The science of marketing: taking inspiration from quantum physics

What do diffraction and consumer behavior have in common? More than you think

There aren’t many aspiring astrophysicists who go on to become strategists, but Publicis Media head of strategy Shann Biglione is the exception. Here, he shares a thought-provoking piece about science, marketing and the contradictions that rule us all.

When I was young and naive, my ambition was to become an astrophysicist. I was starstruck by the cosmos, inebriated by Hubble’s imagery and the mind-blowing concepts of Einstein’s general relativity. A painstakingly obtained undergraduate in physics later, I realized I wasn’t nearly smart enough for rocket science and fittingly decided for a career in marketing instead.

As the years went by and the hairline receded, I found that great marketing is fairly simple, but hard. Yet, we keep celebrating people who want us to believe they make the complicated easy, waving change as a scare tactic or asking us to simply “start with the why”. And so, we come with perfectly held models that explain it all, billing expensive hours to introduce new paradigms we can pitch in the elevator.

But the more you learn about marketing, the more you realize that being able to entertain seemingly contradicting models is not a bug, but a feature. And after years of trying to make sense of my daily work, there are a few parallels between scientific theory and marketing theory I find titillating to draw. Especially if those literally keep physicists up at night.

Wave-particle duality of consumer behavior

As our understanding of quantum scale objects grew, a baffling realization challenged the very definition of how matter operates. Electrons, photons and protons not only carry their properties like particles that move as points in space, but also as waves that ripple through it. Light (photons), when sent through a thin hole, doesn’t just send a straight line of its particle through the holes, it projects wave-like patterns that echo behind it. Einstein described this as having “two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”

The “together they do” part is a very interesting provocation for marketers, one brilliantly entertained a few years ago by Bob ‘AdContrarian‘ Hoffman. In it, Bob drew the parallel with consumer behavior. He argues that we tend to define consumer behavior through either a rational, persuasive lens where “they do not throw their money away on stupid crap,” or an irrational model where consumers are deeply influenced by emotions and heuristics, often unaware of their true motivations.

The reality is that we have seen evidence for both, and it’s easy to think one is more important than the other. But like photons, they are more likely explained by their contradictions. One can both display extremely rational behaviors at times — all the while being emotionally driven a second later. And yes, there is absolutely value in understanding how to fit either pattern, but it’s important to remember they are not either/or questions as much as they are an either/and combination.

The uncertainty principle of data systems

A second interesting theory is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (yes, that Heisenberg, although no, not that Heisenberg). It states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be predicted from initial conditions. We cannot know both accurately at the same time.

It may remind you of the observer principle, which dictates that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon (for example, running a focus group creates a severe bias in the response). But the uncertainty principle is quite specific about the fact we can define position or momentum, we simply cannot know both at once.

Of course, this is a metaphorical analysis, but I cannot help thinking data (and the way we use it in advertising) often suffers from the same level of uncertainty. We can know that someone has had a connection with a theme, for example through search behaviors or contextual analysis, but we cannot really know why they’re there, or where they are going with this. Could it be, for example, that I am tagged as a sports enthusiast because I was researching the latest Netflix docuseries?

This is not a trivial question to answer for data system, because relying too heavily on data creates dangerous levels of misattribution between provenance, intent and context of the user. And so, it begs the question: would we be more effective as marketers if we made the assumption ‘data-driven marketing‘ is dictated by an uncertainty principle that dispels the illusion of it being deterministic?

The unification of marketing theory

One of the most fascinating questions of modern physics is one that Einstein obsessed about until his death: we have completely different theories to explain how the universe works at a macro level than we do for a micro level.

Our understanding of the atomically small is defined by the probabilistic models of quantum field theory, while the world at a cosmic level is currently explained by Einstein’s deterministic models of general relativity. Individually, they have worked absolute wonders for human progress: one brought us the magic of modern electronics, the other gives us the GPS and the concept of black holes. But together? Physicists still aren’t sure how to reconcile the two. There just is a scale at which the laws of one go out of the window while the rules of the other take over.

This was unacceptable to Einstein, and his rejection of a probabilistic model led to one of his most famous quotes: “God does not play dice.” Decades later, scientists are still trying to solve one of the greatest challenges of modern physics: uncovering a unified theory that makes sense of the small and the big.

Turn to marketing, and the equivalence can be framed in two different ways. It’s tempting first to think of the direct parallel with small and big brands. And sure, because their means are very limited small brands tend to operate differently from big brands. But generally, this is more a function of context and operational reality than a true difference in laws of growth.

This is why Byron Sharp, who certainly came closest to a unified theory of marketing, likes to remind us “niche just means small” when people argue the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s laws of growth only work for big consumer packages goods companies.

No, where I see a more interesting parallel is with Binet and Field’s contrast between short-term and long-term thinking. According to them, marketing works with two different models: one that is emotionally led and mass streamed, another that is more persuasive, and activation based, with more precision in targeting. This has been an increasingly popular theory in the industry, further validated and popularized as part of Mark Ritson’s recent analysis of the Effies.

The problem is that this model is often introduced to marketers in an effort to move the pendulum away from something; more recently it’s been particularly relevant among those where performance marketing obsessed with efficiencies became the new gospel. And like Einstein, people want to believe in a unified theory that speaks to their own bias and dogmas (“consumers don’t play with dice”). Performance marketers remain convinced it’s still about tracking return on advertising spend on every behavior, just at a bigger scale, while brand marketers think the job is still all about culture.

This misses the core of the message. It’s not about being long-term or short-term, it’s about accepting that both play a role and that every brand needs to strike a balance between the two. Like in physics where the scale you wish to study defines the rules, the ways of marketing can be different depending on the objective you’re trying to balance. And thus, hyper targeting may not be the paradigm that defines everything, but remains extremely relevant to an entire side of your plan. Data will provide you lots of actionable behavioral insights, but it won’t give you the wider cultural texture. Building the brand will reduce price sensitivity but giving consumers a good understanding of what they’re buying in the first place remains essential.

Marketing in general is a high stakes game decided by a committee of people who are not marketing experts, and so it remains tempting to provide the simplistic view. This is probably why some of the most popular gurus do so well: not because they inspire marketers, but precisely because the simplicity of their recommendation sits well beyond just marketers. Nevertheless, it’s valuable to find relief in the beauty of balance, nuance, complementarity and yes, just as in physics, sometimes even contradictions.

Shann Biglione is head of strategy, Publicis Media

To keep up with all our dedicated US coverage, sign up for the free daily briefing newsletter.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.