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Behavioural Science: Who Decides What We Buy?

Who decides what we buy?  It’s a chicken and egg debate.

Innovation, improvement and creation of products and services are produced, on the face of it, for the benefit of the consumer. We assume that, in general, these products and services are created to cater to a supply and demand situation, or to solve a problem. However, one of the biggest influences on what is put on the market is based on the findings of various strands of behavioural science. Although this approach was initially designed to find out what demographic groups want, the competitive nature of so many markets has many people wondering if this technique is now commonly being used to manipulate consumer behaviour rather than reflecting consumer demand.

So, you see, chicken and egg; do the products and companies serve the consumer, or do the consumers serve the products and companies? Marketing, business, consumer demand, profit, trend-setting… there are many issues and phrases banded around with this issue. The fact is, within business profit is the main goal. As we have seen, many huge businesses, household names such as Woolworths, HMV and the House of Fraser, have fallen foul to the highly competitive consumer market. It could be argued that sometimes customer manipulation is what is required for a business to stay afloat; sometimes consumer satisfaction is not the top priority. Is this acceptable? Let’s delve into the pros and cons of behavioural science a little to help towards a conclusion.

What is behavioural science?
The term ‘behavioural science’ is very broad. It takes ideas, theories and techniques from several fields including, among others, social neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology. These are combined under the umbrella of behavioural science in order to understand the behavioural patterns, buying habits and social dynamics of individuals and larger groups. The results of these studies help to form an understanding of the needs and wants of consumers, and how best to react and ultimately capitalise on them.

How can data gathering be used?
Gathering behavioural data is easy these days. Back in the fifties and sixties, when companies began to gather consumer data in earnest in order to predict where markets were going, their techniques were far more rudimentary. Sales figures, questionnaires, customer feedback… these were the kind of techniques being used. Back then most companies were doing their best to react to the market requirements, what people really needed. However, through the years, as data collection has become more sophisticated, and more intricate consumer patterns have been uncovered, it is not too much of a stretch to steer the market in a direction that benefits the company.

Now, with AI, Google analytics and such, the detection of buying patterns is extremely sophisticated. The data collected includes everything from what people buy, what they look at, how long they spend looking at it, what colours peak their interests, what words they most commonly search for, what sells the best at what time of year and in what location; there is really no behaviour that cannot be detected and tracked.

So, you see, data gathering can be used however a company sees fit. They can either react to your needs and problems, or they can place whatever they have to sell in exactly the right setting in order to look after themselves first. So, the answer to the question ‘how can data gathering be used?’ is, essentially, however you like. The result is down to the ethos, morality and ethics of the business in question.

Targeted marketing
Targeted marketing; breaking down the market into segments (generally demographically determined) and concentrating marketing at the segments that are most likely to gain the company the best results. That makes sense, right? Companies and influencers go where an easy sell is most likely, of course, they do. If, for example, you sell sportswear, you might want to advertise outside a gym or leisure centre. If you sell kitchen appliances, you might want to buy advertising slots around TV cooking programmes. And now companies are employing highly sophisticated and personalised tracking of consumer likes and buying patterns on social media and online shopping and appealing to them individually.  However, this kind of specifically targeted marketing, although present in virtually every industry, walks a fine line between serving the customer and serving the company. In an ideal world, it should do both. But at what point is a company pushing its product onto a demographic that doesn’t need what they are selling, but is determined that they should get on board with it anyway?

Is it healthy to target specific demographics? Considering that advertising must behave differently for each target market in order to get the results it requires, does this perhaps fuel societal and cultural divides?

Innovation vs manipulation
It is tough to innovate. Innovation requires skill, imagination and experience, on a personal skill level. These are tricky enough to find as it is. However, the biggest challenge is time and money. Most of us would like to think of ourselves as innovative; creating solutions to current and potential problems, pushing boundaries and, in a broad sense, making the world a better place to live. That said, this is a much more expensive and resource heavy endeavour than simply flogging something that you know will work, because of behavioural science and its results, for an easy sale. In many cases, to create the opportunity to innovate, capital must be gained by betting on a safe product or service.  In this case, it could be said that a little consumer manipulation is the price that must be paid for truly innovative developments and discoveries.

In this fast-changing world of information and technology, the grey areas are numerous. Often, we don’t have time to sit and reflect on our ethos or aims, or on how fair we are being to everyone, due to a fear of missing the boat, a customer, a trend, or a technological advance. But take a few minutes now… who decides what you buy? And indeed, if you are the seller in this situation, are you an innovator, a manipulator, or a bit of both?