Sigmund fells trendy straw men

How Customers Think

July 11, 2003

Gerald Zaltman's How Customers Think will confirm businesspeople's worst prejudices about business academics. Indeed, if I were an academic in a management faculty, I would be sorely tempted to buy every copy of How Customers Think and dump the lot in the Atlantic. This would be signally appropriate because Zaltman believes the sinking of the Titanic to be a paradigm of the short-sightedness and complacency of business executives.

He retells the entire Titanic story to remind his readers that the doomed ship's officers were warned of the possibility of a collision with an Atlantic iceberg but failed to take much notice. Zaltman believes this to be the way most businesspeople behave most of the time. That is insulting twaddle.

How Customers Think is fundamentally out of date and out of touch: an exercise in repackaging. Quoting endlessly from trendy neuroscientists, Zaltman puts a hip academic gloss on things businesspeople have known for years - for centuries - and does so with lofty condescension. All of which is extraordinary and depressing in a book coming from the Harvard Business School Press, written by a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.

The book begins by setting up several tired and weather-beaten straw men, and then spends some 300 pages knocking them down. Customers, Zaltman proudly explains, do not always behave rationally. He says this as though he were saying something radical, something nobody has ever noticed.

Neuroscience has shown, he proclaims, that customers often act emotionally, they often do not think in words but in images, or metaphors. One of the key principles of his book, the professor explains, is the 95-5 split: only 5 per cent of human beings' decisions are conscious, the remaining 95 per cent being subconscious. How are these figures calculated? He doesn't say.

Are my decisions to keep breathing among the 95 per cent that are subconscious? Or are they not decisions at all? How can anyone evaluate what percentage of our decisions are subconscious - especially if they do not even define what constitutes a decision?

But perhaps Zaltman does not mean the figures to be mathematically precise.

Perhaps they are merely intended to emphasise, metaphorically, as he might say, the fact that the vast majority of human decisions are made at the subconscious rather than the conscious level. Well, it is only a century or so since Freud established the immense and pervasive power of the subconscious. Now Zaltman too has cottoned on to it. By jiminy, those Harvard marketing professors are on the ball.

Even ignoring Freud, as Zaltman does, it is very nearly half a century since Vance Packard published his worldwide bestseller The Hidden Persuaders. The book is, of course, about the unconscious reasons why customers buy the things they buy and the ways in which devious businesspeople exploit customers by employing emotional rather than explicitly rational sales techniques.

Almost unbelievably, Zaltman uses the sports car as an example of irrational purchasing: "A man who drives a sports car may have deep-seated emotional reasons, not just practical reasons, for buying it," he announces. He seems blissfully unaware that one of Packard's most often-quoted nuggets, which Packard attributes to the famous motivation researcher Ernest Dichter, is that men view sports cars as mistresses and sedans as wives: a far neater and more telling perception, incidentally, than Zaltman's plonking dictum. Packard goes on: "One of the most costly blunders of merchandising history was the Chrysler Corporation's assumption that people buy cars on a rational basis." He wrote that in 1957. In the same year Pierre Martineau published Motivation in Advertising - subtitled "Motives that make people buy" - another classic bestseller that details the crucial importance of emotions rather than logic in people's purchasing behaviour.

Zaltman's gaffes might matter less if he did not spend so much time deriding business executives for being too logical and, consequently, for failing to understand the illogical thought processes of their customers.

On the third page, he writes: "Managers must know considerably more than they currently do about how consumers think and act. That is, the conscious and especially unconscious dynamics of customer thinking must be understood." On the last page he writes: "Managers must find ways to dive deeper and explore submerged thoughts and feelings." And on most of the pages in between he berates managers for failing to explore those unconscious, submerged thoughts and feelings. But this is just what managers have been doing - actively and deliberately since Dichter and his colleagues introduced motivation research in the 1950s and instinctively since the dawn of time. Throughout history, successful businesspeople have played on their customers' subconscious needs, even if they did not use those words.

For the past 30 years at least, no new marketing or advertising campaign has been initiated by any serious company without the prior preparation of a detailed brief. And during that period I have never seen a marketing or advertising brief that does not specify inter alia the intended emotional outcomes of the project, as well as the intended sales and profit outcomes.

Usually these are detailed under a heading called "Expected emotional response", or something very similar. To claim that businesspeople are unaware of the issues raised by consumers' conscious and subconscious responses is, well, to seriously underestimate their intelligence.

Admittedly there are some good things in the book, particularly in the chapters on stimulating original thinking, but these are drowned in the surrounding waves of unoriginal thinking. Many, if not most, practising businesspeople suspect management academics have no real idea of how modern business operates. Despite the trendy neuroscience, those businesspeople who bother to read this book will have such suspicions well and truly confirmed.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, the Royal Institution.

How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market

Author - Gerald Zaltman
ISBN - 1 57851 826 1
Publisher - Harvard Business School Press
Price - £21.99
Pages - 323

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