Don’t Let Trends Distract You From Connecting With ‘Unreasonable’ Customers

Artificial intelligence can tell us what's happening. Emotional intelligence tells us why

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Today’s marketing so often fixates on the latest trends, chasing the next novel concept—I can’t be the only one fatigued by endless conversations and articles about AI and its impact on our work. While machine learning undeniably accelerates mechanical processes and provides quicker access to enhanced consumer data, marketers should pay equal attention to the extensive research that has given us deeper insights into emotional intelligence—the “why” behind consumer behavior. 

Yale psychologist Dr. John Bargh explains that human decision-making operates beyond the boundaries of conscious rationality and emphasizes the significant role of subconscious and preconscious processing in shaping our perception of our surroundings and influencing our choices. I’ve found that marketers have trouble accepting this concept because it challenges conventional beliefs and runs counter to our personal experiences.

That misunderstanding isn’t all that surprising, according to Dr. Bargh; he notes that we seldom recall instances where we were unconsciously influenced, leading us to believe heavily on our sense of rationality. Consequently, we tend to assume that others operate under the same rationality, affecting how we engage and communicate with them. But, as marketers, the danger of clinging to an outdated perspective of human behavior leads to flimsy consumer research and even worse consumer messaging.

To connect with customers and gain insights into their decision-making processes, it’s imperative that we shed our bias toward assuming rationality, both in our customers and ourselves. To emphasize this notion, I like to use the word “unreasonable” to identify a more modern understanding of consumer behavior based much less on reason than we typically think. Here, I identify a few basic principles of the unreasonable consumer mindset and how marketers can apply them to study and communicate with their audiences more effectively. 

People consume their beliefs 

According to University of Toronto’s Dr. George E. Newman, people involuntarily assign an intangible value to things that are meaningful to them. From Tom Brady’s sand to Scarlett Johansson’s used tissue and Robert Downey Jr.’s chewed gum, that value can be well beyond the functional usage of the thing itself. Strong brands generate a similar kind of power—consumers value strong brands much more highly than their functional utility.

Whatever your product or service, consumers assign added value to that thing depending on the psychological need they’re trying to satisfy. The need could be belonging, by choosing a brand that helps them “fit in,” or maybe stability, by choosing a brand with a feeling of nostalgia. The key to creating this value is uncovering the “unspoken truth,” the underlying consumer motivation or need. Then, identify what your brand stands for—a single-minded idea that fulfills the unspoken motivations or unmet needs. If done successfully, you’ll have a brand with intangible value above and beyond other brands, maybe even providing pricing power. 

People will act to reinforce their self-image 

One of the strongest underlying motivations for any human is centered around a person’s self-image. We humans spend most of our days thinking about ourselves. We’re concerned that people are talking about us, or we’re concerned that they’re not thinking about us at all.

Remember this when crafting your brand’s expressions. Too often, we encourage people to love our brand, but consumers need to see the brand through their own experience. A brand should be crafted in a way that allows them to love themselves and reinforce their own self-esteem. Think about the defiant, cult-like loyalty of Diet Coke drinkers or the way Jeep has become a lifestyle. 

This becomes increasingly important during inflationary times. UC Irvine’s Dr. Tonya Williams Bradford suggests in her research that being emotionally connected to a brand, where a consumer sees the brand as a part of them, makes them less likely to trade out of that brand for a cheaper version of it. 

The advice here is simple. Make sure your brand’s expression is congruent with how your audience wants to see themselves. Do they need to see themselves as powerful? Smart? Open? In control? Youthful? Unique? Creative? If you can’t identify how your brand connects with someone’s self-image, you have some work to do.

Context affects experience 

Context can affect someone’s literal experience of an event—or trust of a company or industry. Dr. Tiffany Barnett White from the University of Illinois notes that the most effective way for a disruptor to erode trust in long-time industry leaders is to alter the context of someone’s experience by illuminating category “crimes,” creating an opening for a new way of doing business. Dr. White says that if done effectively, this positioning can erode trust in the leaders and rack up trust points for your disruptive brand, citing how Ally Bank’s 2009 launch campaign effectively poked holes in the practices of traditional banks.

Whether you have an inherently disruptive brand or not, take control of the context of your competitive set, even if it might mean leaning into the negatives about a category. And, because context is so critical, it means that marketers must pay attention to anything and everything that might influence their customer’s perception, even though the customer might say that it doesn’t matter. 

While it’s easy to get sucked into the latest tech trend, shiniest new platform or cultural phenomenon, marketers should keep their attention on deciphering the emotions and motivations that guide consumer behavior—on why people do what they do. If we come to an understanding that the people we’re selling to are inherently unreasonable, we’ll be better prepared to create brands that more effectively engage and connect with them.