Marketing the Gap Between Intention and Action

Posted on August 20, 2012 by Naomi Troni

[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]

Who’s kidding whom?

Reading through my company’s latest Prosumer Report, “Aging: Moving Beyond Youth Culture,” I was struck that around three-quarters of respondents to our 19-country survey say they intend to age gracefully rather than fight it every step of the way. Yet, as the report points out, pharmacies are stocked full of youth restorers, ranging from anti-wrinkle serums and hair colorants to teeth whiteners. Clearly, quite a lot of us are putting up determined resistance to the signs of our encroaching years—an observation corroborated by a new report from BCC Research, which estimates that the global anti-aging market will reach $274.5 billion in 2013, up 11 percent from 2008. Of that, $105.4 billion will be devoted to the “appearance” segment.

Our survey responses and the market data prompt two important thoughts for marketers:

The first is that even a minority can make for a very large market. While 76 percent of Americans intend to grow old gracefully, that still leaves 24 percent agreeing with the alternative: “I intend to fight aging every step of the way; I’ll do anything and everything to stay youthful longer.” In the United States, that 24 percent would account for more than 33 million men and women in the 40-74 age range—a market just shy of the entire population of Canada.

The second point is in the apparent disconnect between intention and reality. We all know there’s usually a gap between what consumers say and what they really do. After all, we’re consumers, too, and we don’t always live up to our aspirations of eating more healthfully, exercising more, flossing or putting away money for a rainy day. Across most areas of life, people know what they “should” aspire to, but they struggle to put it into practice. For every Jamie Oliver there are dozens of Paula Deens.

Understanding what makes for this gap between intention and action is one of the most fertile areas for marketers—and for researchers in a number of fields. Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, brought us the best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which he sheds light on the ways in which people make choices—most often, automatically and not necessarily in line with their best intentions. In The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, celebrated evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers probes people’s tendency to think they’re better looking, smarter, more competent, and more honest than they really are. This leads people to say and believe they are doing something (e.g., cutting back on the doughnuts) even when observable evidence says otherwise.

Now neuromarketing is making the intent-action gap visible, showing how different parts of the brain are brought into play by cues such as branding (e.g., Coke vs. Pepsi) or by facing a spend-or-save choice between whether to splurge for pleasure now or delay gratification for some later date.

“You know you want to…”

For those of us interested in marketing, this is proving to be a golden age of insights into the workings of the mind and how our brains affect our consumer choices. High-tech scanning is driving new discoveries, so it’s all the more amazing that the basics were nailed almost 70 years ago by Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud. Applying his uncle’s principles, Bernays taught American marketers how to link mass-produced goods to consumers’ unconscious desires (what you might call Dark Arts Marketing). Among other things, Bernays created a campaign that helped make it socially acceptable for women to smoke by linking smoking to power and freedom (an effort he later regretted). In ensuing decades, marketers, consciously or not, have continued to follow that lead, exploring consumers’ unconscious desires and thinking up innovative ways to satisfy them with products.

Things are a little more complicated now than they were in Bernays’ heyday. For starters, we all know too much now to profess innocence about what the products we pitch may or may not do. The tide of medical evidence and public opinion has turned against smoking and is beginning to turn against other things consumers previously enjoyed without a care. It’s now clear that Americans’ aspirations for fit, slim bodies have been thwarted by the irresistible here-and-now temptation of all-you-can-eat meals and supersized portions. In fact, it’s reached the point at which New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has sparked controversy by announcing plans to limit the size of sweetened soft-drink servings, and the American Medical Association is calling for increased taxes on sweetened sodas of all sizes in an effort to curb consumption.

Another big change is consumers’ greater marketing savvy and self-awareness. Even those outside the industry know about marketing and its techniques. People are switched on to branding and value propositions and status symbols. They’re no longer gee-whiz innocents unwittingly seduced into temptation.

This leads to what may well be the most promising change for marketers: Consumers now have many more good intentions nagging away at the back of their minds—the should-dos and wish-I-coulds that prevent them from feeling satisfied with their I-ams. Wanting to do the right thing in so many areas takes a lot of effort—and for most of us leads to inevitable failure in at least some areas.

As marketers, we can help.

The time is increasingly right for communications professionals to focus on helping consumers fulfill their good intentions rather than indulge the desires they’re trying to overcome. That may sound counterintuitive for some—after all, aren’t pleasure points our industry’s bread and butter?—but it’s actually in keeping with the business world’s overall shift toward corporate social responsibility. And it’s also smart marketing: As the global population of elders continues to swell, it behooves us to help people meet old age on their terms, with optimal independence, life satisfaction and mobility. And, yes, with grace, too.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Kasia Wyser-Pratte]

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