Taking Advantage of the Science Behind Marketing

Dec 01, 2010
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

David Chapin
Scientists frequently don't understand or value marketing. Many say, "It's too intuitive. Where's the data to prove marketing's impact?"

It would be nice to have good data. The problem is that proving effectiveness or tracing cause and effect is expensive—whether the subject in question is a pharmaceutical compound or a marketing initiative. For DTC blockbusters, a very large budget may not be a problem, but for other life science sectors (such as preclinical services or diagnostic equipment) the research required to pinpoint marketing's effect can cost more than the entire marketing initiative being analyzed.

So if you don't have a research budget big enough to fund what is in essence a Phase III comparative effectiveness trial, is there any recourse? Or do you have to rely on intuition alone?

It turns out that both marketing and purchase behavior have been studied scientifically, so there is data out there, if you know where to look. While there may not be data to guide you through every question (for example, "Will we get a higher ROI by redoing our website, starting a content marketing initiative, or ramping up our social media?"), it can still be a useful guide for some of your marketing decisions.

Here are results from two experiments that cast light on marketing's value, and point the way toward getting the most out of your marketing efforts.

Immunity to Marketing: Fact or Fiction?

You're probably familiar with the common belief that it's possible to "tune out" marketing—in other words, that individuals can be immune to marketing's influence. Many people, in fact—scientists in particular—believe they can control marketing's effects on them. This belief has its roots in the decades-old struggle for the audience's attention. Under the onslaught of marketers developing more sophisticated ways to hijack attention, the audience has had to develop ever-more-sophisticated filters to try to repel these attempts and maintain some control.

Scientists often believe that their training and discipline, with its emphasis on both rationality and proof, provides some sort of special immunity against marketing's pervasive persuasion. This belief leads some scientists to devalue marketing, ignoring its ability to communicate for them, as well as to them.

But recent scientific research (published in the Journal Of Consumer Research) has shown that no one is immune to marketing. This research shows that even subliminal exposure to something as small as a logo has the potential to change not only the audience's attitudes and beliefs, but its behavior as well.

The research was conducted in four phases:

» First, logos were identified that the research subjects associated with particular character traits. As an example, for the subjects in question, one computer company logo was determined to be associated with the character trait of "creativity," while another computer company logo was neutral with respect to this trait. One entertainment company logo was determined to be associated with the character trait of "honesty" while another's was determined to be neutral with respect to this trait.

» The respondents were given a standard test for the trait in question—to measure their creativity or honesty.

» Respondents were then exposed to the logos in question subliminally; they were shown a series of numbers one at a time in sequence and were asked to keep a running sum. Interspersed among the numbers were repeated exposures to one company's logo—shown too quickly to be consciously registered. In fact, no respondents subsequently reported seeing any images amidst the number sequence.

» Upon completion of the running sum exercise, the participants were again given a standard test for the trait in question—creativity or honesty.

The results were significant. Participants subliminally exposed to the logo of a brand associated with creativity exhibited more creative behavior after exposure than participants exposed to the logo of a brand not associated with creativity. Similarly, participants subliminally exposed to logos of a brand they associated with honesty displayed more honesty in post-exposure tests than did participants exposed to logos that had no such connotation.

The subliminal presence of the logos changed participants' behavior, and the effects were present even when the subjects were completely unaware of the presence of any marketing message whatsoever. In the words of the authors: "Brand exposure can shape non-conscious behavior." So, even those who believe that a rational worldview grants them immunity can be profoundly affected by marketing. The authors conclude: "Participants responded to brands by behaving in line with the brand's characteristics, and did so with no conscious awareness of the influence."

This result is quite amazing. You don't have to consciously see a logo for it to be able to change your behavior. This is a clear demonstration that "immunity" to marketing should be considered a myth. Now, there are some caveats to this research, but if subliminal exposure to something as small as a logo can alter behavior, then marketing has significant power.

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