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The rationality paradox: How to simplify marketing in complicated times

By Martyn Clarkson, Executive Vice President, Global Head of Strategy

Jack Morton


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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September 13, 2023 | 9 min read

To a rational machine, more options can only be a good thing. But humans aren’t rational machines, and too much choice can be counter-productive. Jack Morton’s Martyn Clarkson tells us how to keep things simple.

Busy, multicolored supermarket shelves seen from high up

Jack Morton's Martyn Clarkson on keeping things simple in a busy world / Peter Bond via Unsplash

In behavioral psychology and marketing, it’s useful to say that our brains can only handle seven variables at a time - plus or minus two. This research gives rigor to the simple observation that we make decisions better when things are simple. And we’re awful when things are complicated.

My best example comes from growing up in New Zealand, where I remember only three breakfast cereals: Weet-Bix (British readers may be more familiar with their version, Weetabix), Corn Flakes, and Coco Pops. The three were loosely aligned, respectively, with winter, summer, and birthdays.

When I moved to the US, with its whole supermarket aisles dedicated to cereals with cookies, leprechauns, and green slime was too much information for me to handle. I still eat Weet-Bix most of the time.

The burden of choice

This experience will be familiar to both consumers and businesses looking to make decisions. Brands know this, but as businesses, we don’t always make it easy for them.

Unfortunately, life has recently become more complicated, deepening the problem. Cars are a great example.

In 2003, you could buy a Subaru Forrester in only two ways. In 2019, you could buy one in 19 meaningful ways, with many optional accessories making the variations almost uncountable (perhaps I do need an in-cab safe?).

Businesses find themselves in these ever-complicating situations for several reasons. Excellent R+D, investments in market share growth, and long-tail consumer targeting are just a few. All of them are great things from the businesses’ points of view, but challenging from the brand side and down-right confronting for the customer experience (CX).

As a decision maker, the human being is not a perfect machine. We process information to make decisions at a rate of about 3-4 bits per second (bps) – about 3,600 times slower than the internet when it started in 1991. Eek.

A tale of two models

But there’s good news too: we’re adaptable as a species, and we have ways of handling things when they cross the fuzzy line from hard to seemingly impossible. We look for shortcuts or ‘heuristics’.

The heuristic model called cognitive-experiential self-theory (CEST) says we have two systems of decision-making. The analytical-rational system is “deliberate, slow, and logical,” and the “intuitive-experiential system is fast, automatic, and emotionally driven.” This two-system theory is best known for its popularization by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

These two systems work together, but the key insight is that as our world gets more complicated and fast-paced, it is too much for our slow logic. We are increasingly looking to our emotional, experiential system to move us forward. And we’re using that emotional model for more of our conscious decisions.

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‘Moving forward with joy’

Automotive companies are moving on this and evolving their marketing heritage, increasing the focus on customer experiences that ‘thrill’ to demonstrate brand relevance and shortcut decision processes to deliver what customers want: a feeling of moving forward with joy. Something that has permeated some of the best work in marketing in recent times and is a core strength of experiential.

Almost half of consumers (46%) say that brand experiences make them feel more positive about a brand or product/service. And 91% say that participating in brands’ events and experiences makes them more inclined to purchase. In 2020, there was a 20% growth in marketers who believe in-person events are the most important channel for achieving business goals.

There are no comparable stats for social media, but even as brands give up on being tied to platforms, it’s not all bad news. While engagement in social platforms is declining, content created from experiences (such as the type more often endemic to TikTok) continues to grow. When social media shares authentic content from real brand experiences, the results (as part of an integrated experiential-led campaign) are compelling.

This is why experiential marketing is projected to be valued at $57.3bn in 2028, growing by 3.16% and in the US outpacing overall advertising and marketing investments through 2026.

The takeaway for marketers is this: in a complicated world with digital fatigue, campaigns with real experiences at their core produce outsized results. Now is a great time to review your portfolio and invest in experiences as creators of connection and content to fuel your social, digital, and traditional channels.

Attention Span Brand Strategy Agency Leadership

Content by The Drum Network member:

Jack Morton

No one sets out to be average. No one aspires to be ordinary. Jack Morton is an award-winning global brand experience agency that exists to reimagine what an experience...

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