Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Meet your irrational consumer

Published in Sep-Oct 2015

What are the forces of inertia that compel people to make irrational choices?
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Archimedes had his epiphany in his bathtub, mine was less dramatic. Some time ago, my wife and I headed to the supermarket to pick up our monthly groceries. The store was filled to capacity and it was a battle to navigate the throng of shoppers. Reaching the checkout lines, we saw that judging by the number of people in the queues, this was going to be a long wait. While we were pondering our course of action, a store representative asked us to follow him. My wife resisted, but realising what he intended doing, I told her to listen to the man and just as I suspected, the store did not have seven checkout lines only and the man led us to a row of checkout counters that were relatively empty. I then observed the behaviour of other people who were also approached by this person – they just would not budge. Even when I offered to guide people towards the checkout lines with fewer shoppers, the majority ignored me.

So what was the epiphany, you might be asking?

People are not rational. In the same way that it was obvious to me that the supermarket could not possibly have only seven checkout counters, I am sure that most shoppers thought so too. So why didn’t they follow the man and save time? Because we become emotional and irrational, that’s why.

Although Adam Smith’s assertion that man is a rational economic being is taught in schools and universities, we in marketing have been exposed to the fact that people are not rational; they are emotional and good at rationalising. This means that people justify their product choices rather than choose products because of the attributes they say influence them – remember the marketing maxim that “people buy on emotion and justify with facts”?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink writes about the three levels of information present in the human brain. The first where the individual is aware of something and readily communicates it, the second is where the individual is aware of something but will not communicate it due to fear of social repercussions, etc.; the third contains information of which the individual consciously does not know exists. This may explain why you have a very complicated time trying to figure out why your brand is still number two in spite of your best efforts.

Welcome to inertia
Marketing has adopted a lot of military terminologies – penetration, offense, defense, strategy, to name a few. Well here is a term from the world of physics which plays a role in marketing – inertia. Put simply, inertia is the theory whereby an object in a state of motion (either moving or at rest) will require a considerably greater force to change its existing momentum. So if a ball is stationary, the force needed to make it move has to be greater than the forces that are keeping it still.

There are two kinds of inertia in marketing – marketing inertia which affects companies or brands, making them complacent and reluctant to make major changes in the way they market. The other kind is consumer inertia. What would you say if I told you that a large number of consumers around the world are not brand loyal? Remember I earlier spoke about people justifying choices?

The desire to stay in the status quo is what makes consumers keep on buying the same brand instead of switching.

An excellent discussion on the subject can be found on Des Traynor’s blog on Traynor quotes a study which has identified the four forces that influence the switching process. Of these, the two which encourage switching are problems with a current product and then the attraction of a new product. The two forces which discourage switching are existing habits and allegiances, and the anxiety and uncertainty of change.

In his blog Traynor writes that “people don’t hate progress, they just prefer inertia. This stops them from buying your product even when it is the logical choice.”

Another seminal truth he states is that customers don’t buy a product; they switch to it from something else. Traynor then opines that advertising can be used to influence consumers. Firstly, by increasing a push away from a competitor by exposing the weaknesses of a product. Secondly, by promoting how well your product fulfils their needs. Thirdly to decrease the fear and uncertainty of change is to reassure consumers that the switch is hassle free. Fourthly is to decrease their attachment to the status quo (probably the toughest) by removing the consumer’s irrational attachment to the current situation. Traynor gives the example of the ‘I’m a Mac’ campaign.

“It highlighted the pain points of Windows (1), demonstrated how great a Mac was (2), showed how easy it was to switch (3), and presented those who wouldn’t switch as buffoons, reducing their attachment to old habits (4). In short, they created an anxiety relievable only by a purchase.”

The 9x effect
Traynor then quotes from a study conducted by John T. Gourville and published in a paper called Easy Sellers and Stony Buyers. There is reason to believe that not only are consumers overvaluing what they already have by a factor of three, companies too overvalue their innovations by a factor of three, leading to what he calls the 9x effect.

According to Gourville, “Studies show that there is a mismatch of nine to one between what innovators think consumers want and what consumers truly desire.”

The factors he mentions are status quo bias; consumers sticking with a product even when a better one is available. Furthermore, an important factor on the company side is self design, which means that products designed based on designer’s or developer’s needs are hard for end users to adopt.

Inertia is a pretty good explanation for why my fellow shoppers at the supermarket did not want to join a queue that would have saved them a good half hour at the checkout. The fear and uncertainty of change and the risk of missing out are the factors that come into play. We tend to focus on strategy and rationales in advertising to get the job done, yet in the case of packaged milk (in particular), even emotional appeals have come up with naught.

Perhaps it’s time we embrace a little physics to understand our irrational consumers.

Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan.