The Road to Marketing Hell is Paved with Good Predictions

By Katy Hindley, Digital Development Director, Posterscope

June 2020

To say that 2020 hasn’t turned out exactly as predicted for advertisers and marketers would be an understatement.  So, if the experts can’t get it right – why do we as humans still need predictions in times that are seemingly unpredictable, and why, as marketers, do we keep making them?

In 1950, Associated Press writer Dorothy Roe used what she called ‘scientific evidence’ to predict that by the year 2000, all women would be six feet tall. “Her proportions will be perfect, though Amazonian, because science will have perfected a balanced ration of vitamins, proteins and minerals that will produce the maximum bodily efficiency, the minimum of fat” she wrote. Women are taller on average nowadays, so Roe wasn’t totally off.

Fast forward to 2020 and ten weeks of lockdown spent comfort eating and Roe’s prediction of the proportions of the female physique feels slightly less on point. But that’s the whole point of predictions – they’re based on a not so balanced quota of educated facts, educated guesswork and a healthy portion of throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks.

So why do humans seek predictions so readily if the System 2 part of our brain, responsible for logical thought, knows it will only tell part of the story?  And why is our System 1 brain, which fires off instinct and emotion, so eager to accept them as absolute truth?  According to Ashok Gethi in “Coronavirus and behavioural Science’, it’s our evolutionary fear of the unknown which drives this.  Built into our reptilian brains, this fear controls our primitive urges and automated actions and goes some way towards explaining the mental health crisis we are currently in.

So how does that effect our behaviour in the current COVID-19 pandemic?

The unknown and unseen coronavirus makes us ultra-cautious and, as a result, we automatically gravitate to the known and the familiar. If someone is selling us a prediction that makes us feel comforted, safe and serves our self-interest – we buy into it hook line and sinker. According to Rutgers’s University Psychologist Neil Weinstein, this process of ‘unrealistic optimism’ is ingrained into our DNA. “Facts supporting a desired outcome are more readily available in people’s memories than other equally relevant but less appealing information”.

This human tendency for strongly held beliefs to become self-interested beliefs is what researchers call ‘projection bias’; an assumption that everyone is thinking the same way you do. This belief system contributes to a uniformity of behaviour, which used for good can have outstanding and even lifesaving results. Just look at how the British public have done as they are told – staying home en masse and slowing down the spread of Covid-19.

The danger comes when this same herding tendency is applied to predictions of what we do next in a Covid-19 future that we really know nothing about. Philip Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the art and science of forecasting, says that “strongly held beliefs are a big reason people make bad predictions. Sometimes our desire to be right overrides the truth as once you commit to anything then you have a vested interest in the outcome.” How we predict the future is important because it affects what we do in the present.

So what future predictions are marketers making and how is this effecting the present?

If we think about this in terms of the impact Covid-19 is having on consumer behaviour now, there is a plethora of predictions on how paths to purchase have been forever altered and more radically, that the role of traditional media within this is dead. While consumer buying patterns have shifted more online by default of lockdown, it’s quite a leap to suggest that online and e-commerce are poised to run away with every brands marketing budget until the end of time – but however extreme this prediction, write it enough times and people will believe it.  You only have to look at the recent increase in traffic to horoscope sites to realise that when it comes to predictions, people will believe what they want to, no matter how irrational or evidenced to the contrary.

So whilst brands have re-directed a significant proportion of marketing budgets away from traditional media in the short term, particularly OOH, to suggest this is a fixed model for the advertising mix in the future is about as reliable as that spaghetti stuck to the wall.

So, what for marketing after lockdown?

In 2004, an ESOMAR paper reporting on shopping behaviour during and post SARS concluded that whilst SARS had an obvious impact on consumers behaviour, it did not fuel an increase overall in online shopping. Internet shopping fell back to pre-SARS level as shoppers hit the high street to get their physical hit.

By comparison, in 2020, e-commerce is a far more evolved experience and service, so some new consumer buying patterns will stick, but this will differ radically by category. Amazon is a living example of this category shift as more habitually in-store purchased products such as groceries and home basics cross over to online out of necessity.  As a result, it is the clear ‘winner’ in the Pandemic so far with a reported 40% boost in ad revenue to $3.9bn.

Changing mass consumer behaviour during a crisis with a ‘life or death’ option for motivation is one thing, maintaining that behaviour when life returns to ‘normal’ is quite another. Once let out of the traps, people will actively seek the normality of yesterday, it won’t be exactly the same, but it will be close enough for people to recognise it as the world we once knew and loved. We might initially avoid the big shopping mall destination, but that doesn’t stop us discovering new experiences on the high street and in our local communities.

Having been starved physically of seeing our friends, family and colleagues and the great outdoors for so long, there will be a new-found appreciation of being outside of your home. People will be able to travel freely, if more cautiously, and take more notice of all that is on offer to the senses.

Brands can be part of this celebration of recovery and engage with people in a familiar and comforting way.  Kantar’s Covid-19 Barometer supports this view. Only 8% of consumers globally believe that companies should stop advertising at this time, and also believe that markets are cyclical, and it’s not the first time we’ve seen a drop in ad-spend. What followed the 2009 recession was a decade of heightened and sustained growth. Granted, the situation we are currently in is unprecedented, but this is the closet economic crisis we have in comparison, so allow me some ‘unrealistic optimism’ at this point.

However, if drawing on past experience isn’t going to accurately guide us, what can marketers use to help navigate their brands through these un-chartered waters?

People will still be wary of new things (remember that reptilian brain), so the more easily recognisable brands can be, the more effective and welcomed the connection. Yet given that it’s such a sensitive time, has the mood changed enough for brands to act like themselves again?

We will certainly be looking for positive stories, of resilience, rejuvenation and survival, both online and outdoors. Dr Siegel in ‘The New Science of Personal Transformation’ states that in normal times, “people are very happy when they are outside. The brain acts differently when we’re outdoors”. If that’s true, this can only be amplified after a period of being denied this pleasure.

This is an opportunity brands should harness. OOH is the oldest and most trusted medium and with the rise of DOOH, is a channel that has the ability to tell multiple stories to multiple audiences at the right time and engage with people as they eagerly (or gingerly) rediscover their old daily routines or embrace new ones.

And trust is paramount right now. A recent report from Kantar’s Dimension Study showed the UK is currently amongst the most globally cynical when it comes to advertising, with 70% of people in the UK not trusting what they see on social media platforms. We know through research that dynamic DOOH helps strengthen brand trust, helping brands stories, post Covid-19, work harder and be more memorable in consumers’ minds.

The recent Moments of Truth research, a ground-breaking project commissioned by Posterscope, JCDecaux and Clear Channel looked at the effects of dynamic on a digital OOH campaign and found it delivered an uplift in effectiveness of +17%.

Not a bad reason for brands to seriously consider DOOH as an integral part of their media mix.

So, what should we expect from the future and can we be optimistic?

One thing we’ve learnt over the past few months is that you can never truly predict the future, and that no matter how strong the evidence, we all have an automatic default to unrealistic optimism if it serves our own best interests.

With all the above reasons considered, should we still be making and believing radical media-changing marketing predictions, or should we be looking to the more reliable devils we know?

Most likely it’s bit of both. As marketers, our own particular (self-interested – blame our ancestors) predictions may turn out to have been the best way to steer our advertisers’ investments in new or different ways. But at the same time, we should not lose sight of what we know works for brands in building familiar and authentic relationships with consumers.

Dynamic DOOH has an indelible track record of delivering engaging, relevant and effective campaigns for brands and that’s a fact. And that is something everyone is able to get on board with right now.

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