From Prussia with love

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Jeremy referred me to this fabulous presentation by Rory Sutherland, and it’s another corker from the man from Ogilvy’s. Mr Sutherland would absolutely make my short list of people to sit next to at dinner. Not only is he an adamant supporter of one of my favourite disciplines, behavioural economics, but his talks are peppered with the most wonderful references and observations.

In this speech, he gives a wonderful example of how physical value can be transformed into an intangible value that defies costs, but only if the associations are powerful and valued enough. Examples abound of this dynamic working the other way (items being sold for, or even below cost) but the Prussian medal example Sutherland gives is proof that cast iron can indeed be worth more than gold if the story that surrounds the lesser metal gives it greater value, and providing of course that those seeing the cast iron medal also understand the context of why it carries the value it does.

Sutherland goes on to direct this argument at the environmental movement. The secret to changing how people drive, he suggests, is not to get them to drive less but to encourage them to revalue in sufficient numbers what they drive. In other words, make it feel worth more, status-wise, amongst the driving population to rent a small car than drive a big car – even though the bigger car has intrinsically more value.

The science of the age, he suggests is getting to grips with how and why people behave the ways they do, because the only ways to bring about meaningful change are to provide people with reasons that make sense for them. Those last two words here are key. The reasons don’t have to make sense logically – but they absolutely must make sense behaviourally. They must compel a different way of acting.

And while everyone loves to think big, Sutherland continues, more and more as marketers we should dare to be trivial, because “quite a lot of human behaviour is predicated on very small signals”. The examples he gives of the $300 million website button and the carmaker trade-in arrangement that reaped another 20,000 sales reveal why there is value beyond all proportion in being able to identify and transmit those signals.

Key take-outs for me:

In order to change the value, you must change the context within which that value is judged. In the case of the Prussians, post-war gold was worth less than post-war cast iron because of what a cast iron medal had come to represent.

Value is aligned to mass. Enough people must agree between themselves that the value has changed in order for that idea to take hold and gain recognition.

Together context and perceived value can ‘rationalise’ a change in how an item is viewed even if the item itself hasn’t altered. When that change is downward, of course, we refer to it as commoditisation. What Sutherland shows is that it can also work in reverse, if, if there is enough critical mass.

Behaviours are prompted by signals. The bigger the change in behaviour, the more human, and therefore “trivial”, the signal should be. The value that such signals can generate has the potential to be completely out of proportion to what appears to have changed.

Sutherland’s talk prompts me to hypothesise that any discussion around changing perceived value should probably hinge on three questions:

1. What’s the context that we need to change?

2. What do we want people to say to each other in order to change the value?

3. What’s the smallest and simplest behavioural signal we can identify to trigger this change?

More reading

The strategy of radical beauty
The death of demographics. Does it matter?
Maintaining brand loyalty: 4 ways brands get it wrong
Brand dynamics: the shapeshifting of brand likeability

Further perspectives

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