Behavioral premise

For every marketing plan or product idea, ask what assumption about consumer behavior is being made.

The answer may be a real wake-up call.

The most surprising aspect of marketing strategies for both new and established products is just how out of touch with reality many of them are. Consumer behavior with respect to any marketing plan is crucial to its success. So you would think that the basic assumptions underlying consumer behavior for a particular marketing plan—which we call "behavioral premises"—would be hotly debated among marketing managers before the product or plan is launched.

In many cases, however, this is apparently not done. How else could a doll manufacturer launch a new line of dolls on the behavioral premise that little girls like to replicate stressful real-life situations when they play? (Their example was making new friends after having to move to a new school!)

Students sometimes asked whether such examples as these were “hindsight.” So each semester we simply created new examples from articles in The Wall Street Journal. There was no shortage of dubious ideas and it was often possible for students to see that their predictions were affirmed by the end of the semester. This was particularly true of an advertising campaign, which could quickly fall on its face.

The instructor's most recognized phrase—What the hell does that mean?—applied to a new ad slogan such as Pepsi's meaningless “Oneify” meant failure within weeks if not days.

A behavioral premise should present a challenge to the marketing plan under consideration. Rather than "people want clothes that are well made" (which is always true), consider "people want clothes that are different." This is a real challenge to a plan to offer "different" clothes because, if it is not true, the plan will fail.

"Steve Scout was Kenner Toys entry into the market for male "action figures" (girls call them dolls). His sales were so disappointing that within one year Kenner "sent him to that big jamboree in the sky." Why was this product a failure? The answer was not merely that the action figure was a boy scout that any boy could become, but the inability to generate fantasy like the GI Joe action figures, popular for decades. Should Kenner have been able to figure this out before launching the product? Consider the behavioral premise that boys want to simulate activities that they can do themselves, which is clearly false. If this behavioral premise were put forward, do you think this product would have made it to market?

Despite the apparent service advantage of the newly-established Federal Express in the small package delivery market, many shipping clerks stayed with UPS, thus inhibiting Federal Express' early growth. Why did shipping clerks do this? The answer was that they didn't want problems, and if there were problems, they could say that they always used UPS, shifting the blame to someone else. A behavioral premise that could have been used here would have been shipping clerks want to take responsibility for mistakes. Like the previous example, getting this assumption out in the open would have smoothed the introduction of Federal Express' new service.

Women's sports magazines were sent back to the drawing board because the behavioral premise that women would read a magazine about sports without some link to fitness was untrue. Conde Nast Sports for Women was relaunched as Women's Sports & Fitness in recognition of this better understanding of consumer behavior. Had the correct behavioral premise been on the table from the beginning, the product would not have had to been relaunched (and eventually discontinued). There is a market for women's fitness magazines and Web sites, but its extension to sports has been a dead end.

From Kodak's ill-fated (no wonder!) Funtime film marketed on the behavioral premise that people prefer lower-quality film for important occasions to Wal-Mart's in-store coffee houses (people want to spend a lot of time in discount stores), there are far too many products and plans implemented that should have been subjected to a simple test: Is this the way people behave?

If the answer is "no," then companies can figure out how they behave and save a ton of money in the process. Every time you hear about a marketing plan, ask yourself what assumption is being made about consumer behavior. If that assumption is false, scrap the plan or modify it in a way that makes the plan realistic.

Summary of the marketing logic

  • Identify the behavioral premise behind every marketing plan or idea.
  • Scrap poor plans or ideas.


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