Psychologist

In the deepest depths of the human psyche, we all fear the unknown. Most of us are also lazy and in a hurry.

These three insights may not be particularly profound but applying them to some basic marketing psychology could have a real impact upon the effectiveness of your marketing communications.

Start from the beginning. What is your marketing communications activity – advertising, website, media relations, sale promotion, etc – trying to do? Usually it is persuading people to try your product or service.

If they have never tried it before, it is an unknown. It is a risk. The product or service may be no good or the customers may simply not like it. So why should they take a leap into the unknown?

We used to think that customers were rational beings. “Our soap powder washes whiter” we would say in our adverts and we would show pictures of shirts washed in our powder and the power produced by a competitor to prove the point.

Disappointingly, customers were unimpressed. They mostly carried on buying the powder they had always bought.

Then the psychologists got involved. Marketing communications must appeal to the emotions as well as logic, they told us. So our advertising switched to showing how sending your kids to school in a whiter shirt made you a better parent – achieved through the purchase of our washing powder.

Curiously, this change of tactics had very little impact. Customers by-and-large carried on doing what they had always done.

Faced with a supermarket shelf full of competing washing powders, most consumers will pick the brand they always use. They do this for a number of reasons.

First, there is the fear of the unknown. Changing brand may give an inferior wash. They may waste money on something that does not work as well as what they would normally buy.

Secondly, there is laziness. It is just easier to buy what we have always done than it is to analyse all the options and make a decision.

Thirdly there is haste. In our frenetic modern lives, we don’t have time to waste on analysis and decision-making unless the issue is significant.

I have used the example of washing powder to illustrate the points above but the same things apply to most customers in most markets – including business-to-business markets.

A major capital purchase – a new car for a consumer or a new machine tool for a manufacturing company – will get the attention it deserves. But washing powder or paper for the photocopier? Customers will usually buy what they have always bought.

This is particularly true when doing the same thing is the easiest option. Banks, telephone companies and others rely on this. Unless the competitor can come up with a really powerful reason to change, customers will stay with their existing supplier.

If you are that competitor, your marketing communications need to provide a compelling reason to do something different.

Price is often a good reason to change. Yet there are dangers in that approach. If you win the business by undercutting the existing supplier you can lose the business again just as easily to a competitor that is able to undercut you. And there is always someone who can undercut you.

A short term price promotion – a ‘buy one get one free’ offer or similar – may disrupt normal buying patterns without starting a price war. Customers may try your product or service in preference to their normal brand.

If that is not appropriate to your market, try to think of something else that will provide the incentive to make that first purchase. Don’t aim to get loyal long term customers at this stage. Think short term, tactical, marketing.

Then you have to work hard to ensure that, when the promotion ends, the customers do not go back to their old habits.

The first thing to do, obviously, is to ensure that your new customers are delighted with their purchases. Your products or services must be better than what the customers would normally have bought.

Just to be sure that customers realise how much better, why not find a way to tell them? A letter, email or (in a mass market) your advertising can reinforce the decision that has already been made and influence the next one.

A loyalty card or some similar ongoing promotion can help to ‘lock in’ your one-off customers, turning them into repeat purchasers.

Then watch your back! Now you have the customers, someone, somewhere is planning to lure them away from you.