Why marketing people need to read more social science

 (Image via Penn State)

Whatever your relationship with it, if you are being paid to promote a brand, you owe it to yourself to spend a lot of time pondering human nature.

Some people are just intuitively good at it. Others study the masters of advertising and brand strategy.

Me, I read popular social science books.

My latest read is a new book by E. O. Wilson, one of the great biologists of our age. “The Social Conquest of Earth” is a summary of what he has learned, throughout his long academic career, about the biology behind human behaviour.

Dr. Wilson’s specialty is actually ants, so you spend a good part of the book learning the difference between their social behaviour and that of mammals like us. But having waded through that, I stumbled upon one of those “aha!” moments that makes reading these types of books worthwhile.

Relentless ambivalence and ambiguity are the fruits of the strange primate inheritance that rules the human mind. To be human is also to level others, especially those who appear to receive more than they have earned. Even within the ranks of the elite, delicate games are played to achieve ever higher status while steering through successive ranks of jealous rivals. Be modest in demeanor, ever modest, is the necessary stratagem. This is a tricky business.

This is also something that many brand advocates forget, when they try to deal with the suddenly collaborative and democratic media environment they have been forced into.

Think about the brands you like. Today, brand experience is about much more than ads and using the product. Brands have entered, through social media, our circles of friends, enemies and allies. But so many fail so epically at making friends when they should simply be using their inherited social skills.

To translate the paragraph above: “People don’t like it when other people (or brands) seem to enjoy unmerited success. Those that are most successful (celebrities, major brands) are also the ones people most enjoy taking down a notch. You need to show off your success to advance, but if you don’t do so with appropriate humility, they will turn on you.”

Think about how much people enjoy sharing, commenting on, and generally consuming the latest wardrobe malfunction, arrest, or other embarrassment of the rich and famous. It’s cruel, but it may be in their ancient nature to even the social score within their overextended community. Now, think about the “social media fails” that tarnish a new brand practically every week. In people’s minds, those big brands are the same as celebrities: if they step out of line, adoration turns instantly to anger as consumers seek to cut them down to size.

But the science of making friends and influencing people is not all negative. In the very next paragraph, Dr. Wilson gives a sociobiological recipe for brand success:

It is also helpful to enhance reputation by what researchers have called indirect reciprocity, by which a reputation for altruism and cooperativeness accrues to an individual, even if the actions that build it are no more than ordinary. A saying in German exemplifies the tactic: ‘Tue Gutes und rede darüber.’ Do good and talk about it. Doors are then opened, and opportunities for friendships and alliances increased.

I think this one is pretty straightforward.

“Be modest in demeanor, ever modest”

“Do good and talk about it.”

Relearn and apply those two lessons from your human inheritance, and you’re on your way to success in the social age.


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