The Future of Marketing is VUCA

In 2010, I was a senior manager of marketing research for PepsiCo, working on the brand marketing initiatives for our SunChips brand. In my position, I got invited to a lot of conferences, most of which I couldn’t attend. But on a whim, I chose to attend the Future of Persuasion conference, mostly because it had a cool name.

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting much. However, within the first forty minutes of the keynote speech, I realized that every aspect of marketing and marketing research was going to fundamentally change within the next ten years.

The keynote speaker said that the world is in a state of VUCA: VolatileUncertainComplex, and Ambiguous. Technologies are scaling faster than ever, he told us, so we’re going to have to adapt quickly, which creates a VUCA world.

People would soon be creating content with their smartphones at exponential rates. In this new world of consumer control, we would be inundated with thousands (yes, thousands) of marketing messages every day.

Keep in mind, this was 2010. Digital was still in the process of becoming ubiquitous, allowing people to create and access content across all devices, including cell phones, televisions, computers, tablets, and very soon, watches.

Marketers from any company in the world were now able to reach the same consumer on multiple platforms daily. Marketing was scalable at a global level for any brand, and it was only a matter of time before people would adapt to this new marketing onslaught.

The broader discussion at the conference focused specifically on marketing, all aimed toward answering this question: How will marketing adapt to this changing world?

The keynote speaker offered an idea that transformed my perception of marketing and marketing research forever:

“As marketers, we have to understand how to hack the most advanced filtering system ever created: the human mind. Because of the impending marketing onslaught, people will nonconsciously filter out the vast majority of advertising. Technology could help you get through these ever-evolving filters, but it’s clear now that it will be challenging.”

Marketing in Saturated World

To find the answers to how we can thrive in a VUCA world, the speaker dived into the area of behavioral science—more specifically, the psychology of persuasion.

Over the course of the presentation, two particular concepts stood out to me:

  1. We make a staggering number of decisions on a daily basis.

  2. In the course of making (or not making) those decisions, we process an equally shocking number of marketing messages.

Let’s take a deeper look into these two modern-day realities.

First, our brains are now tasked with making more than 35,000 decisions per day. As a result, the vast majority of our decisions must be made at the nonconscious level.

Our nonconscious minds are constantly processing everything happening in our environment, and it adds up to be about a novel’s worth of information every hour.

Second, we’re now constantly bombarded with persuasive messaging and marketing. These messages come at us from every platform we access and read.

We’re exposed to thousands of marketing messages each day, each one trying to influence the thousands of decisions we need to make.

As much as it pains me to say, we simply cannot take the time to conduct a pros-and-cons list for every one of our 35,000 daily decisions. If we tried to do that, we wouldn’t even make it through breakfast before we wanted to jump out a window.

In a VUCA world, marketers are now facing two harsh truths:

  1. There is a lot of nonconscious noise in consumers’ minds.

  2. It’s only going to get harder to break through that noise.

Why is VUCA Happening?

The world is becoming more VUCA because as we become more connected to our devices, our information platforms will continue expanding rapidly.

Look at it this way: at first, brands thought their ability to inundate consumers in their messaging was a good thing. New social media sites, as well as new media platforms such as Netflix, meant that brands had intimate access to people beyond television, radio, newspapers, and other traditional channels. This was great news, right?

It wasn’t. What’s happened instead is a complete overwhelm of the consumer.

In addition to smartphones and tablets, consumers can now access media on their watches, smart TVs, and voice-activated artificial intelligence such as Alexa.

When will this media inundation stop? The truth is, it’s never going to stop; it’s only going to increase. As a result, our psychological filters will become even stronger.

If your marketing can break through that psychological filter, your message will be considered by the consumer, and it will be more likely to be acted on.

How do you break through the filter? Many marketers get lucky by getting louder with their activation and messaging. But that’s almost always the wrong choice.

Louder Isn’t Better in the Long Run

In 2012, the Doritos brand team came up with one of the loudest, boldest marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen. In an effort to go viral, they set up a 50-foot vending machine that doubled as a concert stage at South by Southwest. It had flashing LED lights, giant bags of Doritos, and featured artists like Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube.

It was incredibly grandiose, and they brought it back several years in a row.

And now it seems rudimentary.

Did they get a significant ROI on their incredibly loud marketing campaign?

Maybe, maybe not. It’s almost irrelevant. Even if successful, that urge to go viral creates a dangerous cycle for Doritos and its competitors. After the Doritos giant vending machine stunt, Pringles thinks it has to get even louder, so it creates a pop-up store in Times Square allowing people to mix and match unique flavors with Al Roker.

Then Doritos thinks it has to go even bolder, so it responds by making a hundred-foot stage at the next year’s South by Southwest. You get the point?

Suddenly, something that once seemed grandiose—a multistory vending machine concert stage—isn’t wild enough to break through the marketing noise. So you’re in an endless cycle of overspending to make a lot of marketing noise. Eventually, you’ll run out of money and real estate to keep building giant vending machines.

The endless cycle of one-upping your competition will only get more expensive for everyone as you try to reach consumers on different platforms. It’s simply unsustainable financially, particularly in our current corporate environment where CEOs are forcing marketers to justify their jobs by calculating ROI on an almost daily basis.

A Better Way Forward

But what if I told you that you can use behavior design strategies and tactics in a subtle way to get through your consumers’ nonconscious filter? You have to dance your way past it, not smash through it with a sledgehammer.

What is behavior design, you ask? To me, behavior design is the process of applying the latest neurological and behavioral insights to the development of customer interactions to psychologically influence and change consumer behavior.

It’s the recipe behind today’s best marketing—marketing that gets people to act.

The essence of behavior design is understanding the real “whys” behind behaviors and designing for it. There could be small biological, neurological, or psychological reasons in play, among others. Behavior design is part intuition, part artistry, and part science, all merged together to influence the heart and the mind.

It doesn’t replace design or great marketing; it builds on it.