VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

Bold Moves | Strategy in Perspective

‘The Science of Why’ Demystifies Human Behavior for Marketers



In the 1950’s market research was often called “motivational research,” and it marked a turning point in how advertisers targeted consumers. But “market research” sounded more scientific and less emotional, and so it become the more commonly used term – ironic, since at the end of the day, what we’re talking about is indeed, the emotions of the consumer.


The Science of Why: Decoding Human Motivation and Transforming Marketing Strategy by David Forbes makes a strong case for how the dynamics of psychosocial behavior can impact marketing and that motivational research should be instrumental in determining the scope of a marketing program.


“Motivational research did for marketing what the periodic table did for chemistry: it gave everyone a playing field in which all the squares are networked,” says Dr. Forbes, in a recent interview with b. on brand.


This “periodic table” is the driver for understanding how marketers of all stripes can develop strategies that respond to the human motivations behind our desires, and in turn bring added value to brands and services.

{“Motivational research did for marketing what the periodic table did for chemistry: it gave everyone a playing field in which all the squares are networked.”}

“We have to remember that people have a range of motivations,” says Forbes. “How we understand those motivations is key to how we develop strategies for reaching that particular customer target.”


Forbes bases his analysis on the foundations of motivational research, as illustrated in this chart.

Intrapsychic motivations ( i.e. the self), include security, identity, and mastery; while Instrumental motivations (the object world) encompass empowerment, engagement, and achievement. Interpersonal motivations often play hand-in-hand with Intrapsychic, they are our social identity and include belonging, nurturance, and esteem.


For marketers, such a matrix is the lens through which any and all products and services can be viewed. Brand perception is based as much on the brand promise of what the product will actually do as it is on who we are as consumers.


A considerable part of brand perception is based on what the consumer believes the product will help them achieve. BMW’s “Ultimate Driving Machine” campaign was first launched in the mid 1970’s and relaunched in 2012.

Is the BMW really “the Ultimate Driving Machine”? I don’t know, but driving one might make you feel pretty perfect – maybe like an “ultimate human.”


Let’s take another category, that of “home improvement.”


In 2013, Home Depot launched its successful “Let’s Do This” campaign, designed to motivate the Weekend Warrior into boldly attacking their home improvement projects. The television commercials seem to imply that in one weekend, we can easily paint an entire house, install a deck and then plant a garden – with a seemingly innate confidence, emboldened by, yes, Home Depot.


“The truth is, the weekend warrior often doesn’t know what they’re doing at all, so they go to a place like Home Depot in order to get motivated,” says Forbes. “So the idea of ‘Let’s do this’ is as much about a feeling of personal achievement as it is about just getting chores done, and not being afraid of doing something like installing a sink.”

The Home Depot’s “Let’s Do This” campaign drives the message of empowerment, and that the brand is ally and collaborator in easily completing those home improvement tasks that are either daunting, dull or both.

The important point about The Science of Why is that it is meant to be the foundation rather than an actual playbook for building marketing programs and campaigns. Forbes does not delve into the more complex demographic considerations such as class, race, and gender. Still, he presents a compelling set of principles that demand attention, especially at a time when so many retailers, consultants, and strategy firms draw too much of their data from relatively superficial arenas like social media, which is still relatively unreliable as a gauge for consumer behavior.


>> The Science of Why: Decoding Human Motivation and Transforming Marketing Strategy by David Forbes. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Buy it now on Amazon.com.

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