Renewed Inspiration

Imagine you were working with a high street women’s fashion store, and tasked with marketing their expansion into menswear. Your hunch says it might not work – but of course the client doesn’t want to fund any research that might scupper their plans. What do you do instead?At the launch of The Choice Factory, Richard Shotton gave us an excellent account (also found in the book) of how he and his colleagues handled this exact conundrum, which they faced when working with New Look. Shorn of any budget, creativity was required. Shotton’s approach was to photograph several colleagues in two conditions. In one, the ‘model’ held a Topman bag, in the other, they held a New Look bag. The photos were then posted to a website where users could rate someone’s attractiveness. A fortnight later, the results were conclusive. A man was deemed to be 25% less attractive with a New Look bag in his hands.

I mentioned this to a friend shortly after leaving the event. We both had the same thought: is this definitively telling us about the suitability of New Look as a menswear brand? After all, would a man holding a Karen Millen bag not likely be assumed to simply be a generous gift buyer? But that isn’t the point – the result is insightful in itself. The certainty with which we can accept or reject our null hypothesis matters less than the clear insight that something is going on when men are seen with New Look bags, and to an extent that merits serious consideration about what to do next.

That story brings together the three main points I took from this excellent book. Firstly, how small cues can have big effects, as a result of human biases. Secondly, that in pursuing certainty from experiments, we might miss a crucial piece of insight. Thirdly, that there is boundless scope to be creative in how we link the theory of behavioural science to real world applications. It’s on this last point where The Choice Factory really excels, but I will address the behavioural biases first.


A lot more than just behavioural biases

Curiously, the book undersells itself in promising an exploration of 25 biases that influence what we buy. That’s not quite true: the book is far better than that. Instead of a codex of biases, we’re treated to an exploration of 25 topics concerning buyer behaviour, marketing decision making, and the application of psychology to this field. Readers already familiar with behavioural psychology therefore have plenty of reason to read The Choice Factory: its scope is broader than I expected, and the book is all the more useful for it.

Another benefit to being about more than just biases is that Shotton side-steps a trap that sometimes undermines the application of behavioural psychology to marketing (and in particular market research), namely, in which all decision making is attributed to biases and irrationality (a word I don’t recall Shotton using), and that these biases therefore offer a panacea for addressing every marketing challenge. I’ve encountered some clunky applications of behavioural psychology that fit this mould, and thankfully that’s avoided here. Not that the book doesn’t have its place in a more structured approach to thinking through marketing challenges – at the launch, Rory Sutherland suggested it be used as a checklist of points to consider. I personally like this approach a lot: I see such a way of thinking not as limiting creativity, but as a great way of being less wrong. And above all, the way Shotton describes each bias does far more than just tell us of its existence. Instead, he gets us thinking carefully about each one, and what its implications are in the context of other decisions that marketers make.


Making the most of the theory

Take the tragic story of Kitty Genovese, with which the book begins. According to the first headlines in The New York Times, 38 people saw her attack at the hands of Winston Moseley, but failed to come to her aid. That headline ultimately proved to be highly misleading – but it led Bibb Latané and John Darley to discover the Bystander Effect (which explains our disinclination to intervene because others are around us). I would expect many marketers to be familiar with it, and to perhaps know of some of the laboratory experiments performed to validate it. But I’m not sure how many would instantly spot the link between this effect and a campaign to encourage blood donations. It’s such links that Shotton draws time and time again throughout this book. The encouragement to take a principle of psychology, and then to really sweat it – whether it’s by improving a campaign, through further experiments, or with real-world testing – is what I took most from this book, which shows convincingly that such things are possible. We don’t just have to accept the literature as it is, the experiments that marketers and researchers might be inspired to run could yet be tremendously valuable. That’s especially true when we consider the importance of variability (to which Shotton devotes a chapter in itself). Marketing operates in a complex system, in which the confluence of multiple variables ultimately determine our behaviour. That might be a nightmare for anyone trying to model attribution, but it’s a wonderful thing for curious marketers: we have a wide range of levers to pull, and thanks to books like this, we know more about how to pull them. And I can’t imagine that we’re even close to exhausting the range of ways in which behavioural science can improve how we market to customers.


In defence of behavioural science

It’s that variability that brings me on to my final point, which is that the book elegantly defends behavioural science against the criticism of the field. I’m happy to confess that, based on Shotton’s Twitter activity, I once felt he was often too quick to give a free pass to laboratory experiments. But just like with my initial question over the New Look case above, this misses the point – as long as we understand what the point is. It’s of course a mistake to treat every experiment as being there to establish some immutable truth. (And, thanks to the replicability crisis, the additional scrutiny of psychology experiments has helped to generate further insight, for instance, Rory Sutherland points out that biases arising from adaptive traits seem more likely to be replicated.) But the most important point here is that marketers already have to deal with a high-risk profile – it comes with the territory of the complexity I mentioned above. If a behavioural device flops in one store format but works brilliantly in another, why only seek out that which succeeds with 100% reliability? Besides, competitive advantage will be realised when we discover behavioural interventions that our competitors haven’t yet. How boring it would be if a textbook told us everything: better to work with books like this that get our brains ticking.

Is there anything that could be improved about this book? (I mention this partly as the Pratfall Effect might suggest that you’ll take this review more seriously if I fessed up to something I didn’t like.) In truth, there really isn’t much at all – The Choice Factory is every bit as good as I hope I have managed to convey. I did find myself wanting to hear more about why behavioural science hasn’t gained a greater foothold in the marketing industry (there are allusions to this dotted throughout, but not a full discussion in one place). I had a question about measurability too, especially with respect to some of the subtler applications of psychology that Shotton proposes. If behavioural science is one of those things that counts but can’t be counted, and therefore doesn’t fit neatly on a spreadsheet during the planning stage, then do marketers at least owe the accountants a clearer read of what behavioural interventions have accomplished after the fact? But marketing already has enough of a fight on its hands to stop trading effectiveness for measurability, and much of what I’ve just said would belong in a different book. Including all this here would detract from the tidy and digestible format of The Choice Factory. That’s another positive: it’s a very easy read, aided by its simple structure and the clarity of Shotton’s writing. (I wasn’t surprised to see that Dave Trott approved.)

Any marketers already sold on the value of behavioural science will find plenty here to encourage further optimism and confidence in its use. Psychology can help marketers generate extraordinary returns from small inputs, but it gets better – the palette of options with which we can experiment is immensely rich, and Shotton’s book will give marketers renewed inspiration on how to apply behavioural science. In a sense, marketers with an experimental bent are the opposite of a batsman in cricket: while a batsman is permitted one failure, and cannot guarantee that successes will compound, marketers have it much better. “Failures happen once, while successes live on,” to quote Shotton directly.

If you’re moved to order a copy, you may find it sold out on Amazon – that happened shortly after The Choice Factory was published last week. I did wonder whether supply was deliberately limited to create a sense of scarcity, just as Apple reputedly do. If so, I wouldn’t be surprised if that tactic has worked. Marketers should be as excited about this book their colleagues who have already snapped up a copy. And if they have, shouldn’t you too?