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The Myth of the Rational Buyer: How Too Much Thinking Can Hurt Your Brand

What if something you thought you knew to be true, turned out to be exactly the opposite? What if an approach you imagined was working for you was actually working against you?

Imagine if it were true, for example, that almost nobody buys a product or service anymore simply because they need it, or because its price is the right price? That, even in an economic downturn, they have to want it as much as need it before they buy? It's a difficult concept to grasp because, at the end of the day, it's not about rational thought. That notion is a wake-up call for products and brands who have built their businesses on pure reason.

Ask Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard scholar who suggests in his seminal book How Customers Think that only 5% of consumer purchasing behavior is based on rational thought processes, suggesting that 95% is due to subconscious motivation. I know it's a hard statistic to swallow, but consider this: what if he's only even half right?

The truth is, most corporations spend 95% of their time obsessing about the five percent. How big should we make the logo? What messages are we missing? What is the brand saying? Let's add (pick one, or several): "New!" "Improved!" "Step right up!" "Bargains galore!" (The classic parody of this approach, of course, is the YouTube video of what iPod packaging would look like if Microsoft had designed it.)

Rational purchasing behavior isn't the only widely-held marketing myth. What about that old chestnut "sex sells?" According to neuroscience expert Martin Lindstrom, the only thing sex sells well, is In fact, it actually gets in the way of consumers remembering what the product or brand is all about.

Dziersk.Instagone In addition, Lindstrom suggests that too much messaging on a product's packaging can actually prevent a sale. Logos and words can engage the rational mind, causing people to actually think harder about making a purchase. It's a counter-intuitive notion, but then think about the effectiveness of the quiet logos on a bottle of POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, or a Method product, or the entire Apple product line up.

method-hand-wash In 1957, the average grocery store had 4000 sku's (units) on its shelves. Today it's 47,000. A typical hypermarket has more than 167,000. There are now simply too many products on shelves, they tend to overpromise, and people are fed up. Especially in these tough times, people want simplicity and authenticity. That's the exact thing most great designs provide naturally, and the distinction that helps brands earn a place in consumers' hearts.

Recent studies have suggested that, even in times of economic downturn, people continue buying really differentiated products, products that make them feel good. Some of these are authentic "heritage" brands, those you remember from when you were a kid (think of the recent commercials for Post Shredded Wheat, the cereal that put the "no" in innovation or Dove soap). They are reliable; they convey indulgence but only as the result of real quality. Some are value brands shaded by an umbrella of trust. Sometimes people will spend a lot of money for one exceptional thing that really makes their life better and they know it will last for a while. They can't really explain why...they just will.

Read more of Mark Dziersk's Design Finds You blog

Mark Dziersk is the VP Design at Brandimage-Desgrippes & Laga, one of the world's largest design and branding firms. At brandimage, Dziersk has worked on projects for clients ranging from Dove to Banana Republic to a pop-up store for Henri Bendel. Dziersk joined brandimage in 2007, after 13 years at the Chicago product design firm Herbst Lazar Bell, where he and his teams won dozens of awards for products as diverse as the Motorola NFL Coaches' Headset, to the first-ever single use camera for Kodak. Dziersk, himself, holds over 100 patents.

Dziersk gives back to his larger professional community as well, having served on the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America and as president of the Society in 1998. He also acted as executive editor of IDSA's premier publication, Innovation, introducing new design elements and recruiting authors from outside the design field. Mark's course, "Essentials of Industrial Design," in Northwestern University's Master of Product Development program, helps left-brained types get comfy with their inner tattooed design side.

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  • Christine Maingard

    An interesting and revealing article indeed. Why is it that so much effort is being spent on influencing 5% of consumers? It's because we all have been taught to believe that 'thinking' is what makes the world go round, when it actually isn't. It's our intuitive mind, our subconscious, our instinct, and whatever else it may be called, that have an infinitely greater influence over our many decisions we make. Much to be said for corporations and their advertising/marketing gurus to tap into the power of 'Think Less, Be More'...
    Dr Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More"

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Mark for your entry - minimal, simple and elegant will ALWAYS win over Microsoft's "treatment" of the Apple package, and the like. You're making the same points here as Rob Brunner in "Do You Matter" book, and couldn't agree more.

  • Camine Pappas

    Indeed, overthinking is the product of the business owner constantly throwing out his own safety net of rationalizations. Fearing that there is only one chance to speak, he shouts. And the consumer puts his marketing message on "mute." We must learn to filter all of our messages first through a series of lenses to make sure we're not trying to just protect ourselves, and then through a lens to make sure we're interested in promoting balance for others.
    I'd love your comments on my latest blog post: Consumer Behavior Measurements - An Oxymoron.

  • Melyana Klue

    '95% of consumer purchasing behavior is based on subconscious motitation'...counter intuitive, indeed. Thank you, Dziersk, for an insightful perspective, and for reminding us 'simplicity and authenticity' continue to be the foundation of successful business communication, even in these lean times.

