What can marketing professionals learn from toilet rolls?

During Covid -19 we rushed to buy toilet rolls, premier league football players played ‘keep ups’ with them on social media (and we all followed), there were fights in supermarkets over them and drivers of vans full of them were arrested, rappers sung about them. Nobody could understand it, we joked about it, mocked those that were doing it, as we secretly stocked our cupboards with ‘just the amount we need’. Stock piling food and medicines -yes, I get it – but toilet rolls? And yet suppliers repeatedly told us there was no problem with supply.

Why did it happen?

What can marketing professionals learn from this, and can we replicate the benefits of this for our clients products or services?

As marketing professionals, we can only dream of creating such a storm – to create so much demand in such a short period of time.

At a basic level, simply put, people want more of those things they can have less of. Yes, we know that – but supply of toilet rolls was plenty (if we had bought just enough for what we needed at the time).

And we all know our herding instincts. Especially when they are uncertain, people will look to the actions and behaviours of others to determine their own.

But it turns out that news reports of panic buying increased the demand. Also, the attention-grabbing ridiculousness of the story created a lot of interest and desire. Honestly pointing out people’s actions was the single most influential message, leading to even more demand.

The science is telling us that to persuade others, we can point to what many others are already doing, especially many similar others, to excuse our behaviour. And as we self-categorise ourselves by location, lifestyle and especially by the supermarket we choose – we see the behaviour of shoppers who are similar to us. And we want to be like them.

We know a whole bunch of other behavioural techniques that had influence on our behaviour:

  • Hunter gatherer / provider instinct.
  • Some supermarkets restricted the number of toilet rolls you could buy – this made people want even more and shoppers even shared tips on how to avoid the restriction.
  • Goal-setting, we know we often get gratification for achieving goals.
  • Regret consequences, where we may feel we have been unsuccessful.
  • Focus on past success, as people were successful in buying toilet rolls, they went back to the shops to buy even more because people like to feel successful (the identification of ourselves as a role model or self-affirmation of how competent we are).

So, that’s my understanding of what happened, why there was a rush on toilet rolls.

All we have to do now is use the same behavioural techniques with each of our clients, let’s hope for the same effect.

When we try to influence people in marketing we tend to think in terms of selling, pulling and coercing. But sometimes people just hate being told what to do. This is the polar responder that kicks in when we think someone is trying to talk us into something. Suspicion kicks in.

One thing we have learnt from toilet rolls is that we should encourage people to persuade themselves. Ask questions that plant thoughts rather than tell them what to think. Nudge, don’t push.

I think people are more concerned about what they have to lose than what they have to gain. The thought of not having toilet rolls was rocking the status quo of our daily routine.

Most of us like the consistency in our lives, we eat mostly the same food each week, drive to work the same way – most major changes in our lives happen when they are forced upon us. We get comfortable with what we have. We like what we like. Without change forced upon us, to make any change at all, the improvement has to be worth all the fuss of doing it. So how do we get people to break away from the ‘better the devil you know’ attitude? There’s a new book out by Berger, https://www.amazon.com/Catalyst-How-Change-Anyones-Mind/dp/1982108606 he tells a brilliant story about Dominic Cummings when he was heading up the Vote Leave campaign. He needed a campaign slogan, and initially he came up with ‘Take Control’. Which was OK, but he knew that referenda usually fail because people are happy with the status quo. He had to make it seem that leaving was the status quo, not remaining. Which he did by inserting the word ‘back’: ‘Take Back Control’. Berger says: ‘It made it seem like something had been lost, and that leaving the EU was a way to regain that.’

How can we use this in marketing? I think we have to recognise we are creatures of habit, so marketing to the right people at the right time with the right message is the key, sprinkle a little of the creative magic with the logic and you have a winning combination. Don’t think about mass marketing, think about 1-1 marketing, even if your target audience is huge – treat each one as an individual.

And this is where brand recognition is important, they need to know your brand and trust it.

Data and media choice can provide demographics, but maybe you also have to and remind them of what they have to lose.

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