“Color is important!”
…declared our very own Neil Patel a couple of years back. You’ve read innumerable blog posts about the psychology of colors as they relate to impression and persuasion. And you probably rushed off to relaunch your website in green (if you want growth). Or blue (if you want to please everyone). Or red (if you think you’re daring and unique).
While marketing research frequently indicates that buyers make snap judgments based on a host of factors (such as colors or design), it seldom conclusively proves or advocates a specific choice (such as black or parallax) over others. And it falls well short of explaining how well these factors work in combination with each other.
Especially in your case.
And when it comes to marketing, no research hits home like neuroscience. In recent times, we’re seeing neuroscientists, marketers, public speakers, and (bestselling) authors speak psychobabble in misguided attempts at establishing authority in their chosen fields.
Which is why I’m going to try and question (if not discredit) this flood of marketing research and recommendations “backed by” psychology and neuroscience. My premise is that the majority of “cognitive” studies are nothing but pop science or pseudoscience that is easily refuted.
And I’m going to use – what else – research and examples to try and prove that.
Four psychologists – Diego Fernandez-Duque, Jessica Evans, Colton Christian, and Sara D. Hodges – conducted a series of experiments to see if superfluous neuro-nonsense increases the perceived quality and credibility of psychological explanations.
The results might be unpalatable to many a marketer.
These psychologists found that “the presence of irrelevant neuroscience information made arguments more compelling” across all their experiments. While this study was conducted fairly recently, the kind of experimentation that was involved is not new.
Many psychologists before have been there before: Kimmo Eriksson (2012) found that the use of jargon in describing neuroscientific information might make the author come across as a subject expert and the presence of a math equation, nonsensical or otherwise, would increase the perceived quality of a scientific abstract.
Let’s examine some of these pseudo-psychological myths, so that marketers, especially those involved in ecommerce, can see beyond them.
Gender Bias and Prejudices
You would be surprised how many “high end” websites and online marketing campaigns catering to women have a pastel-colored theme, scalloped borders, floral motifs, and curly Victorian ornaments. What’s worse, a majority of these websites don’t pass the Buchanan Test for marketing. The Buchanan Test is very simple. All you have to do is look at your ad campaign, social media, and website design and answer these three questions:
- Do you feature a woman outside of the home?
- Do you feature a woman in a role other than “mother?”
- Is she NOT doing yoga?
Now let’s see which of the following pass this test:
This screenshot is from Holland & Barrett. It fails miserably at the test. But they are not alone. Check out some of the most popular health websites you frequent regularly.
A majority of the health and wellness businesses catering to women are steeped in gender biases and prejudices. The stereotyping doesn’t end at websites; it’s rampant on social media too. Here’s the Instagram feed of TEATOX, a “modern” beverage company (presumably with a refreshing outlook):
Let’s move on to a more complex example. Frito-Lay used neuroscience to “research” (conducted by their ad agency, duh) women’s feelings related to guilt and snacking, and went on to produce new (less shiny) packaging for its Baked Lays snacks, combined with a new marketing campaign aimed at making women take more risks and feel less guilty about it.
This particular research was based on the grounds that anterior cingulate cortex (involved in rational decision-making), which is larger in women, and originally evolved to help them be cautious and protect the young, now provokes more feelings of guilt. I will not comment on the veracity or absurdity of this conclusion, but simply remind you that no scientist has been able to conclusively associate a certain feeling with a specific part of the brain.
Stereotyping is not only slighting for females but also detrimental to business. Verve Search, an award-winning creative content marketing agency based in London, ran a campaign that looked at extreme beauty rituals all over the world. James Congdon, the Creative Campaigns & Outreach Strategist, described how his team “inherently went for pink” because they thought at the time that it made sense. However, later they found that they were having trouble getting coverage on prestigious sites such as Stylist, Elle, Marie Claire and Best, because the campaign felt “tacky” and “sexist in style.”
Generalizations and prejudices are deep-rooted in our psyche because of the widespread belief that factors such as age and gender are prime influencers or drivers of purchase behavior. For instance, we have been prepped to believe pink is for girls, blue is for boys, or black is for goths. Sociologists have, with the help of monkeys, proved that boys like trucks and girls like dolls. Here is an awesome article challenging this stereotype.
We all need to fix unconscious generalization and assumptions, but marketers have a greater responsibility. Take a cue from ToysRUs.co.uk, who did away completely with gender differentiation: now Pokemon, Barbie, Dinotrux, and drones all live happily under one roof – uh, on the same shelf.
We have been told that consumers love more information (especially pictures) about products they are interested in. Many scientists such as Percy and Rossiter, 1997 and Childers & Houston, 1984 posit that images are more effective than verbal ads when it comes to long-term memory and recall. Even the Picture Superiority Effect reiterates the same. However, there are many studies that refute these suppositions.
