Helen Edwards: Marketers are underestimating the signs of customer behaviour

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the frailties of behavioural science and shown marketers are underestimating the significance of signs when it comes to understanding customer behaviour, Edwards argues.

Behavourial scienceMarketers are “underestimating” the significance of the signs that offer an insight into customer behaviour because they are failing to observe them.

That’s the argument from branding expert and Passionbrand founder Helen Edwards, who urges marketers should rely less on science and pay greater attention to the clues that show how customer behaviour is evolving.

“I’m not talking about brand semiotics and what the commercial world uses about reading the big signs and symbols we push out as marketers. What I’m talking about here are the small signs and clues coming back to us from people if we care to observe them,” said Edwards, speaking on the opening day of the Festival of Marketing (5 October).

The Marketing Week columnist questioned whether marketers are right to use the word ‘science’ when discussing human behaviour, suggesting that really behavioural science is something of an oxymoron.

“It just seems to me that human behaviour is too fluid, too individual to be linked with the word ‘science’,” Edwards argued.

She pointed to the fact that much of behavioural science is “heavily dependent on single famous experiments”, which she noted had failed to be replicated and suggested that even fans of the discipline would acknowledge it hasn’t had a good crisis.

It’s time for us to stop and drop the arrogance of trying to nudge people and be more alert and responsive to consumers who are nudging us.

Helen Edwards

“It famously got it wrong about behavioural fatigue, so now the government is effectively having to bribe and persuade people to get out of their homes and safely back to the workplace. Even in our discipline, the notion that there’s something called ‘marketing science’ with all that perceptual certainty is something I feel increasingly squeamish about,” she stated.

In marketing, as in medicine, observing the signs is just the starting point and requires sophisticated, structured analysis to understand what it says about customers, as well as what it means for your brand, said Edwards.

She also argued that marketers tend to overestimate the power of nudge theory. “What I think about nudge theory is it’s time for us to stop and drop the arrogance of trying to nudge people and be more alert and responsive to consumers who are nudging us,” she stated.

“When a call drops off a queue that’s a nudge to improve response time. When a consumer picks up a jumper, feels it and puts it down again, that’s a nudge to improve quality. When a consumer hides your pack, it’s a nudge about your packaging and even your brand meaning.”

To get under the skin of how consumers are feeling, Edwards and her team recently carried out a global ethnographic study of slogan T-shirts, based on the idea that they say something about the mindset of the wearer. The T-shirts carried themes around individuality, solidarity, freedom and feminism.

Armed with this information, the team created mock-ups of eight T-shirts, featuring slogans that had been popular on the street, which were rendered design agnostic. Then 1,000 people aged 18 to 40 were asked, if they were paid a small sum to wear one, which would they choose? The slogans represented different dimensions from community to individuality, freedom to restraint.

The outright winner was ‘Go your own way’, followed some way behind by ‘This too shall pass’ and ‘Freedom is everything’. The bottom two choices were ‘Play it safe’ and ‘Vulnerability is strength’.

“It was surprising to me that the pull was towards individuality and freedom, so you might want to think about that if you’re a brand about to jump on the comms bandwagon of community and team. You might want to think about how individuality plays within that,” Edwards suggested.

Trends on the horizon

She contends that if a consumer trend had emerged prior to the pandemic, and has been given a “Covid impetus”, then the likelihood of behaviour change is both “large and lasting”.

One such trend is the shift to localism. Back in 2012, an analysis by Millward Brown found customer preference was higher for national brands than international alternatives. Edwards also cited research from Kantar that found the pandemic has driven a surge of support for local produce, with 65% of consumers globally saying they prefer goods and services from their own country.

Localism’s potential is limited by the scale needed to innovate

She acknowledged that for global brands, localism poses a significant challenge.

“The clue for global brands to meet local challenges is back in that Millward Brown data. If you get under the bonnet of branding, the metric is made up of three components – salience, meaning and difference,” Edwards explained.

“Local brands are easily going to win on salience and meaning, but global brands can fight back on difference driven by innovation. In China, it was the only reason global brands had any traction at all. It’s an asymmetrical challenge, you can’t meet it on the same terms, but you can fight it with something you’re really good at.”

Maybe it’s time to think about the ‘unemployer brand’ and how your brand reacts when all those lovely values we use to bring in people need to be respected as we say goodbye.

Helen Edwards

She urged global marketers to do everything in their power to differentiate their brand through innovation on the product, service, customer experience, packaging, the business model and delivery mechanism.

Another emerging trend is being driven by the rise of the Zoom call. Edwards hypothesised that, thanks to a new way of working, people are more interested in their homes and improving them because they spend so much more time in them and show the interior to their colleagues.

While home improvement moving into the mass mainstream is a win for companies like B&M and Dunelm, she argued there is a wider opportunity for brands to up their game on packaging, as consumers could well gravitate towards products that look good in their homes.

Your employer brand means just as much to consumers

The final trend discussed by Edwards was customer neglect under the cover of Covid-19, as staff blame a poor customer experience on the pandemic.

“This could be a simple sign of a simple issue, with a really simple solution. It’s about poor employee brand engagement, sub-standard service, bad customer experience and it needs to be fixed. There could also be something else going on,” Edwards suggested.

“Could it be a sign of a deeper malaise with a much more disastrous consumer effect? Could it be a sign of serious employee discontent resulting from the management response?”

She argued that with mass unemployment on the horizon and a “buyer’s market for talent”, now is the right time to reinvigorate your employer brand. With increasing numbers of people going through redundancy, how they feel about a brand matters.

“Maybe it’s time to think about the ‘unemployer brand’ and how your brand reacts when all those lovely values we use to bring in people need to be respected as we say goodbye, with kindness and generosity at the core,” Edwards added.

Helen Edwards was speaking at the Festival of Marketing, which is taking place online between 5 – 9 October. All sessions, including Edwards’, are available to watch on-demand for those with a digital pass. To buy a pass visit www.festivalofmarketing.com/buy-your-pass.