Your B2B customers are not rational. Here's how cognitive marketing will push their buttons

It’s tempting for B2B marketers to imagine that their customers are deeply rational, ordered, professional beings. That they make decisions based solely on logic. And that their decision-making process is itself a finely balanced and ring-fenced protocol of critical inputs and outputs. After all, this is business, right?

Well, they’re professionals. But the rest? Not so much. In fact, whilst your customers may believe themselves to be rational, when it comes to a business or purchasing decision, an estimated 95% of the decision-making process takes place in the subconscious mind. In other words, your B2B customers and prospects are all heavily influenced by biases, heuristics and emotional responses that they are unaware of.

And just to multiply that challenge for the B2B marketer, there are an average of seven decision-makers within a decision-making unit (DMU) with their oars in the B2B buying process, each of them subject to the full palette of these unconscious and emotional responses.

In short, B2B is now learning what B2C has long known: that to influence purchasing decisions, you need to push your buyers’ emotional buttons every bit as effectively as you flick their rational and intellectual switches – if not more so.

It’s called cognitive marketing – and you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it.

Cognitive marketing: psychology with credibility

Every B2B marketer realises that knowing your customers at a deeper level than your competitors and being able to pinpoint exactly where they are in their buyer journey leads to more sales, quicker and for longer.

For this reason, psychology has been a module on every marketing course worth its salt since forever, because understanding how customers buy, what they buy, when and why, is the Holy Grail of marketers everywhere.

But cognitive marketing takes this to an entirely new level, surfing a wave of hugely influential academic thinking that runs from behavioural economics to psychology and includes the actual neurological mechanisms that control decision-making – an area of research called neuroeconomics.

One prominent expert in the field of neuroeconomics is Dr. Benedetto de Martino, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, where he directs the Brain Decision Modelling Laboratory.

He says, “Understanding cognitive bias really is the key to understanding how decision makers will act when choices – including purchases – are presented to them.”

“There is hard financial evidence for this; we have researched the behaviour of stock market investors where millions were at stake in highly risky ‘bubble’ situations, and found that emotionality and decision bias could have extraordinary effects on their decision-making.”

So, what are these biases – and how does cognitive marketing turn them to its advantage?

Bring on the biases! The rule of three

We’re all now (grudgingly) familiar with the rule of six, but, in cognitive marketing, we focus on a rule of three, these being the most common cognitive biases we, as humans, exhibit: prejudicial, contextual and experiential.

Prejudicial bias

Prejudicial bias is where buyers stick with the brand they know, even if it might not be the best solution for their needs. Better the devil, and all that.

An example of this would be as follows: a customer uses the same injection moulder to manufacture parts for their furniture range simply because they always have and it’s easy to do so, even if they also know that this injection moulder charges a lot more than others and is often late delivering the product.

To turn this to your advantage, cognitive marketing enables you to truly understand the individuals behind the faceless DMUs, so you can create more compelling customer value propositions and more impactful marketing that directly appeal to their wants, needs and emotional drivers.

These can of course overlap with rational business benefits. What B2B customer doesn’t want to feel good in front of their colleagues (emotional) by saving the company a lot of money and therefore deliver greater ROI than its predecessor (rational), for example?

In this way, you increase awareness of your brand, breaking the inertia of the customer’s existing brand choice, and encouraging them to switch.

Contextual bias

Contextual bias is not about what you say, but how you say it. The way in which information is presented and conveyed (framed) can itself greatly influence the decision-making process. 

An example of this would be as follows: It’s the old ‘5% fat’ versus ‘95% fat-free’ situation, to take a leaf out of the B2C marketers’ book! In a B2B context, it could be as simple as changing a core service message from, say, ’90% of deliveries within 48 hours’ to the more emotionally impressive ’99% of deliveries on time.’

To turn this to your advantage, cognitive marketing enables you to understand what changes in context are the most effective for the human mind. Therefore, you can change your key messages to boldly emphasise benefits in a way that appeals to decision makers’ specific emotional drivers, and move the decision-making process in your favour.

Experiential bias

Experiential bias is where customers make a judgement based on the most extreme point of an experience, whether positive or negative, neglecting the actual average. A phenomenon called representiveness heuristic. This invokes an irrational response that can cloud judgement, with decisions being made on just one part of the experience rather than taking into account all the information available.

An example of this would be as follows: The customer received bad service only once. The company email went down and the IT consultancy did not call back on time to rectify the problem, resulting in lost sales. The IT company offered a free month’s support in apology, but the pain of rectifying the problem has never been rebalanced by subsequent positive experiences.

To turn this to your advantage, cognitive marketing enables you to identify all the touchpoints of a customer’s journey and ensure positive experiences at every point, thus driving a repeatedly positive experience overall and assuaging any occasional negatives that might otherwise lead them to switch to a competitor.

No technology without strategy

Technology, and the rise of the towering martech stack, has had a formidable impact on marketers' ability to analyse, predict and respond to buyer behaviour. It has empowered marketing to take full advantage of the three Rs – relevance, relationship and revenue – and, at the same time, added a fourth: real time.

And technology absolutely does have a critical role not only in gathering and analysing the data that makes cognitive marketing possible, but in executing the cognitive marketing campaigns themselves.

But technology is just the enabler, not the solution. It is the strategy behind the technology that is key to obtaining the information and intelligence about DMUs that the cognitive marketing agenda requires.

Two concepts loom large in this strategy

The data deluge

The proliferation of communication channels has brought with it the challenge of collating all the information these channels generate. Many marketers seem busy doing this, but there's still a big knowledge gap between obtaining data, interpreting it, understanding it, and then executing activity off the back of that knowledge in order to get results.

Indeed, part of the problem for most marketers is knowing what data to go for in the first place – and this is where strategic planning comes in. Without it, you’re literally pinning the tail on the donkey in the dark.

The customer first, front and centre

When Bob Lauterborn rebadged the marketing Ps as the marketing Cs in 1993 and put the customer in the top spot, he understood that the customer is critical for success. Arguably more than any other variable, customers' wants and needs underpin the backbone of marketing strategy: positioning, segmentation and targeting.

A cognitive marketing approach therefore simply means putting the customer where they belong – at the heart and forefront of your marketing activity. Taking into consideration all the limits of the human brain. Learn how to manage this process, and you will see increased success and ROI.

Cognitive marketing: can ‘best efforts’ suffice?

Old-fashioned desk research has not yet had its day, and picking up the phone to a statistically sound sample of customers to better understand them has its place. In a world of automated emails, human connections resonate louder than ever before.

But at the same time, a chat isn’t enough. According to one of the industry’s leading brand consultants, Mark Ritson, buyers “simply do not know what influences and alters their decision making… it’s not as simple as asking them ‘what works for you?’”

To truly understand your customer, you need to delve deeper, not simply analysing segments or personas, but individuals. Only by knowing your customers at a deeper level than your competitors, understanding human behaviour and winning their hearts and minds, can you even begin to market your brand successfully. 

If in doubt, ask Professor De Martino! “In my view,” he says, “it is only by understanding cognitive biases and how they affect decision-making that marketers can truly become effective. And where you have many decision-makers involved, each decision-maker needs, effectively, to be treated as a separate and self-contained unit harbouring many potential biases.”

We’re listening to him. Are you?

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