Did you realise you’re a cognitive miser?
Don’t worry, we all are. Ever busier lives combined with limited mental resources means our brains tend to seek out solutions that require the least mental effort.
So what we do, effectively, is answer easy questions rather than hard ones. As they say, we ‘satisfice’ rather than maximise. A good enough decision is good enough.
The concept of a cognitive miser was introduced in 1984 by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor. It built on Daniel Kahneman’s work with Amos Tversky in the 70’s. By the time Kahneman’s book, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, was published in 2011, cognitive miserliness had moved to centre stage.
There’s some debate about how conscious it all is. Fast and slow thinking, System 1 versus System 2, can be seen as effortless versus effortful. So it’s no surprise that much of the time we take the easier route and we do this automatically, sometimes too confidently.
But people like Wim De Neys have suggested we often know when we’ve used mental shortcuts to solve a problem and it usually makes us less confident about the results.
Either way, the impact of cognitive miserliness has spread far and wide. Many modern marketing theories stem from it, particularly the idea of mental availability: in any particular buying situation we choose the brand, not that puts forward the most persuasive argument, nor with which we have the strongest emotional connection, but that comes most readily to mind.
And once you’ve bought a brand for the first time and found it to be OK, it makes life easier to keep on buying it. So loyalty isn’t inspired by a brand, it’s simply sensible behaviour. It’s actually quite a rational thing to do.
If you follow this line of thinking through, it suggests to me that two sub-conscious needs must now be predominately driving our behavior when choosing brands.
The first is Familiarity. Feeling reassured, comfortable, content, on solid ground, to some extent cocooned against the world. Buying a brand you know and trust, maybe the one you’ve always had or one you now buy most of the time, ignoring other options. It’s an easy choice because you’ve chosen it before.
The other is Freedom. Feeling carefree, uninhibited, unconcerned, unanchored, a sense of release from the realities of life. Buying a brand because, well, why not buy it! You’ve heard of it, other people buy it, so it must be alright. It looks easy enough to use. And it’s even on offer! It’s an easy choice because what’s the downside?
So is that it for brands? Are these really the only needs that now matter? That’s the way the argument is going at the moment. It seems to be what many marketing people want to believe.
Well, my advice is let them believe it.
Because Familiarity and Freedom are not the only needs. Other needs exist, they do in every category. Not need ‘states’, the situation or circumstances you happen to be in, but needs, motivations, the way we really want to feel or come across.
These kinds of needs aren’t necessarily a route to building a deep emotional commitment to a brand. That’s ambitious in today’s world.
They also don’t mean focusing on a narrow target. More often than not it’ll be the same people as are buying other brands, just with a different need at a particular point in time.
But what a different need means is a different opportunity.
So for every habitually bought food brand with its passive loyalty and decent enough saliency to maintain its share, thanks to good shelf presence, frequent promotions and the odd bit of advertising, there’s a Reggae Reggae Sauce. Or a Dorset Cereals. Or an Ella’s Kitchen. Or an Innocent. Or a Florette Salad. Or a Rustlers. Or a Gü. Or a Kettle Chips.
And for every any-old brand of car insurance you’ve vaguely heard of that happens to come out cheapest on a comparison site thanks to its 100% focus on customer acquisition, there’s a Direct Line.
What’s more, needs can be measured. It isn’t easy but it can be done. So you can find out if the opportunity is significant before you get too far. Just make sure you then keep it to yourself.
Any time everyone in marketing is turning right, it’s always a good idea to have a quick look left.