The behavioural science approach to marketing advocated here is based on evolutionary consumer psychology.  The brain is a computer, albeit a biological one, which receives inputs from the environment, processes them and generates an output (i.e. a behaviour) appropriate to the current situation.  Like all computers, it also has a limited processing capacity, so most of the decisions we make occur largely at a non-conscious level.

Consciously working our way through options when choosing a new car can be very efficient in terms of the outcome, but it is also very processing-intensive in terms of the strain it places on our neocortex.  This may be justifiable for a car, but it would be a complete waste of precious resources if we were to use the same mode of decision-making when buying a bunch of bananas!  For most everyday decisions, we therefore rely more on the rapid-if-not-always-efficient processing power of the limbic system, making largely non-conscious choices to preserve valuable brain-power.  Put another way, there are some decisions where we are very much in Pilot mode, consciously making slow considered choices, while there are other more mundane decisions where we act largely on Autopilot, relying on hard-wired tendencies, learned rules and our emotional responses to make a purchase decision.  Of course, Pilot and Autopilot are not mutually exclusive – it is more a question of which mode of thinking is currently in charge.  We may be rationally viewing a new house in Pilot mode, for instance, but our Autopilot may still “chip in” from time to time with its non-conscious observations on its emotional reactions to the general locality or its initial impressions on the look of the neighbours.  Similarly, we may be sailing happily round the supermarket buying our weekly groceries, around two-thirds of which occurs largely on Autopilot, but it just takes something like a 500% increase in the price of milk to jolt us back into conscious thinking and Pilot mode takes control!

Non-conscious processing is undertaken rapidly by a vast network of neurons, interconnected to form circuits.  Many of these circuits evolved in our species’ past and are calibrated to the world our hunter-gatherer ancestors inhabited thousands of years ago.  Our love of fatty foods may be harmful today because of our more sedate lifestyles, for instance, but the motivation to consume them still exists at a non-conscious level because such foods would have been helpful to survival for our ancestors and the appeal is being generated by circuits calibrated to that hunter-gatherer past.  There are many many such circuits in the brain, all oriented toward the Darwinian imperative; surviving, reproducing and passing on our genes to the next generation.  The potential of the behavioural science approach to marketing lies in identifying the particular circuits motivating consumer choice and the specific stimuli that will appeal to those circuits in order to maximise sales.  The challenge, however, has always been to organise these circuits in a conceptually coherent way.

Over the years, several consumer psychologists have sought to classify these neural circuits – our deep-rooted drivers (DRDs) of behaviour in a meaningful and useful way.  Back in 2000, for instance, Gad Saad at Concordia University in Canada proposed four categories of circuit which he termed Darwinian Modules.  These all related to the four main challenges evolutionary psychologists see as being at the heart of hunter-gatherer life; survival, reproduction, managing kin relationships, and social reciprocation (living in a group).  Saad’s four categories have generated a considerable amount of interest and stand up pretty well to scrutiny, but they are at times too broad and don’t sufficiently distinguish between different categories of consumption. There is a huge difference between behaviours that keep us alive in the immediate sense of the term (e.g. eating food) and those aimed at maintaining that life over the longer term (e.g. taking vitamins and other supplements).

In an attempt to offer a more nuanced classification system, Douglas Mckenrick and his colleagues over at Arizona State University produced an expanded framework in 2010.  A refreshing of Maslow’s (in-)famous pyramid of needs, Mckenrick’s typology offers seven classes of what he terms Fundamental Motives.  These include a very helpful distinction between those circuits motivating us to simply stay alive and those more oriented toward longer-term acts of self-preservation.

Although generally regarded as an improvement on Saad’s model, however, there are certain weaknesses in Mckenrick’s pyramid that are difficult to reconcile.  For example, although there is an intuitive logic to treat finding a mate and retaining one as different Darwinian priorities, research has shown that the number of instances in which this actually results in differences in consumption patterns are few and far between.  An anniversary card could well be more specific to retaining a mate than attraction one, for instance, but wearing perfume or cologne is common to both attraction and retention, the only real difference being one of intent.  More seriously, by focusing purely on parenting motivations, Mckenrick’s framework can be criticised for ignoring the wider family – a context that is the setting for a huge amount of modern consumption practices.

By way of a consolidation of these past frameworks, and based on our own research over the past twenty years or so, Sarah Xiao and myself have developed our own typology for capturing these deep-rooted drivers of behaviour.  We organise the classes of neural circuit into six categories of DRD, which we term Darwinian Meta-Drives; a meta-drive being a collection of many hundreds of drives (or DRDs), all oriented toward a common overarching goal.  As can be seen in our diagram, Sarah and I argue that the DRDs form six primary meta-drives: Survival (finding dinner and a safe place to sleep), Preservation (staying alive in the longer term by maintaining health and wellbeing), Affiliation (joining and fitting in with a social group), Status (acquiring a degree of prestige within that group to maximise resources), Reproduction (finding and retaining a mate), and Kinship (managing our wider family networks).

Whenever we encounter a stimulus (product, advertisement, POS materials, etc.), the evolved circuits within the brain’s Autopilot evaluate that stimulus and generate an emotional response.  If the stimulus would help our adaptive needs (e.g. seeing food when we are hungry), we experience a positive emotional response and the likelihood of a purchase intensifies.  Conversely, if the non-conscious evaluation reveals that the stimulus may be harmful to our adaptive needs (e.g. picking up food that is out-of-date and going mouldy), the emotional response will be a negative one and the likelihood of buying is dramatically decreased.   This is the essence of my approach to behavioural science marketing.  We identify which meta-drive a product or brand is appealing to, craft marketing messages that will appeal to the DRDs within that meta-drive, and then use behavioural science techniques to optimise that marketing to maximise sales.

Our Darwinian Meta-Drives and their component DRDs offer a more systematic and effective approach to motivational research than the at times esoteric interpretations offered by Freudian approaches.  Moreover, they are already helping brands across the FMCG sector to maximise the collateral of their marketing efforts.