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I was part of the team that launched Rexona deodorant in India. The main business objective of this brand launch way back in 1995 was to build a new category in the personal grooming segment. The communication strategy of Rexona deodorant was carefully crafted to make people aware of their body odour problem, communicate the importance of using a deodorant directly on one’s underarm and not on one’s clothes. How successful was our attempt?

Apocrine glands in the underarm of every human produce a secretion whose disintegration in the presence of perspiration causes an odour. So body odour is a biological reality. But there is a sad truth: 27 years after Rexona’s launch, the deodorant category still hasn’t taken off in India. Despite all communication efforts, not just the ordinary consumer but even more knowledgeable industry researchers can’t tell the difference between a deodorant and a perfume. Are today’s marketing and advertising brains any better in influencing human behaviour?

Today, digital marketing is an integral part of many a brand strategy. The main source of income of all leading internet companies is advertising revenue. Among the most sought-after professionals in today’s job market are those who can figure out the algorithms that are deployed by these internet majors and find innovative ways to make their clients’ brands stand out in the clutter. Data analytics firms have been developing strategies to aim the right advertisement at the right time at the right target audience. But how successful are digital marketers in their persuasion job?

In 1996, when banner advertisements first started, the click-through rate was 44%. By 2018, this had come down to a mere 0.46%. So, over the years, there was a truly dramatic reduction in the ability of digital advertising to influence human behaviour. Even after a consumer has clicked on a product title, what’s placed in an online shopping cart need not get bought. Studies show that the cart abandonment rate for even essential items like groceries is more than 60%. Of every 400 people who enter a digital store, all that today’s top tech-marketing minds manage to influence is the behaviour of one person.

This massive failure to persuade humans is a reality in many policy decisions too. The recent covid pandemic provides the most recent example. The best brains in the world helped discover a vaccine for the disease in record time and developed an efficient supply chain to make it available even in the remotest of villages. But policymakers were clueless about how to persuade even educated people who had seen pandemic-related deaths around them to walk across to the nearest health centre and get vaccinated.

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Tomorrow, another pandemic could hit the world. The scientific community will be confident of finding solutions to tackle it. But how many human behaviour experts are confident of effectively managing human behaviour in such an event?

An inability to effectively understand and influence human behaviour is the biggest lacuna in business and policy decisions. Many persuasion professionals refuse to acknowledge this bare fact. Instead, they organize award functions on the beaches of Cannes and Goa every year to celebrate their false belief that they are doing a great job of understanding humans and persuading us to shift our behaviour. The popularly held belief that all we need to know about human behaviour has already been discovered should be demolished. Instead, it would be best if an awareness of ignorance prevails among those working in the field of human behaviour. As Professor Stuart Firestein of Columbia University reminds us in his book Ignorance: How it Drives Science, ignorance and not knowledge is the true engine of science.

Two significant projects announced in 2013—the Human Brain Project (HBP) by the European Commission and the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative by the Obama administration—were bold new initiatives focused on revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, the source of all human behaviour. The HBP project, with a $1.3 billion kitty, and the BRAIN Initiative that has spent close to $950 million till 2019, halfway through its time frame, are pursuing an audacious goal: of building something that can simulate the human brain within 10 years.

After a difficult start, the HBP project has made good progress. One of the most significant milestones of the BRAIN project was its release of a profile of molecular identities of more than 1.3 million mouse brain cells and anatomical data from 300 mouse brains—among the largest such characterizations till date. But both these projects are far from achieving their stated aim—developing a comprehensive understanding of the human brain, which comprises 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. This is also a stark reminder of the huge distance one has to travel to fully understand the conundrum called human behaviour.

With advancements in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and huge leaps in computational power, it will become easier to unravel the complexities of the human brain. But a sense of ignorance—“ I do not know much about human behaviour’—must get reinforced in the minds of professionals working in the area. The humility that emanates from this feeling will act as the fuel needed to further our knowledge about human behaviour and help us close today’s biggest lacuna in business and policy decisions.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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