A conversation with Steven van Belleghem

How science and technology are re-shaping consumer behaviour

A couple of weeks ago Steven van Belleghem asked Tom if he could come over to Amsterdam to interview him as part of his research for his new book “Customers the Day After Tomorow: How to Attract Customers in a World of AI, Bots and Automation“. He was curious to learn more about the role of Behavioural Design or the “Weapons of Mass Influence” on Customer Behaviour and Marketing. Steven is a bestselling author of books such as “The Conversation Company” and “When Digital becomes Human“.

Steven and Tom talked about topics such as:

  • How the perfect storm of technology and science are transforming marketing faster than most companies realize.
  • The impact of this perfect storm on how we should be thinking about building brands (“algorithm optimization is the new search engine optimization”)
  • How the influence machine is getting smarter and smarter (and how this is killing for the sex life of Japanese youngsters)

Apparently this conversation stroke a nerve, because it resulted in an idea for a new chapter in his upcoming book:

“I always liked the vision of Tom on the future of marketing. To be really honest. Thanks to this conversation, I decided to write an additional chapter in my new book. Tom really made me think about the need to fight the digital commodity magnet. Enjoy my talk with Tom.”
– Steven van Belleghem

You can find the 26-minute version of their talk in the Youtube video below.  But we transcripted the best parts in this blog post below if you don’t have the stomach for watching two Belgians talk on a couch.  The talk is in Dutch, but it has English subtitles.

How will Customer Behaviour evolve in the upcoming years?

“I think that right now we are caught in a kind of perfect storm of a number of tendencies that interact with each other and that have a huge impact on the way consumers are behaving. You might argue, from a somewhat darker and evil perspective that the techniques and the science to influence and manipulate consumer behaviour have ended up in a kind of exponential curve. On the one hand, there’s an explosion of behavioural psychology know-how… and at the same time, there’s an explosion of technology and data. And those two forces interact with each other. I think that what we’ve been reading about how the American elections were rigged, for instance, it’s all about those two patterns that have interacted in novel ways. The level of microtargeting and the tendency to profile candidates and the use of behavioural psychology in manipulating the public to vote or not vote for Trump is reaching unprecedented levels. So if you ask me how consumer behaviour is evolving, I would argue that we’ve entered a new era in which traditional rules of influencing consumer behaviour are being replaced with a new world of technology, artificial intelligence and persuasive profiling. And when you combine these forces, you’ll end up with an Artificial Intelligence that will get better and better at learning which triggers work for influencing you and which ones don’t.

What does this mean for marketing manager worldwide?

What I always found amazing about marketing is the fact that the role of science and technology still isn’t recognised. We still believe that this field, the field of marketing, benefits most of all from little theories, pet theories… Brand strategy is a perfect example of this. We plot our course based on intuition and we wrap little theories around these intuitions. Meanwhile, the power of technology, the power of science, the science of influence, are transforming the marketing profession in such a profound way. If an ordinary marketer is unaware of them, he will simply be outcompeted by new players who are so well-versed into those two superpowers of technology and the science of influence. (…) It’s high time to get totally obsessed with technology and science and how these forces are changing the game of how customer behaviour is being shaped.

On branding in the world of interfaces.

Steven: “In my presentations, I often say: Today people fall in love with the interface, not with the brand. An experiment I often use is Booking.com. I ask my audience who is using it and 90% raises their hand. Then I ask for positive feedback: No problem. But if I ask them if they would switch if tomorrow a better alternative comes along, everybody would do it. They’re in love with the interface. Not the brand”.

Tom: Absolutely. I would argue that the big battle today is not about technology it’s about the interface. There was a great article on Techcrunch a while ago: If those companies get such gigantic evaluations, it’s because they own the customer interface. They usually lack an expensive infrastructure where all the costs are (Uber owns no cars, Airbnb doesn’t own a single room), but they own the interface where all the profits lay. So the battle is totally about the customer interface. In the case of Booking.com, the hotel brand has become completely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is whether this is a 9+ rated hotel with my budget. So hotels don’t need to do traditional branding anymore. On the other hand, the one thing – and this dovetails with the topic of your previous book – that will generate value for the brand in the future will dramatically shift towards customer experience. Because customer experiences are what feeds the algorithms, what feeds the review sites and what feeds the interfaces. And thus exceptional customer experience – and therefore how the brand behaves – will contribute much more to reach and growth than pure marketing efforts. Your job as a marketer will center around the question: “are we so good that we are able to feed the (search and compare)-algorithm with our customer’s excitement?”.

Is there still room for “love-brands” in the world ruled by functional interfaces?

I always thought of ‘love brands’ as nothing more than a sales pitch for Saatchi and Saatchi. A love brand is one way to look at brands. One might even argue that an interface brand like Uber has become a love-brand. But why? Because they created an easy and seamless experience for their customers to contact a car that happens to be in your neighborhood with one click and it will take you to your destination. Uber became a love brand. Thanks to the interface. So again: Customer experience becomes increasingly pivotal for brand growth. So, when you ask me: Is communication still important? I would argue: absolutely. The question is: do you use communication for brand building, or do you build the brand in how you design the customer experience. And you need to figure out how you could use marketing communications to grow your audience for your customer experience. The newest strategy to build a brand that people love is:

1) Create an awesome customer experience by making a simple and easy-to-use interface.

2) Feed the algorithms with positive reviews and scores. Plus create word-of-mouth.

3) Use communications and content to grow your business when your customer experience is flawless to attract and convert new consumers

What about the future of brands that are more linked with how you present your own identity to the world. Will they also be affected by AI and algorithms?

This is the never-ending rat race that takes place between the commercial world, that is becoming ever smarter due to those two superpowers of psychology and technology, and consumer behaviour that always tries to escape this. But the tragedy is that every trend that arises from people trying to resist that increasingly suffocating seduction and the influence machine, is immediately embraced as a new marketing opportunity. That’s the tragedy of the hipsters for instance. They started out as a movement to return to authenticity and now way pay five Euro’s for a fucking frappucino in our “authentic coffee bar in scaffolding woods, which is also just something everyone seems to copy from Pinterest these days. So the hipster has been completely assimilated by commerce. So I think there’s really no escape. Everything is a target for the fast-learning and fast-improving influencing machinery. So where is this all leading to? It’s a fact that in a world where literally everything is available and every desire can be fulfilled, is the only thing that dies is desire itself. And it’s human nature to always have something to long for. So what we are starting to see more often is that we are looking more and more for experiences that aim at restoring that desire. And the market caters to this perfectly with mindfulness trainings, boot camps, reboots, etc…

I’m very pessimistic if I start to think about it. Bill Hicks once said about humanity “we’re just a virus with shoes”. And I tend to agree. Everything we think about ourselves, all our desires we have are being manipulated and commercialised. Vice Media published a fascinating documentary about the sex life of the Japanese. So Japan is facing a massive problem because young people don’t seem to form relationships anymore. Because the market covers every aspect of what it means to be in a relationship with someone. You can go to hugging bars, you can hire a professional who will pretend to be your best friend for a night and if you just want sex, you go to one of these drive-ins. So every aspect that makes a human relationship exciting can be catered to for a relatively modest fee. And that’s why they don’t feel the need to go through the pain, the humiliation and the battles for shaping a relationship with a loved one. So I’m very pessimistic about our chances of escaping the beast, the machinery of influence.

There was much more we talked about, but I highly recommend to take some time to watch it till the end. By the way: Steven now started a Podcast channel on Soundcloud. You can listen to this interview and much more on his brand new podcast channel.


Image Source: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/sites/default/files/sexbot.jpg


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