The World’s First Psychologist Came Up With This Great Marketing Hack 150 Years Ahead of Everyone Else

Whether it’s “conversational marketing” or “AI-based tailored touchpoints,” the trends for today’s envelope-pushing marketers have a single red thread running through them: they recognize the human being on the other side of the business transaction.

Human beings have a finite set of attentional resources. The founding father of our science, William James, once wrote, “attention implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

Innovative marketers and brand strategists may be forward-thinking, but their foundational thinking on human attention and psychology is ancient. They recognize that to succeed, a business needs to master the art of attention. That means:

  • grabbing people’s attention with newness and the appeal of ‘what could be’

  • holding people’s attention with reliability and the appeal of what is safe and can be counted on

  • Securing people’s attention with identity and the appeal of what is most important: “me, me, me”.

Grab attention with the shiny and new

During change, our inner explorers come out to play. Looking at a map of uncharted territory, we’re compelled to find the new and grab hold of ‘what could be’.

We’re in the greatest period of change in human history. And with change comes new things … new things to distract us from the old and the boring. That is, humans find themselves ‘withdrawing’ – their preferences, their needs, and ultimately, their attention – at every moment of the day.

We want more athleisure and fewer suits; less make-up and more skincare products; fewer cars per household and better internet connections. We are also spending a lot of time online, where we tend to purchase all the above.

So, how can a brand wade through the noise to capture consumer attention? Novelty.

Our brains crave it. We love to see and experience things we haven’t before and, when we do, our brains release dopamine as a reward. The neuroscientific origin of this is that our brains are wired to notice foreign stimuli in our environment to assess whether they’re a threat. But when it comes down to it, new stuff makes us feel good, we remember them better, and we are neurochemically inclined to keep looking for them.

For a brand to have the pull of novelty, there’s a fine line to tread between ‘too foreign’ (threat level > piqued interest) and ‘too familiar’ (boring). This novelty sweet spot is nicely embodied in Toronto ice cream sensation, Sweet Jesus. When its stores first opened in 2015, Sweet Jesus queues wrapped around blocks come rain or shine.

Why? At its core, it’s good old soft-serve ice cream. But when you stick giant, towering, multi-colored layers of cotton-candy with a generous helping of rainbow sprinkles and cotton candy sauce for toppings (a la “Krusty the Cone”), the finished product is as big as a human head. It is a true feast for our neurons, and our attention becomes transfixed.

Sweet Jesus turned the familiar into the wacky, and this simple novelty gained them an enduring cult following. Not bad for soft-serve.

Hold attention with the reliable and old

Humans contain multitudes. So, yes, while we crave new, we also like the old. Consumers are motivated by what’s called the status quo bias, meaning that they tend to prefer things to remain as they are.

Same is safe. And the feeling of safety, whether from a good or a god, is the reassurance we need during such times of uncertainty.

Because times of uncertainty threaten the consistency of our lives, we direct our attention to ways that can reclaim it. One attentional defense against uncertainty is nostalgia, and brands can use its power to provide a feeling of security to consumers.

We are an emotional bunch. When things around us go wrong, we become fearful, confused, anxious. One way to cope with these feelings is to direct our attention to nostalgic reverie, to yearn for a simpler, more familiar time. Psychologically, this makes sense. Nostalgia promotes mental health, counteracts feelings of loneliness, and increases perceptions of social support. It also boosts our moods, self-confidence, and optimism for the future. Who wouldn’t want to be the reason their consumers feel this way?

Interestingly, people feel more nostalgic when eating. Eating means togetherness. For Kraft Heinz Canada, this message was sent through ketchup. In early 2021 – amid Covid-19 lockdowns, health anxiety, and uncertainty about the future – Kraft Heinz used nostalgia to remind us of what we have in common. To do this, it asked consumers to draw “ketchup” and used their hand-drawings as the labels for a limited-edition batch of bottles.

Now, when we look at a supermarket shelf stacked with Heinz ketchup bottles – all of them labeled with simple, child-like hand-drawings done by total strangers and which are personalized iterations of this one brand that seemingly unifies us all – we feel safer . The world makes a little more sense. From a branding perspective, consumers now associate Heinz with stability, longevity, and sentimentality. After all, Heinz has been there with them through it all.

Appropriately mirroring consumers’ attentional needs in this way provides the kind of emotional security that leads to brand loyalty.

Secure attention with the self

Giving consumers an avenue, through your brand, to signal their belief systems (to themselves and to others) means you have a hold on their attention. Do this consistently enough, and your product becomes more than a mere product. It becomes a vehicle for self-expression.

When a ‘thing’, whether a person, idea, or physical object, intermixes with a person’s sense of self, there’s no getting rid of that thing. That’s the kind of loyalty brands want.

For example, to cater to today’s environmentally conscious consumer appetite, MasterCard developed its Wildlife Impact Card program (where each card is adorned with a photo of an endangered animal and has an expiry date matching that of the animal’s predicted date of extinction).

This is not only a way for the MasterCard to advertise its own environmental consciousness, but also for its customers to signal to others (through ownership of a physical card) that they actively care about conservation efforts. It is a literal badge of association with a brand that is ‘doing its part’.

For a brand to have this symbiosis with a consumer’s identity means that it has guaranteed its consumers’ attention. This is because a threat to the brand is a threat to our identity, and since we fix our attention to things in our environment that might general our identity, we end up doing whatever we can to fight for the brand (and for our sense of self).

The new, the old, and the self are three attentional focal points that brand strategy can be effectively centered around. Using the tools of behavioral science, marketers and brand strategists can understand why consumers behave (buy, keep, come back for more) the way they do and, crucially, how this behavior can be changed for some optimal outcome (like more customer sales) .

More sales? I bet that captured your attention…

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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