John Marshall
John Marshall 8 March 2019

Your Economists Can’t Save You Now

The B2B fallacy and the pitfalls of presuming rational thinking in marketing means that we don't take into account decision-makers are irrational in every sphere. In order to truly find success, you need an overriding fear of the obvious, and a craving for imagination.

The biggest mistake in so-called B2B marketing is believing it exists.

Most marketers believe in siloing B2B into its own substrata. A unique branch of some grand marketing taxonomy. And they think what makes B2B marketing distinct is that its promotional materials assume their consumers are, by and large, rational decision-makers.

But this is a tactical error. The truth is that B2B decision-making is just as irrational as in consumer marketing. Both are equally driven by what people actually want, as opposed to what they say they want. Yet, in B2B marketing, our irrationality is more widely ignored, resulting in flaccid promotional strategies and tepid performance results.

The closer I get to behavioural science, to really uncovering the deep psychological mechanisms behind why we do things, the more I’m convinced there’s only one discipline: there is essentially marketing.

And, to be a successful marketer of any stripe, you need one thing above all else: an overriding fear of the obvious. Many of your colleagues will love the obvious, as it’s a lot easier to be fired for being imaginative than it is for being obvious.

But, in reality, the unconventional and unexpected usually trumps the obvious in testing. So you need to feel free to test counterintuitive ideas. Sometimes you’ll fail, but sometimes you’ll practice a kind of alchemy. During my 30 years of experience, practically every time I got to test something that didn’t make conventional sense, it worked.

Once, for example, I consulted with a South African fast food company facing difficulties. I said to put the price up. Now, economists are angry about this story – they say it’s impossible.

But after the prices went up, sales went up.

As anyone who eats at fast food restaurants knows, there are two reasons people do it. One is for a bargain and the other is for a treat. If you price your fast food product between the two, so that it’s neither a bargain nor a treat, you’ve created zero emotional value. You’ve completely ignored the context, the circumstances of feeling. Sometimes, to sell more cheeseburgers, you just need to charge more money for them.

But this begs the question: in light of this sort of evidence that you can exploit our irrationality (read: emotions) with unintuitive approaches, why does B2B still cling to the tired idea of an emotionless and rational consumer buying things in a perfect world?

Part of the problem is that, in the world of business, economists are a priestly class of thinkers. In a business environment, as opposed to a consumer one, their wisdom is considered gospel. And so their Doctrine of the Rational Buyer is much more difficult to buck than in consumer-focused circles.

The solution here lies in pointing to the problems in the conventional B2B approach, as informed by conventional economic models. All these models basically assume that the person making a purchase is doing so in an environment of perfect knowledge and perfect trust. Now, in such an environment, marketing wouldn’t need to exist. Everyone would know exactly what they wanted, how much they were willing to pay for it, and then would buy the thing that maximises utility.

But such an environment does not exist. That’s not the world we live in. And the result of pretending that we do is that economists (or people who studied economics at business school) dismiss marketing as a kind of necessary evil. Merely crass shilling. Just huxters hawking wares with bluster and gusto.

Fortunately, marketing is the science of proving what economists are wrong about.

The irrational ape breaks through the doors of perception

It is true that context is nearly everything in marketing.

Yet the B2B mistake is assuming that the ‘business context’ is somehow a magic one – a fanciful realm in which human beings will reliably behave rationally when they make purchases.

The thing is, we don’t. We never do. And the reason for this is simple: our brains aren’t built for it.

In Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, he compares the mind to a trickling faucet; at any given moment in time, we are being inundated by millions of bits of stimuli, a roaring stream of information. Yet we consciously process only the tiniest fraction of all available data – just a gentle drip-drip of what is ultimately useful for our survival.

As we’ve been social animals since our ancestral line split with that of chimpanzees 6 million years ago (and probably well before that), our survival depended in large part on cooperation for most of our time on Earth. Indeed, in the wild world we evolved in, to be alone was to perish. When staying alive meant killing wooly mammoths, getting along was always more important than being right.

Now, our abilities as a social primate remain paramount and this priority inhibits our ability to be rational. So our perceptions are limited and so is our ability to interpret them, as our logic can be easily hampered by far more ancient forces. We were a social animal before we were a smart one.

As reasoning beings, we are novices. We are much better making sense of things after they’ve happened than we are at pure logic and rational decision-making. We rationalise, sure, but we aren’t always rational. We don’t naturally think like scientists. Instead, our minds are set up more like defense lawyers. We’re designed to construct a case that best suits our ends after the fact. So we’re good at squeezing available information into the configuration of a narrative.

Our behaviour is largely driven by forces that we don’t understand or that are beyond our control. Yet we are very adept at looking back at our actions, rationalising them, and then tricking ourselves into believing that our post-rationalisation was in fact the original impetus for our behaviour. Basically, we try to figure out why we did something, then convince ourselves whatever reason we conclude was in fact there all along. The human brain evolved not to make rational decisions, but rather to defend decisions we’ve made emotionally and irrationally.

With such constraints and such limited information, our brains are not optimised to make any kind of ‘perfect’ decision. Instead, we’ve evolved to make imperfect decisions based on imperfect information. We’re wired more to avoid catastrophic decisions more than we are to make ideal ones. We’re not designed to make the best decision; we’re designed to make the decision that’s least likely to be terrible.

Yet economists insist thinking about consumers in ‘perfect’ terms is still the most meaningful way to consider them.

As these examples demonstrate, much of real success in marketing defies economic theory about rationality. Thinking rationally, you shouldn’t be able to sell more wine by playing classical music. But you will. And you shouldn’t be able to make wine taste better by putting it in a heavier bottle. But you can. To sell more of a product, you oftentimes need not change it whatsoever. You can merely tweak the context; you can change the way the product is consumed rather than change the product itself.

Because changing the way something is consumed is changing its context. The context shapes the (perception of the) experience. And that changes everything.

Consider that, in the infancy of electricity, salesmen had to travel the country to convince consumers the invention was worthwhile (and, probably, that it wasn’t witchcraft). This new technology was not adopted overnight. Even with a breakthrough product as potent and revolutionary as electrical power, the consumers needed to be convinced.

It needed marketing.

Lastly, let’s turn to Italian economist Fabio Fabbri. He believes the key limitation on the rate of economic growth isn’t productivity or the rate of advance of technology, but the ability of humans to adopt new forms of consumption – new ways of doing things. Fabbri argues that the speed at which we change our behaviour is what grows our economy.

Now, I don’t know for sure if this is true. But if it is true, then marketing – persuading people to adopt and purchase new things – is much more important than even we have given it credit for. And its underappreciation may largely be due to economists’ reluctance to embrace irrationality. But we, as marketers, need only take consumers’ rational shortcomings seriously ourselves.

Because as long as economists fail to do so, they’ll remain perplexed by our successes, and we’ll all still have our jobs.

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