The Marketing Funnel is Broken. Think Like a Spy Instead.
While there are traditional marketing approaches that come from business school, these approaches – particularly the marketing funnel – are not consistent with behavioral science. An approach based on the psychological techniques taught to interrogators is able to flexibly respond to the emotional states of customers. This piece will show you how.
From Brand Concepts to the Marketing Funnel
In the past, brands were considered concepts that were evoked in the minds of consumers. Under this model, a business tried to evoke a clear idea that represented a brand. For example, Prudential Insurance Company of America (now Prudential Financial) used the Rock of Gibraltar to evoke strength and reliability in the eyes of the consumer. Nowadays, due to the influence of social media, brands are thought of as personas in a relationship with consumers. Traditionally, marketing teaches that this relationship should be developed with the digital marketing funnel in mind. Under this model, content is created to:
- Attract attention for a brand and its platform;
- Generate interest in the brand’s platform and the problems solved by the brand’s products;
- Encourage consumers to engage in consideration of the brand’s products as possible solutions to their problems;
- Nurture those consumers through the purchase process; and,
- Encourage customers who made purchases to develop brand loyalty and recommend a brand’s products to others (a stage in the funnel referred to as the loyalty/advocacy stage).
The problem with the marketing funnel model is that it doesn’t match up to how we, as consumers, really think. A 2014 piece by Mark Bonchak, published in the Harvard Business Review, noted that many top marketers (with companies such as Google, Sephora, and SAP) no longer consider the linear marketing funnel to be accurate.
The Marketing Funnel Ignores Irrationality and Lack of Attention
This is no surprise. Consumers are not rational actors. Think of simple purchasing decisions we make, such as whether to go out to lunch. No one goes through the following steps of the marketing funnel in order:
- “I am hungry.”
- “Hmm, perhaps there are businesses out there that have products that can satisfy my hunger.”
- “I see that this restaurant’s food choices will make me say I’m lovin’ it.”
- “Well here’s a discount for burgers there, I guess I will go to this restaurant.”
- “I’m going to have lunch there again, and tell others to do so as well.”
(As a brief side note, McKinsey & Co. has also suggested an alternative to the marketing funnel based on the consumer decision journey loop. This approach has some benefit, so long as it is not thought of as a linear cycle.)
People are motivated by their relationship to risk (risk-seeking vs. risk-avoidance), their emotional states that bear no connections to their product purchasing decisions, their attentiveness, and a whole host of other behavioral factors. They may think they should select a restaurant for lunch, then debate on whether they should maintain their diet or save their money and brown bag their lunch. Then they may be distracted by something on their phone that leads them to an entirely different purchasing decision. In the end, they may skip lunch and go to Target to buy kitty litter.
One flexible psychology-based way to look at branding is to think like intelligence agents, specifically, interrogators and source handlers (a field known as “Human Intelligence”). When interrogators are faced with the need to convince a hardened terrorist to give up their comrades in a terrorist group, they turn to a flexible set of approach strategies that they use to “break” a terrorist’s objections to cooperation. See Department of the Army, FM 2-22.3, Human Intelligence Collector Operations (2006), at 8-4. These approach strategies include the following possibilities:
- the direct approach (”Tell us what you were doing on the night of the fifth.”)
- the incentive approach (“Tell me what I want to know and I’ll make sure the judge goes easy on you.”)
- the emotional love approach (”Do you want your family to think it was you responsible for this crime, or your buddies? Don’t you want to be there to raise your sons?”)
- the emotional hate approach (“Those aren’t your buddies you’re protecting; those assholes got you into this mess. Unless you start talking, they’re going to get away with it and you’ll take the blame.”)
- the emotional fear-up approach (“I’d hate to think what would happen if you were the only one held responsible for this crime. I can’t imagine how someone like you would survive prison.”
- the emotional fear-down approach (“Look, it’s ok, it’s not like you killed someone, so why don’t we just talk about what happened and I’ll see about getting you a deal?”)
- the emotional pride and ego-up approach (“Only a genius could have pulled something like this off; I’d love to know how you came up with this plan.”)
