The other day, I read a bunch of articles about “irrational” consumers. Quick to apply my knowledge, I decided to point out to my wife that her decision to spend an extra $10 for branded bed sheets was irrational, hoping we could both save some time and end our shopping trip early. You can guess how things turned out when I told her she was being irrational.
We’re reluctant to tell people to their faces that they are being illogical or unreasonable. Then, why are so many marketing “experts” calling our consumers irrational. Hey, I get the payoff: it makes for a good headline, and we marketers can feel better or superior when we see consumers make decision we dislike.
The problem is that calling consumers irrational misses the whole point. It’s our responsibility to understand the consumers’ decision process, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. Calling consumers irrational also suggests that something is wrong with them when they don’t make the decisions we expect or want (hence, my wife’s upset).
In fact, these seemingly “irrational” decisions are quite predictable and measurable, guided by a “fast thinking” system. Think of it this way: every day at work you sort through many emails. Some are very important, and you spend a lot of energy responding, clarifying the language and proofreading for typos. Other emails are less important, so you respond almost automatically, with relatively little concern for crafting the perfect message. Do you consider the second, quick response to be “irrational” or is it simply a more efficient way for you to do your job?
Your brain makes similar calculations thousands of times each day. Some decisions demand a lot of effort, but many more simply aren’t as demanding. When the decision isn’t very important or if you have a lot of experience with it, your brain decides to use “fast thinking”, relying on a set of non-conscious rules and lessons that worked well in the past. “Fast thinking” enables us to make decisions efficiently, and by the way, they are often good decisions. After years of laundry, for instance, your wife may know that certain brands last longer than others warranting a higher price. In contrast, so-called “rational” decision making can manifest as deliberation and over thinking. Thinking “long and hard,” does not necessarily lead to better decisions. In summary, you may make a few decisions each day that fail to “maximize your utility,” but does it really matter?
Rather than relating to consumers as irrational, we can simply understand that some decisions are better made using “fast thinking” systems and then choose to communicate with consumers on that level. Brand messages that please consumers’ “fast thinking” systems and align with the “rational mind” will produce satisfied customers, more successful brands, and happier marriages.