Mood has also been shown to significantly shape decision making. And, importantly for marketers, happy people are alert people.

Evidence for this comes from Fred Bronner at the University of Amsterdam, in 2007. He asked 1,287 participants to flick through a newspaper. Afterwards, he questioned them as to which ads they remembered. He also asked about their mood and stress levels.

The results showed that those who were feeling positive and happy recalled 52% of ads. Unhappy readers recalled only 35%. Relaxed participants recalled 54% of ads, but those who were stressed, just 36%.

The strength of external drivers over internal personality has been demonstrated time and again in psychology.

The message is clear. Reach your audience when they’re happy and chilled, and you’ll increase your chance of being noticed.

As long as it’s a good fit for your product, think about focusing on weekends rather than Mondays, or evenings rather than mid-commute. If you’re using TV or video, consider light entertainment or comedy slots rather than hard-hitting documentaries. And what about the weather? Unexpectedly sunny days offer a great opportunity to reach customers in a buoyant mood — all the better if it’s a bank holiday weekend.

Memory and place

Mood isn’t the only element to influence our ability to recall, of course. Memory is hugely complex, and there are countless factors at play.

One is location — we are more likely to remember something if we’re in the same place we were when we learned it. It’s the basis of the ‘mind palace’ concept of recall: envisage a house or palace and position physical representations of information in specific spots around the interior. Upon re-entering your mind palace, you’ll ‘see’ the facts again.

There’s a 1975 study that explored this to a fairly extreme extent. Duncan Godden and Alan Baddeley at the University of Sterling asked divers to learn words underwater, and on the beach. They found that participants were far better able to recall the underwater words when back underwater than on dry land.

In fact, when learning and recall location were the same (eg both on land), they recalled 46% more words than when learning and recall location were different (ie dry land and underwater).

What you can do

There’s no need to send your customers into the water. But it’s definitely worth placing ads in the spots where you want customers to recall you in future.

An example of an effective application of this theory was positioning ads for Carabao energy drinks in town centres on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Out for the evening, customers are prompted towards purchase in the moment — but are also more likely to recall these ads on subsequent nights out on the same streets.

This approach can be especially effective when settings are part of regular routines. Carabao was also promoted in commuter areas for manual workers. Labourers in need of a morning caffeine boost are more likely to remember the brand each time they’re at the bus stop where they first saw the ad.

And perhaps you’re more likely to buy breakfast when you see the same guy in the same place regularly – you’ll remember that’s what you do at that spot, in that moment. The key point is, even if you sometimes buy breakfast, you don’t always show that level of kindness. Nobody would.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to think of people as having an entirely constant, fixed character. We don’t – and marketers can harness the subtleties that change us from one moment to the next.

Richard Shotton is founder of the consultancy Astroten. His new book The Illusion of Choice, about applying behavioural science to marketing is now available. He tweets at @rshotton.

Will Hanmer-Lloyd is head of strategy at Total Media.