If you cannot name it, you will probably not remember it, say Ducharme and Fraisse of the Carnegie Mellon University, who couldn’t establish that subjects had superior memory recall for pictures than words.
So we bombard customers with pictures of a product from a hundred different angles – front, back, sides, angle, 360-degree, day, night and god-knows-what views and also give them multiple options like color and accessories for the same product, so they can decide what works best for them. However, do we realize that this also amounts to TMI (too much information) or that the theories which were last tested in 1984 or 1997 might not hold true today?
In today’s info-whelmed times, this theory may have many negative consequences.
For starters, it may confuse and overwhelm a buyer who for instance comes to a retail site thinking of buying a black mini dress but ends up looking at so many gorgeous berry, cranberry, poppy, cobalt, and silver colored dresses that she decides to put off the decision for later, when she has thought it through. That’s your sale out of the window.
Also, displaying too many elements will make your site look cluttered. In times where retailers are spending a lot of time and money testing the size and color of a CTA button, you simply can’t afford to jump in headfirst without knowing which elements are working for you and how.
The Bandwagon Effect and Social Proof
The Bandwagon Effect is the tendency to do things (in our case, buy things) because many other people do the same. Hello, iPhone! Neuroscience marketers tell you to use social proof to trigger the herd behavior of people. According to them, if you can create the perception that everyone is buying your product and trigger FOMO, then it’s more likely that people will buy more (both in amount and frequency) from you.
However, in some cases, this may backfire. For instance, many people like to stand out from the crowd and won’t buy something that is sold in droves. These people hate being just another person in the crowd and thrive on individuality. You are less likely to find them at Walmart and more at a local shop that customizes products for them. This is true for a lot of businesses but especially common in apparel and lifestyle businesses.
What’s more, this is not just a personality but a generation “thing.”
A study found that 43 percent millennials reach out for craft beer when they want to have fun and get tipsy. That means millennials will be spending less money on en vogue products like Bud, Coors, Miller, as well as the all-time classic Heineken in the years to come. So much for the traditional and predictable!
Perhaps the biggest myth related to studies is that numbers don’t lie. Many studies are built on numbers and statistical evidence that mean little or nothing, but are embellished with important-looking charts and calculations, so you gullibly believe them.
However, a lot of these studies are riddled with inadequate variables, poor calculation techniques, questionable assumptions, lack or causation or even correlation, cherry-picking, and arguable analysis. From coffee to beer to what makes us human, there’s a lot to be skeptical about as one study disproves the other, and a third comes that disproves both.
In ecommerce too we have seen a lot of theories floating about, from heuristics to Porter’s Five Forces and the famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.”
The Magical Number 7 is upheld as gospel by many in the marketing, design, and ecommerce fraternity because George Miller said something about our memory’s capacity or limitations in 1956. This is an outrageous and extreme case of following a rule blindly.
It postulates that humans can only hold about seven things in their short-term memory at a time and even though Miller very heavily qualifies this number as “suggestive” and “an estimate,” there are marketers and designers who ascribe to this rule:
Think about websites that you have visited that you can navigate easily. I would bet that they have followed the 5-9 rule. With every site that I create, I try to make the navigation no larger than 9 items. If it is larger than 9, it gets divided into smaller, closely related groups.
But navigation is persistent – people scroll and click links to find information, which they don’t have to remember word for word. These are not history dates and we are not in fourth grade anymore!
When people come to your website, only your core message should be communicated and remembered. Everything else is just a bonus. If you really want to know what magical numbers (keyword density is another one) work for you, run your own tests and determine numbers based on your own data. Never trust someone else’s data and inferences.
Changing your buttons from cherry red to mauve, or including seductive pictures of women in your homepage banner when you’re selling men’s underwear, is giving in to neuro-nonsense marketing. The lesson here is that in your bid to manipulate (okay, “nudge”) human behavior and feelings, you’re in danger of making some sweeping generalizations that might actually hurt your campaign.
For example, Frito-Lay, by making their packaging less shiny, might simply have lost out on drawing attention to the packets sitting on supermarket shelves, and as a result, sold less than before. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees!
Scientists and academics are also advising us to tread with caution with the applications of neuroscience in business. Rachel Kennedy and Haydn Northover of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute warned marketers that neuro approaches to advertising are promising, but not yet perfect – traditional measures of effectiveness are often insufficient in fully understanding audience response.
So, by all means, form hypotheses based on neuroscience for your marketing campaigns. But please, please do not take anyone’s word for their efficacy – try them, track them, and make tactical or strategic decisions yourselves. As they say, “assume nothing, test everything.”
About the Author: Tracy Vides is a digital marketing strategist who works with small businesses and startups to help improve their content, SEO, and social presence. Tracy is also a prolific writer—her posts on ecommerce, social media, and conversion are regularly featured on tech blogs across the web.
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