Marketing has been around since the industrial revolution. We got loads of things wrong back then, and marketing is no exception. In our defence, we didn’t have a lot of data – not like we have now. Data and neuroscience have transformed the face of marketing in the last 25-30 years or so. Unfortunately, much of what we are taught in marketing school comes from the old days. In order to pick through the ideas and theories that marketing draws on, and put them in their most productive context, some people choose to take a scientific approach.
A brief history of marketing
Marketing was a process of trial and error, logistics, and persuasion. We thought of our audience as rationally cogitating over which brand to buy and examining the differences between products and services in varying degrees of detail. We wrote erudite and logical arguments to convince them that our product was best. Because marketing has always been experimental, we sometimes stumbled on the correct response using trial and error! Often, though, we couldn’t explain why, which didn’t stop us from speculating.
The internet changed everything. We can now find data that show how people actually behave to compare with how they said they would behave. We can work with much bigger data sets that are more readily available. new ways of processing these data sets are triggering research into new ideas. fMRI scanners also become affordable to use in experiments at this time, and neuroscientists started looking at people’s brains while they made buying decisions.
This gave us several critical insights:
- There is a core group of marketing activities that work across all industries and have done so for a decade. These include: focusing on reach and new customers, having a brand that stands out with a recognisable look-and-feel and a strong brand narrative (as opposed to with lots of USPs/ doing something different), providing variations, looking for activities that increase sales at a profit.
- We are miserly emotional consumers, not considered rational ones – 90% of the buying decision is non-conscious and intuitive. BUT any large purchase will go through a rational comparison at some point, before reverting back to an intuitive decision for the final purchase impulse.
- Advertising doesn’t work the way we thought it did – instead of persuading people with a conscious argument, it increases familiarity and reinforces associations non-consciously.
- Dividing up the market through detailed differentiation and personas has less impact then we thought it did (though it’s still useful in some places) because the same person can act out different personas. Personas are also only as useful at the research you put in - there are a tonne of poorly researched personas out there.
- Brand size matters the most, “niche” brands need to focus on acquiring new customers as much as possible, rather than building loyalty – loyalty comes with size (called the Double Jeopardy rule).
- People consume brand literally – if a person likes coca-cola, different parts of their brain light up when they think they are drinking coca-cola (even if they are not), and yes, it makes them literally happier.
What is scientific marketing? Different data-driven approaches.
You may have seen terms over the internet such as “data-driven marketing”, “neuromarketing”, “scientific marketing”, “growth marketing” and more. These all describe different approaches to marketing. They should be distinguished from “digital marketing”, “affiliate marketing”, or “partnership marketing” which describe technical specialisms within marketing.
The short answer is that scientific marketing tends to be the most robust approach. Scientific marketers look for good quality evidence that empowers them to confidently confirm or reject their hypothesis. Neuromarketers specialise in scientific evidence about the brain when it's making a buying decision. Growth marketers look for good quality evidence, especially evidence about the impact of marketing on business growth. Data-driven marketers look for data, but can be more ad-hoc and work less to build the detail of the bigger picture.
You can't be a scientific marketer without being a data-driven marketer, but you can be data-driven and not terribly scientific.
Let me take you through the four approaches mentioned in more detail to demystify them for you.
The practice of applying the scientific method within marketing. Marketers will develop a theory that can be proven false and rejected. This often needs Bayes Rule if you have a range of evidence of different quality levels (often the case outside a lab). They look for properly run experiments (secondary data) and design their own data-gathering experiments in the same way science experiments are designed (primary data). They then weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion about whether their growth marketing hypothesis is true or false. It’s slow but thorough, and less risky in the long run.
