It’s a well-worn adage in marketing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And marketing, it seems, is stuck in a time loop. The mode and transmission of marketing have taken on radical new forms, but the fundamentals have stayed precisely the same. Context sold products then, and it’s selling them now.
Consider this 1973 landmark paper titled, “From Jerusalem to Jericho”. The paper demonstrated that context is a fundamental driver behind customer behaviour, and largely goes ignored by marketers.
In the psychological study, 40 trainee Catholic priests were asked to perform an action and were divided into three groups:
i) One-third of the group was notified that they had very little time (high hurry condition)
ii) Another one-third were asked to ‘hurry up’ (medium-high hurry condition)
iii) The last one-third were told they had enough time (low hurry condition)
As they went on about their prescribed assignments, the trainees came across a victim who seemed to be in great distress. What followed after would give us unprecedented clues into marketing and customer behaviour.
Only 40% of the trainees stopped to offer help. Only 10% of trainees in the high-hurry group stopped, compared to 45% of trainees in the medium-high condition, and finally 65% in the low-hurry condition. This proves that the ‘situation’ or ‘context’, and not the personality of the person, determines the behaviour.
So how does this knowledge, which seemingly goes against commonly-held marketing beliefs, lines up with business strategies?
Let’s consider my example. In 2012, an Indian startup called ChangeMyTyre.com came up with a pioneering eCommerce platform that was previously unheard of in India. The idea was to sell a bike and car tyres through an online medium.
The venture had backing by industry veterans and serial entrepreneurs of high repute. The website allowed customers to choose and compare from various brands, including pricing, cost of driving, and how often the tyres may need to be changed, and various other factors.
The venture became hugely successful in tyre industry circles. The local, more well-established players began feeling the heat from the young upstart. Branded companies responded by asking the company to remove their logos from ChangeMyTyre’s inventory to slow them down.
Despite strong opposition, ChangeMyTyre (CMT) was going strong and seemingly unstoppable. Eventually, CMT was able to launch several other ventures and franchises that offered tyre installation services at homes and offices. Many brands adopted a similar business model because it proved to be so successful.
The only real challenge was scalability because logistics was a real pain.
There was another challenge that CMT had to cope with - their ability to make sales was restricted because of the particular circumstances that motivate customers to buy new tyres. Their context and situation were limited in scope – and their business model wasn’t scalable enough to address the urgent needs of customers – customers didn’t have time to wait for an appointment for tyre fitting or delivery.
CMT appealed to a particular crowd – the tyre enthusiast. Instead of average motorists who needed tyre replacements because of an urgent need.
Most people adopt the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude when it comes to tyres. As in, the demand for tyres only arises out of a need to immediately replace them because of a defect or a problem. When the tyre pops, for instance, the desire to go out and have it changed or replaced overpowers any other personality trait.
This key behavioural trait based on context helps businesses determine the perfect fit between product and audience. Gaining precise knowledge of the context that motivates users to follow through with action will help streamline marketing communications and save much experimental spending in advertising.
Throughout my time working for CMT, I mostly reached out to the local tyre dealer, and not CMT, to have my tyre changed when it popped. Why didn’t I order online when I had the option? Because despite my blatant favouritism towards CMT, I knew that the best opportunity to have my tyre changed immediately was to call a local dealer. Context matters – and context sells.
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