Election ’16: Who Wins?

It’s no secret that opinion polling has had a rough time of it lately. Gallup have stopped even running their polls in the USA. All the major polling firms had a nightmare predicting the outcome of the UK’s 2015 general election. And in Michigan a couple of weeks ago, a 20-point Primary lead for Hillary Clinton turned into a 1-point win for Bernie Sanders – the single worst polling performance in a US Primary since the 1980s.

trump clinton

It got us wondering. What would happen if instead of directly asking about political outcomes, we tried to make predictions using the same tools we use for brand research? Our webinar talks you through the results of these experiments.

Our branding model – brand growth based on Fame, Feeling and Fluency – rests on one key truth. People don’t make brand decisions based on complex considerations,  but on rapid, unconscious shortcuts. And that’s probably how they make political decisions too. Continue reading

Once Upon An Election: Research, Politics and Stories

Study the current US election for a week or two and you’ll notice one word turn up again and again in the commentary: narrative. Politicians control the narrative, they reinforce the narrative, they seize the narrative, they reshape the narrative, they build the narrative, and that’s before the voters get their say, at which point they might defy the narrative, overturn the narrative, confirm the narrative, or perhaps just get heartily sick of the narrative and stay home. They might have the sympathy of Washington Post writer Erik Wemple, who last week wrote a heartfelt column: “A Plea To Pundits: Stop Saying ‘Narrative’”


Narrative is one of those words that starts off sounding smart and ends up sounding clichéd. Marketing has those kind of words too – “engagement”, or “insight”, or “disruption”. Such words gradually begin to lose much of their specific meaning. But that doesn’t mean they never had any. All these overused words have kernels of something useful inside them. In the case of narrative, what the word intuits is a truth the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has succinctly expressed. Human beings are not logic processors. We are story processors. Continue reading

System 1 Storytelling

Last week I was lucky enough to speak at the annual conference of the European Human Behaviour And Evolution Association (EHBEA). In amidst three days of groundbreaking work on disgust, attraction, development and cultural learning (to name a few), my daunting job was to come in from the other side of the academic-professional fence and chat about how we use science at BrainJuicer.

And use it we do. It’s in our business strapline, after all – “Turning human understanding into business advantage”. The human understanding there isn’t just the stuff we get ourselves from surveys, online communities, and other tools – it’s the giant strides forward in knowledge provided by psychology, behavioural economics, and decision science.

Using this stuff commercially is a big responsibility. You have to make it immediate, understandable and real for clients, but you also owe a debt to the science not to distort it even if you’re simplifying it.

So that’s what I talked about, and here’s a slide from the presentation, summarising up our approach on communicating new ideas.

seduction not persuasion

The way you communicate ideas has to appeal to System 1 – the ideas have to feel right. Even for complex and well-validated science, the key is seduction, not persuasion.

So what do you need? Continue reading

Big Data And The Power Of N=1

Since the birth of the teenager, what teens do has been a source of shock, worry and voyeuristic fascination for adults. Every adult was once a teen, which means the focus of their concern isn’t, deep down, the behaviour, but the specific cultural clothes it’s dressed up in. Fashion, politics, music, videogames, and nightlife have all fallen under the judgemental spotlight, assessed with a mix of disdain, bafflement, and barely disguised envy.

Nowadays, of course, the point of interest is social media. “How teens use social media” is the subject that launched a thousand posts. Infographics scream about a handful of percentiles difference in teen activity across sites. Newspaper thinkpieces peer, smelling salts in hand, at teenage hookup apps. Marketers oil up and wrestle each other in pits for the right to name the Generation after Y and map its digital life.


Most research reports feel as authentic as this photo.

And pieces like this one get read, a lot. “I’m 17 And It’s All About Brand Me”, writes Carmin Chappell about her highly mediated, presentational, digitally-enabled life. It’s a very good piece – self-aware and full of good examples. It deserves its 1400 tweets and 800 Facebook mentions – a whole lot more than any blog post by me, or by any other researcher I can think of. (Yes, it’s on Mashable, so it automatically has a bigger audience – but Mashable knows what its readers want.)

But as a researcher, it made me feel bad. The thing is, making information exciting and shareable is our job as researchers – or ought to be. Continue reading

Eight Days Of Emotion No.6: Sadness

Our Eight Days Of Emotion series returns after a short break for conference duties!

Sadness – the response to loss and the need for comfort – can be one of the longest-lasting and most devastating emotions. But few if any of us will go through life without some experience of extreme grief. In fact, until the 18th century sadness was seen in the West at least as the great universal emotion – the default state of mankind, suffering through life in a world that was a “vale of tears”.

Consumer psychology prefers to emphasise happiness these days – but it’s no surprise that sadness is still a deep, powerful force that skilled marketers and creatives can use. Broadly speaking there are two ways brands can use sadness: as a way to provoke empathy and as something to be invoked then resolved.

All the so-called negative emotions are constructive and necessary parts of being human, and so all of them can be sought out for pleasure or empathy. Sadness in particular, Paul Ekman writes, is an emotion that demands some level of empathic response: most of us respond instinctively to somebody who is crying, which is why videos like Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” – with its iconic single tear – worked so powerfully. Continue reading

Romantic News

Adam Curtis is a smart guy, with more than a few interesting things to say about the world we live in. He directed this, for a start – probably the best documentary series about market research ever made, The Century of The Self.

Vice magazine spoke to him recently and the conversation strayed into territory that caught our eye:

We’re going to become incredibly romantic in the way we report the world. … It’s almost like we’re going to turn it into this Shakespearean thing. Shakespeare’s writing was about love, deception, lust for power, lust for each other, and all of these things still go on.

He contrasts this with the technocratic style of reporting that the 24 hour news channels currently employ: “we don’t understand it and we feel that it’s not the whole story”.

Researchers and marketeers take note. Emotion, Curtis is saying, isn’t going to become an overlay for jargon-filled rationality; it’s going to replace it.

There’s two lessons in this for us:

1. People feel lost without an emotive narrative: the success of touchy-feely brands is because they come with an emotionally resonant view of the world baked in to everything they do, from communications, to packaging, to product. Our Brands of British Origin experiment showed exactly the same thing: it’s emotion that predicts brand success, not rational argument.

2. And the same is true for communicating research: technocracy’s days are numbered. If research is going to move people to action, it needs to make them feel something and tell them a story.

There’s more on story-telling and the power of emotional comms on our Vimeo channel.

(Thanks to Stefan Schafer for this post!)