- Use Bayes Rule to design experiments and evaluate evidence for and against your theory
- Follow the Journal of Marketing - you can get by on 2 mins reading the abstracts that describe the experiments key findings to be ahead of everyone else (there were almost 53 million people with "marketing" in their job title on LinkedIn when I searched just now, less than 5,000 follow the Journal of Marketing)
- Repeat the experiments to get trends over time
- Make sure you have a control group (randomly selected from the general population)
- Choose marketing “biomarkers” or metrics to measure
Growth marketing or growth hacking is about riding and driving growth waves in different markets or channels. It focuses on growing revenue for the business, like Sales increases, rather than "vanity metrics" like social media impressions. This occasionally puts them in an odd position - for example, organic LinkedIn activity correlates very highly with growth in sales but it is almost impossible to attribute directly. Growth marketing also involves experimenting to test theories by gathering data. This involves the ability to gather and interpret data about those markets and channels, and then run experiments about what’s working and what’s not. The focus is on growing the business and the methods are often low cost.
- Gather data and track trends about the markets and channels that are experiencing growth
- Pay special attention to financial data such as sales revenues, time to recover costs, sales conversion rates.
- Develop a theory about why those trends are happening
- Test the theory through experimentation
- Choose marketing “biomarkers” or metrics to measure
Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience to marketing. Experiments in this field delve into the workings of people’s brains using fMRI scanners and EEG machines. The interest is in the psychology of the buying decision – how people decide to buy and why. Experimenters have looked at people’s brains while they go shopping, look at websites, and make everyday purchase decisions. Neuromarketing is still in its infancy and the approach is inherently scientific while we build up a body of brain activity-related data.
- Use brain science to understand how and why people buy to reduce the need for trial and error
- Draw on evidence developed through neuroscience experiments
- Use a neuromarketing lens to evaluate the customer journey and creative assets
- Look beyond WHAT people engage with to understand WHY they engage with it
- Design experiments to provide evidence for your theory about WHY
Data-driven marketing is about making marketing decisions based on data. This is included in scientific marketing, but without a scientific approach, the standards are often less rigorous and the insights more ad hoc. For example, not every data-driven marketer will seek data that disproves their hypothesis or use control groups in their experiments. Some digital marketers are data-driven marketers, but not necessarily scientific marketers – they look to see how well posts are doing, analyse trends, and make adjustments to optimise them. Becoming more scientific, if you are not operating this way already, will help you become more effective.
- Analyse trends in the data
- Use A/B tests to see what works better (if your B version falsifies your A version then this is scientific)
- Develop a theory you want to test
- Test the theory and evaluate against the data
- Choose marketing “biomarkers” or metrics to measure and track trends
Why take a scientific marketing approach?
My son had a rash on his leg. We went to two doctors. One told us it was definitely not fungal, that he should moisturise it lots. The other told us that it was definitely fungal, and he should dry it out as much as possible. Two experts, two opposing opinions.
In medical research, researchers will weigh findings based on the source of the evidence (using Bayes Rule - a rule I learnt from my dad, a doctor and a statistician). They have a list of sources and experiment types ranked according to the likelihood that the evidence produced from that source is correct. Expert opinion is right at the bottom of that list. Why? Because over the decades that it’s been measured, expert medical opinion has been proven to be right only 50% of the time. That’s not terrible – they could be getting it 100% badly wrong, for example, in the case of blood-letting by leach. However, I don’t like them odds myself, and I really don’t like asking people to pay me for them odds. How do medical researchers increase those odds? They use science practised through properly designed experiments and look for a body of scientific evidence built over time.
I practice scientific marketing so that I can increase the odds that what I recommend to the companies I work with will actually help them. I have practised all of the above types of marketing with robust results (though I have never run a neuromarketing experiment directly).
5 tips to become more scientific in your marketing
- Understand and use Bayes Rule (not all experiments are created equal)
- Check the evidence basis for anything you recommend regularly – apply Bayes Rule to evaluate what you find properly
- Review the key findings of neuromarketing about how people buy
- Read books and scientific journals on marketing (see reference section below)
- Follow scientific marketers on social media, people like Professor Byron Sharp, Professor Mark Ritson, Tom Fishburne, Chris Walker. They are most active on Twitter, but LinkedIn is also good.
If you found this useful, please feel free to follow me on LinkedIn for more insights.
Sharp, B. (2019). How Brands Grow: What marketers don’t know. (If you read only one book, read this one)
Campbell, G. and Wu, T. (2018). Internet Neuromarketing: Maximise Web Conversion Rates and Boost Profits. (If you are a digital marketer, read this one too)