Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Waitrose Behavioural Internship for Creative Artists

Went to a breakfast seminar today. Dread phrase, as Wallace Arnold would say, but interesting. The speaker, Graham Bishop of What If, an innovation consultancy, talked engagingly about the uses of a behavioural approach to customer loyalty.

This approach focuses on how people actually behave rather than how they tell us they behave. There's often a big difference. In this approach, theory is not as important as observed behaviour, and the behavioural triggers and switches that are therefore revealed.

Man is a resourceful animal - the most resourceful. One of the reasons is that man combines reason with a more primordial approach to problem-solving. We take shortcuts in making decisions based on pointers we're not consciously aware of using. Being able to make use of these signs relies on the fruit of experience being boiled down into what feels like an instinctive judgement. Learning how this works can be of huge commercial advantage to business.

A classic example is the so-called 'German clunk' of the door of a quality car. Research has apparently shown that a customer's view of quality is 70% dependent on the noise made when the car door is slammed shut (no idea how this is calculated). The doors on a Mercedes saloon make this satisfying clunk and car buyers learnt - mostly subconsciously, I would have thought - to use this as a shorthand for quality. There was no need to lift the bonnet - or ask someone to give you a view on what was under the bonnet - the clunk was enough.

This shortcut in decision-making was used by Toyota when they developed their luxury brand Lexus. They replicated exactly the back-door clunk of a Mercedes. It happened that the engineering was superb anyway. But the clunk was enough to demonstrate this to customers intuitively, so putting to bed concerns as to whether the Lexus was genuinely a quality car. Telling them alone would not have been enough to convince them.

It can work in reverse too. Tesco didn't understand why they weren't selling as many free range eggs as they should have been. It turned out they were displaying them in cages - easy to wheel in and out. But the idea 'cage' bespoke of battery hens - customers didn't therefore intuitively believe in the ethical promise of Tesco's free range eggs.

Another example is provided by the pointy ends left on toilet paper in hotel bathrooms. This indicates primarily that the bathroom has been cleaned. And this message has been so well absorbed by the users of hotels that if this sign isn't in place, the stress levels of guests demonstrably rise. They start feeling strangely uneasy. Everything might look clean...but how do they know? The bathroom may not have been cleaned, so what about the linen...and is that a mark on the coffee cup?

These insights have been in play for a quite a while with Tesco, as ever, leading the way in UK retail. And the experience shows that these unconscious triggers can be more powerful than arguments that appeal to a customer's reason. We are inclined to go with what's instinctive, intuitive and felt.

What I found interesting after thinking this through a bit is that this is an insight that has been deployed in powerful fashion, consciously or otherwise,  by novelists, actors, film-makers, playwrights. I provided some examples in a previous post. What is sensed rather than explicitly learnt, the unspoken, can make the most powerful impression. But I wonder now, can this playing on the intuitive be taught?

For instance, I wondered whether Tesco might offer creative artists an internship to study their customers in this behavioural fashion? As a consequence novelists, actors, directors, playwrights, film-makers, etc. might gain new insights into the behaviour of their characters and in how to communicate with their audience. Deliberately playing to the sensed rather than the observed. But then asking artists to partner with naked commerce as exemplified by the barrow boys at Tesco might make them feel (shop) soiled. In which case, perhaps ethical, middle-class and staff-owned Waitrose would be a more acceptable sponsor...

Could be a mutually beneficial experience. The store gets some striking publicity, and who knows, some useful commercial insights from people whose vocation demands intuition anyway. The creative artist gets to learn - or at least formalise - a particular way of thinking about both the motivation of characters and communication with the audience.

I therefore propose: The Waitrose Behavioural Internship for Creative Artists.


worm said...

interesting post! artists learning to exploit this might be a bad idea though, as it might simply be a case of them employing style over substance and hiding poor quality examination of the human condition behind smoke and mirrors?

You might not want to buy a work of art that masqueraded as a Mercedes but that you knew was just a Toyota underneath. Or do you think that the very act of the artist's manipulation of your behavioural pattterns is enough to elevate the art into the interesting?

Anonymous said...

This seems to chime with what the political and economic worlds have been discussing recently; I thought after reading "Nudge" that the behavioural economists were only just getting round to what any self-respecting supermarket owner had known for decades, ie that if you put the sweets next to the till, people will buy more of them.