As customers demand an ever more personal experience, brands are finding it increasingly more important to create rewarding conversations with customers. We explore the new industry making behavior it's business...

There are few things more welcome in this world than an airport coffee. At London’s Heathrow alone, approximately 35,000 cups keep travelers ticking over every day. Regardless of race, gender or class background, coffee is bought across the board to revive the world-weary. It’s one of life’s great levelers.

As such, cup in hand, I have come to Heathrow - not to catch a flight, but rather to find an answer to the question: What makes people tick?

It’s a tricky one, not least because of the extent to which you must generalize humankind to find an answer. But there are few such single -minded and even-footed audiences as those in search of a post-flight coffee. These terminals, then, among the backpackers and businessmen, seem as good a place as any to start.

From selling a simple coffee to running a multinational conglomerate, all business is hinged on understanding what makes people tick; on opening a successful and profitable dialogue between retailer and customer.

 

People are pyramids

The key to great customer experience, then, is knowing how to appeal to everyone simultaneously. Those in need of a caffeine fix are easy to sell to, but how are the other brands in this terminal - and beyond - improving how they talk to their customers? Several days earlier, I met up with Pete Dyson, of Ogilvy’s Behavioral Science Practice, to find out.

Helping brands better communicate is Dyson’s day job, so he knows how to understand a diverse range of people. The answer, he says, comes in the shape of a pyramid. "At the bottom of the pyramid,’ Dyson explains when I meet him in Central London, ‘are our similarities. We’re all human - and this doesn’t change, regardless of who, or where we are."

A solid foundation, then. But, layered on top of that, the behavioral strategist outlines three more layers, each tapering in ever tighter and segmenting the population to the tip of their individual pyramid.

"Next up are our cultural associations; where we’re from and the habits we’ve developed. On top of that comes a person’s individual attitudes and beliefs, which affect their behavior. And then, at the top, their current mood or state. It’s incredibly complex. Each one of us have these similarities and differences - from ingrained values to whether we’re having a good or a bad day."

Dyson’s role in modern business is to sift through these differences, and to help brands and companies scale these pyramids to the highest possible point. He must not only assist in beginning successful conversations with customers, but also ensure thousands of individuals feel directly spoken to.

The ways he achieves this are intriguing and many. Sitting in the airport, many of the travellers around me are on their way to hotels. One of Dyson’s most difficult projects was posed by a hotel company, who challenged Ogilvy’s 15-strong behavioral science team to popularize the brand’s loyalty scheme.

"When speaking to customers who were booking a room over the phone,’ begins Dyson, ‘we tested many psychological levers in an attempt to elicit a positive response."

From loss aversion technique — where customers were made to feel that they were missing out by not joining - to experimenting with social norms by talking up how popular the loyalty club was, several principles were tested.

"We found that salience conditions were the most effective - where you make something seem novel and relevant, and make explicit the benefits customers would receive immediately. In this case, a discounted rate on that first booking. We know that people value immediate benefits over those that come later."

 

Giving a nudge

The study of human nature and psychology, and its effect on the world of business, is not new. In fact, 2018 marks ten years since the publication of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness - a book written by two celebrated American professors that explores psychology and behavioral economics. It poses that, through the positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions of ‘nudging’, we can not only identify what makes people tick, but utilise those findings for our own gain.

But segmenting people into ‘types’, an approach many data strategists take when consulting for companies, may not be the best way to translate behavior into business. In Dyson’s opinion, it pays to take a more individual approach.

"It would be more accurate to say that there are personality traits rather than personality types," says the strategist. "On the whole, people are more similar than they are different — and general marketing segmentation is too concerned with the differences between people, rather than their similarities."

"We’re all homo sapiens," he continues, "and we’re all carrying the same organ on our shoulders; the brain. Whoever you are, its construction is very similar, so this obsession for segmentation and identifying the small differences between people is very costly, and maybe even a bit of a red herring."

Instead, teams such as Ogilvy’s Behavioral Science Practice have been studying the psychology and behavior of individuals to build better business plans and directions for companies around the world.

"People are social creatures," says the strategist, "and they work out how to talk to other people. So we worked at a call center in New Delhi, for a brand who makes photo editing software, and focused on individual conversations to better the operation overall."

Call centers, perhaps the most prolific hubs of conversation in business, walk a blurry line. They provide a business function, but must also provide a differentiated customer experience. And, sometimes, these two objectives are bound to contradict each other.

"That is to say," explains Dyson, "that the agents are on the side of the customer, but occasionally need to switch to the side of their boss, and sell something."

