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The Map Is Not The Territory: Examining Consumer Behaviour

17 July 2017
Portrait of young woman in car looking at map | The Map Is Not The Territory: Examining Consumer Behaviour | Neon

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

Alfred Korzybski

Commonly relayed as “the map is not the territory”, this aphorism serves as a useful reminder to take models with a pinch of salt and acknowledge that while they may not be entirely accurate, the practice of modelling is nonetheless important. This being said, a practice that is rank in many industries is taking these models too literally, and one serial offender is marketing, particularly when it comes to analysing consumer behaviour.

It is certainly in vogue to say that everything is “dead” but another common folly is to insist that everything is changing. Wised advertising veterans such as Bob Hoffman have rightly called attention to the problem with short-term and long-term observable differences, but when it comes to consumer behaviour, in our lifetime, it will never change at all.

Now, arguably this is a question of semantics. To say that something doesn’t change isn’t to say the situation is not different. It could be that we are witnessing a different manifestation of a pre-existing inclination. The problem arises when we incorrectly ascribe “change” to conscious, rational action, and this, in turn, causes marketers to make ill-informed decisions about how to respond to operational fluctuations.

Why Doesn’t Consumer Behaviour Change?

Consumers don’t consciously decide en masse to start behaving differently. Take second screen behaviour as an example. At no point has any PSA declared searching for additional information on the things we see on TV to be particularly advantageous, yet many people do it. This hasn’t come as a reasoned response to a problem, as previously there was no problem. If we heard Jamie Oliver spouting about samphire, its mention would be consigned to the irrevocably long list of stuff we don’t know about – except that now, we need not wonder. We can solve the mystery that didn’t need solving 20 years ago.

Second screen behaviour has come as a result of the naturally-occurring inquisitive nature of many people, but there was never a moment in any second screener’s life whereby they said to themselves “you know what, I could find out more if I used TV and search in tandem.” It just happened.

This is where the problem comes in assuming too much about consumer behaviour. When creating websites, organising product lists or even writing articles, we assume that those engaged with our craft will do so in a logical manner. I mean, why wouldn’t they? But the reality is that consumers are wont to behave however they will and any explanation or prediction is self-racking cartography. That is to say that the only way to understand consumer behaviour is to test and learn.

What Can Modelling Consumer Behaviour Achieve?

Modelling consumer behaviour is helpful to a point as it helps us to discern what has happened, but that does not mean it should serve as an indicator of how behaviour is happening differently. If you offer someone the chance to use VR or present them with an app, the engagement with the new object or platform does not signify changing behaviour. The American Psychological Association defines behaviour as how someone adjusts to their environment; the environment has changed, not the behaviour.

By acknowledging that consumer behaviour will not change, marketers can start testing strategies and tactics properly without the bias of prediction. Although marketing’s efficacy cannot be measured as empirically as other disciplines, the approach to any campaign or communication should be the same. We can make assumptions, but that is all they should ever be. We should test them rigorously, lest we start churning out more adverts in which Pepsi is the catalyst for social reform.

Considering the application to digital tactics, this mindset can be aptly applied to a number of different scenarios. A good example is the introduction of the smartphone and its impact on digital sales. Consumers are now able to browse and purchase items at points in their days that previously would have been limited to work or travel. For some, this allows a period of browsing without the same intent to purchase. This newer behaviour does not represent a change; rather it highlights an underlying predilection to analyse before making decisions. Consumers aren’t interested in the medium, they are interested in themselves and making the process easier or more thorough.

Recognising this aspect of behaviour will allow for better planning. While it is always tempting to try and predict the latest trend in digital marketing, reacting to your own circumstances is more useful and realistic. Amazon didn’t pre-plan its current methodology when first launched. It originally started as an online bookstore, but it reacted to the needs of its consumers gradually and tested all of the responses. CEO Jeff Bezos has been open about the need to accept failures and the fluidity of consumers’ needs.


In our efforts to understand the consumer we end up making allowances to fit the theory. Countless studies from the fields of sociology and psychology show that people are surprisingly inept at predicting their own behaviour, none more so than an infamous experiment whereby volunteers role-played as prisoners and guards, only for the guards to begin torturing the prisoners. Marketers shouldn’t cast themselves any differently and should instead make a habit out of assuming rather than believing.

To say that consumer behaviour is changing is to misunderstand the nature of behaviour in the first instance. From this misunderstanding, flawed conclusions are drawn and applied to a multitude of situations. By addressing this falsehood, marketers can start to react to consumer behaviour and test its limits rather than becoming distrait with predictive modelling and unfalsifiable declarations.

Do you think models are harmful or useful when it comes to digital marketing strategy? How has your interpretation of marketing models affected your plans? Start the conversation by Tweeting us @createdbyneon.

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