- the emotional pride and ego-down approach (“Only an idiot could let himself get caught and put his whole future in jeopardy; why don’t you cooperate with me and see if there is something you can salvage from this.”)
- the emotional futility approach (“Look, I don’t care if you tell me anything or not, because we’ve got you for this crime; if you want to tell me your side of the story, that’s fine.”)
- the “we know all” approach (“We know you committed the crime, we even know how you committed the crime, all we want to know is why.”)
- the file and dossier approach (A variant of “we know all,” this approach involves bringing in a huge file full of real or imaginary paperwork on a suspect and telling them they can either cooperate or the judge will only hear the side of the story that’s already on paper.)
- the establish your identity approach (“Our records show you’re the John Doe who committed (an unrelated) horrible crime, so if you’re actually the John Doe who committed a minor offense, you’d better start talking.)
- the repetition approach (This approach literally involves wearing down a suspect by repeating a phrase, such as “Tell me the truth now, or you will pay later. No, you’re lying; tell me the truth now, or you will pay later.”)
- the rapid fire approach (This approach involves running through information as quickly as possible to confuse the suspect into admitting something they didn’t want to do.)
- the silent approach (Most will remember this approach from their childhood, when a parent silently stared at them until they fessed up to something they expected the parent already knew about.)
- the Mutt and Jeff approach (AKA “Good Cop/Bad Cop”)
- the false flag approach (This approach involves pretending to be someone you are not to get information.) See FM 2-22.3, supra, at 8-17 to 8-69.
For anyone that has watched a few episodes of Law and Order, most of these approaches can be considered self-evident. From my experience as an interrogator in the military and as a workplace violence prevention focal, I learned that these approaches are incredibly persuasive. Walking into a room with a guy that just blew up a market and talking about how ashamed he will make his mother is frequently more effective than cleverly poking holes in his alibi.
Now, of course, no one is suggesting that we should go out and start interrogating potential customers (please do not get me sued) but these approach strategies reflect a universal truth about the psychology of persuasion. Regardless of what you are selling, you can rely on core emotional states to persuade your potential customers to make a purchase. In marketing, approaches using these core emotional states are a little different than they are for interrogations, but similar rules apply. For marketing, these approaches can be understood as the following strategies:
- the direct approach
- the incentive approach
- the love approach
- the hate approach
- the fear-up approach
- the fear-down approach
- the pride and ego-up approach
- the pride and ego-down approach
- the comfort-driven approach
- the awe-driven approach
- the false flag approach
- the humor-driven approach
- The authority approach
(I will explain these marketing approaches in detail in future posts.)
The Marketing Funnel’s Flawed Linear Strategy
There is another truth about human behavior that interrogators know: there’s no one part of an interrogation where an approach is applied to a detainee and then they forever provide information. Detainees will be cooperative following an approach for a while, then become resistant, then return to becoming cooperative. The process shifts based on mood and time. The same is true for consumers. The marketing funnel isn’t valid, as noted above, because people approach purchasing decisions from any number of emotional states, with a varying sense of urgency, and may shift to other emotional states in the future. It is better to be ready to address these emotional states that relate to a purchase decision fluidly, by developing an assessment process that helps a brand determine what influences matter to a consumer and then what steps can be taken to motivate a consumer to take a specific action. For example, understanding that a consumer has bypassed the initial stages of a marketing funnel and is just deciding whether to purchase Brand A versus Brand B means that a brand understands that it’s better to create content regarding how its products will satisfy the consumer’s emotional state than to create content designed to entertain and inform.
The core problem with traditional marketing approaches – particularly the marketing funnel – is that they assume that consumer behavior is rational and occurs in a linear pattern. The social sciences – psychology, sociology, and behavioral economics – have provided solid evidence that consumer behavior is highly irrational, and that consumers approach purchasing decisions from any number of emotional states. Rather than focus on the position of the consumer in the marketing funnel, brands would be better served to follow a more flexible strategy that focuses on consumers’ emotional states. One particularly successful strategy is the model used by Human Intelligence Collectors. This strategy focuses on emotional states such as love, hate, need, pride, and deference to compel action. It is a better match for the illogical, irrational human brain.