How Small Thinking can be BIG
We tried every marketing tactic in the book. Advertising and public relations campaigns, customer workshops, a specialized field force, yet we couldn’t shift the behavior of our customers. We went big but our results were frustratingly small. More than ten years ago, I was given the challenge of coming up with a way to convince corporate leaders to invest millions of dollars in procuring stockpiles of antiviral medications in the event of an influenza pandemic. A business challenge that could literally translate into a life and death decision. My instinct was initially to GO BIG. But what I was finding out was that swinging for the fences can sometimes prevent you from seeing the entire field. Whereas focusing on the small things can sometimes be every bit as powerful, if not more so, than the big marketing campaigns that get all the investment and attention.
In 2006, one of the top trending stories around the world was the threat of the “Bird Flu”, or the Avian Influenza Pandemic. The so-called bird flu was a strain of the influenza virus that usually affected only birds; however, there was well-founded concern that this clever virus could mutate, or “jump” across species. And because this is a virus that our human immune systems were naïve to, it could present catastrophic health consequences, much like what had occurred in 1918 in which millions of people around the world perished due to the health complications caused by influenza. The flu pandemic and its dystopian predictions became a regular part of the news cycle. Federal and state governments began to stockpile interventions, including the anti-viral medication, Tamiflu, that was thought to be one of the only hope to treat an infected person. And Roche, the maker of Tamiflu, was encouraged to produce and sell Tamiflu not just to government entities, but also to corporations that were part of our nation’s critical infrastructure. The perfect storm for creating a new market and business.
The business opportunity seemed like a lay-up: A serious, high impact global public-health event and a company with a virtually one-of-its-kind treatment. Roche mobilized people and resources to answer the call of the government and to promote stockpiles to corporations. Despite the initial interest, few organizations took the next step. We assumed it was a matter of time and education. We tried every “Big” marketing strategy and tactic with marginal success. And so, after many months of frustration, we decided to go from big, to small. Enter Behavioral Economics.
The field of behavioral economics was slowly coming into its own in 2006. Names like Kahneman, Thaler and Ariely were becoming recognizable names inside of business circles and books like Freakonomics were becoming best sellers. But it was, and to a certain extent still is, not widely practiced or incorporated into marketing and innovation capabilities. The basic point of behavioral cconomics is that individuals often make irrational decisions and challenges the classic belief that people have deep preferences for particular products and services; instead our choices are heavily influenced by the environment in which we make those decisions. And because classical economics (think Adam Smith) couldn’t explain a whole lot outside of the classroom, complementary disciplines such as Neuroscience, Social Psychology and Experimental Psychology joined forces with traditional economics to better understand and design for human behaviors.
When we began promoting corporate stockpiling, we assumed that the factors that motivated a purchase decision were the most basic human motivations: Fear, Survival, Social Responsibility. But we found from our failed initial programs, that these were not the most influential levers. So we set out to design and run a series of small experiments to discover the motivating factors. To that end, we exposed decision makers from various functions and industries to a set of proposals. These proposals ranged from the high stakes implications of their actions to the micro-effects of indecision. And despite our previous experience, we were still confident that the big, existential messages would exert the greatest influence on their decision making. We were wrong. In fact, the single most effective proposal was “Your industry peers are stockpiling. And you are not.” This seemingly simple proposal prompted a significantly higher response rate for stockpiling intentions than any other single message. And as we dug into this discovery, we found that the Fear of Incompetence was an underlying driver. When decision-makers observed that their peers were behaving different, they had a social comparison. Social comparison is the human tendency to look to others for information about how we should think, feel, and behave. And in this case, a number of decision makers were forced to reflect on whether they were doing a good job and risked not keeping up with their peers. Nobody wants to get fired for making a bad decision. But even more so, no one wants to look asleep at the wheel. With this knowledge in hand, our team revamped our marketing and communication strategy to emphasize individual accountability and social referencing to industry peers. With a few small changes, rooted in behavioral science, we soon saw a surge in inquires and stockpiling.
As human beings, we have tendency to be overly confident in our beliefs and opinions. Even the research our team designed and conducted, as I looked back in hindsight, had been heavily influenced by our preconceived notions – also known as the confirmation bias. I too was guilty of this. I assumed a knower’s mindset and was fully complicit in the launching of big marketing programs. However, by taking a behavioral economist’s view and thinking small, we ended up producing the big results that had eluded us for so long.