  • Michèle Haddon

    Excellent article on the emotionalisation of the shopper - have a read :)

  • Brian Gable

    Oh my goodness, I think that Microsoft parody video you posted was actually the exact same box that contained the MS Sidewinder joystick I purchased in 1998. Absolutely hilarious. Brilliant find. Of course, to be fair to Microsoft, I feel like they've got a good thing going on with the Zune. By the looks of the product packaging, looks like they got the message. The question is if consumers will considering the historical reputation of the company.

  • mark palmer

    We get too hooked up on neuroscience and the desirefor a predictive answer. If you accept Jung belief in personality preferences which is the basis for Myers Briggs profiling - the most commonly used personality profiling methodology and 2m done a year - we have preferences which are inate - but we can choose or learnhow to act of preference. In contrast to what this paper states the opposite is true for marketers. Let me explain. The 2 main functions in Myers Briggs assessment are how we perceive and how we decide. The "rational" perceiving prefence is probably attributed to what is known as sensing vs intuition. The Rational decison making function is probably attributed to what is known a thinking (making decisions logically and stepping outside of a situation vs feeling stepping inside a situation and having more empathy for the individual. Here are some facts. Marketers tend to be more likey to have people who have preferences for intuition and feeling intheir process. In stark contrast,the actual population over 80% have sensing of Thinking prefences. So based on a body of about 2m self assessment questionnaires the reality is the population either looks at stuff rationally or decides rationally. The people who invent the communication and marketing tend to start from a very different place. Just perhaps what marketers think they see and respond to is not actually waht most people see and decide for themselves.

  • William Barrell

    This is Hot Stuff. Your insight is right on the money, simple and authentic. I was reminded of the lecture by Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice - Sep 27, 2006 - TED Conferences - I liked the message so much, we are referencing it on our upcoming Web Stuff site at Too much information can not only turn the attraction switch off, but also tends repulse the consumer. Successful Brands create a simple attraction which is consistent with a lasting benefit. Thanks for the insight.

  • Kelly Blokdijk

    Interesting article. I tend to agree with the "simplicity & authenticity" comment. Consumers are bombarded with so much information even for basic "necessity" products. Just recently, I purchased some dishwasher detergent from a warehouse store. There was the store brand and two versions of the name brand. Both packgages on the name brand were dazzling and had fancy descriptions of how special ingredients were going to perform magical acts on my dishes. I went with the standard version of the name brand, because it was a better value combined with a coupon. I thought it was a new & improved formula compared with the one I already had, but when I looked at it next to the old box at home, it was just a newer label. I felt a little mis-led... Curious for thoughts on whether branding concepts are viewed similarly for services too.

    Kelly Blokdijk
    TalentTalks | Creating a Voice for Talent

  • Mark Dziersk

    anne, Monday's blog touches your reference. In addition I think that semiotics especially around Green claims is a rich new area of understanding. Have a colleauge who specializes in the area and will run your thought by him, perhaps for a continued dialouge here.

    Mark Dziersk FIDSA

  • Mark Dziersk

    Great comments all. I have a perfectly good phone but I want and I-phone too. Kit, Re the tharn reference, what a brilliant article. Tell your friend Shari that she is an excellent writer. Great story. I find myself in that same condition in any Best Buy store that I walk into. John thanks for the uberi link. Mark

    Mark Dziersk FIDSA

  • Kit Eaton

    @John... True, the internet has really driven the ability to carefully plan purchases. But what about those tiny "every day" purchases, like washing powder, that you wouldn't waste time planning to purchase? Each of those detergent companies is out-doing themselves with each new product, perfecting bottle shapes, focus-group-trialling new names and color schemes. And yet, when *I* get to the detergent aisle I just have a mental block. My friend Shari, a bit of an expert, calls it "going tharn" ( and basically it means all the effort put into deciding marketing goes to waste. Haven't you ever thought to yourself "Arrrgh! I wish it were just simpler!" when standing in the supermarket?

  • John Smith

    Interesting article and point of view. Keep in mind that based on the standard of living today, there are very few "needs" (in economics 101 sense) that cannot be fulfilled easily. Most of the purchases go to "wants" instead of needs. After all, as long as you have a roof over your head and dinner on the table, a person can survive without a TV, Internet, and a lot of other things.

    As consumers, we are all trying to make do and get as much as possible for each dollar spent. Thanks to Internet and the availability of information, my family and I have been doing more research before buying anything, and have also done more online shopping and looked harder for better deals. (BTW, always pay off the entire credit card balance every month!)

    One of the online sites we have found to be useful is (I would recommend checking out their Amazon discount table):

    They do have some interesting bargains listed that are not available even on price search engines. We were able to get more for each dollar. Hope that's useful info for some.