This was no more true than in a particular turn of phrase. When a customer called up to cancel their subscription, the agent’s script originally told them to ask: "Can you tell me why you want to cancel today?". Dyson’s team, however, found that this simply primed the customer to rationalize — both to themselves and the brand — why cancelling was what they wanted.

Instead, Dyson asked why people first subscribed to the package, setting up conversations that would be more constructive than destructive. Because the blunt truth, as Dyson puts it, is…

 

People won’t do stuff they don’t want to do

"And I’m happy to be quoted on that," he laughs. "It’s easiest to work with people who want to do a certain thing, but aren’t currently doing that thing. I’m not saying it’s useless otherwise, but no-one is very good at making people do things they don’t believe in. But, say they want to sign up for a quit smoking pack, we can help them along. If they want to recycle a coffee cup, we’ll make it easier for them to do that."

Which brings me to the second reason I find myself in Heathrow. Dyson’s team are currently working with a big coffee chain in the airport’s terminals, who came to Ogilvy with a want to increase how many people were recycling their coffee cups. Their problem: How do you design a solution that promotes recycling equally to people of so many different nationalities, backgrounds and familiarities? How to do you speak to so many people?

For Dyson, it meant consulting his pyramid. To create a consumer-facing product — in this case, a recycling bin — that would be intelligible to everyone, Ogilvy’s team had to focus on the bottom of the pyramid. Whether people had poor eyesight, didn’t speak English, or weren’t even familiar with the concept of recycling, it had to be clear for everyone.

"So we designed for accessibility," reveals the strategist, "which is the best way to open things up for the general public. Icons. Tactile feedback. Things everyone can engage with and understand."

Coffee cups are just the latest in a long line of projects tackled by Ogilvy’s Behavioral Science Practice. Despite the the world of academia spending centuries tussling with the big psychological issues and behavioral problems, teams such as Dyson’s are the first to bring to bear the decades of literature, experiments, studies and theories that have been previously tied up in peer-reviewed journals. The conscious, deliberate application of these behavioral sciences is around eight years old, with Ogilvy pioneering the practice.

"We take those academic insights," says Dyson, of his seven-year-old team, "and apply them to real world challenges. I have to know as much as I can about theories and models so I can try to adapt them and make them useful to really specific challenges."

"IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT GETTING PEOPLE TO BUY THINGS’,’ SAYS DYSON. ‘INSTEAD, IT’S ABOUT WORKING WITH PEOPLE’S VERY UNSTABLE PREFERENCES, THAT CHANGE OVER TIME, AND TRYING TO MATCH THEIR NEEDS WITH A SOLUTION YOU HAVE AT YOUR DISPOSAL."

Such teams do spot opportunities to tackle, and approach brands — but tend to be approached by companies aware of existing problems. And these ‘behavioral problems’ take many forms. It could be that consumers don’t know which product to pick from a brand’s portfolio. It could be that they are using a product or service wrongly. Or it could be that they still believe widespread misconceptions or concerns around a certain brand.

Whichever of these problems they may be facing, the brands turn to Ogilvy’s Behavioral Science Practice when they need to alter general attitude and awareness. If they want to restart a conversation with the consumer on their own terms, Dyson’s team will make that happen.

"And that’s when it psychologically ladders up with: ‘It’s not always about getting people to buy things’," says Dyson. "Instead, it’s about working with people’s very unstable preferences, that change over time, and trying to match their needs with a solution you have at your disposal."

He pauses.

"People are very, very messy."

 

The airport model

The key, then, is to find out what works for everyone; how to spark up a conversation that everyone understands. Only then can brands discover what makes people tick. And, from the pilots drifting through the terminals with their spangly uniforms and disposable incomes, to the ground crew hurrying around in dashes of dayglow, each person in this microcosmic world has different backgrounds and beliefs that will affect how they communicate with brands.

It’s no clearer than with these planefuls of different cultures, ages and genders that no one thing universally makes people tick. But, with teams such as Dyson’s researching and solving more problems, businesses are getting ever closer to climbing the pyramid.

"I can’t say exactly what makes people tick," signs off the behavioral strategist, "but my own experience is that people are driven far more by avoiding the worst-case outcome than striving for the best-case outcome." It may not be a clear conclusion, but it’s the best a fledgling industry has to offer. And, as my empty coffee cup goes into the recycling bin, it’s one that’s clearly doing its job.

Pete Dyson, Senior Behavioural Strategist, in Ogilvy's London office