According to Psychology Professor Albert Mehrabian at the University of California in Los Angeles, when we communicate only 7 percent of meaning is received through spoken word, 38 percent through tone of voice and 55 percent through body language.
It’s a Golden Ratio of communication to which humans are naturally calibrated to whether we like it or not. This concept has been around for 40-odd years and over that time it has been applied by experts to all sorts of communication from advertising, to business deal-making to hostage negotiation. It’s proven.
The reason it works lies with how we humans process the world around us. We take in and respond to an external stimulus using three ‘filters’. The great majority of how we experience things is unconscious and instinctual, our second filter is emotional feelings and a distant third filter is our conscious thought. That means that we are hard-wired to relate to things primarily with unconscious impressions and emotions, rather than rational thinking. Furthermore, due to something called ‘confirmation bias,’ we often don’t apply rational thought all that objectively. Rather, we tend to emphasize evidence that supports our impressions and feelings.
The fundamental implication for the 7-38-55 Rule in marketing is that what we say is way less important than the impression we present. That means shoppers will respond to a product on a shelf mostly by the design impression it creates and less by messages on the pack.
In marketing, some like to think that shoppers read the label on packs earnestly forming decisions based on rational information. But that pales in comparison to the heavy impressionistic and emotional lifting delivered by design. Manufacturers might fret over quality and feature call-outs and on pack information, but the reality is that it is generally more important to themselves than the buyer.
For FMCG marketers, this means your first consideration for attracting shoppers should be how to create a distinctive and seductive visual impression that lures attention. If shoppers have to get up close and read the benefits of your product before seeing its value then your 7-38-55 Rule won’t be adding up.
The right type of impression and emotion for your brand to convey depends on how you manage three factors:
1. Start with the core drivers of the category
Every category has cues that people will relate to at a fundamental, instinctive level that tell people that this product has an inherent ‘rightness’. In baby products, parents are programmed to relate to a baby’s face. Cleaning products need to look bright and fresh. Food needs to look delicious.
2. Add nuance of the positioning you want your brand to have within the category
What is the part of the market you want to occupy? Do you want to look premium or cheap? Are you all about traditional family values? Are you presenting a scientific break-through?
3. Create elements unique to your brand
What is unique to your brand? How do you create a distinction with colour, symbolism, or form to stand out from competitors and not recede into the shelf? Brands like Coca-Cola, Pics, Lewis Rd Creamery, and T2 all benefit from an unmistakable brand identity within the context of their categories.
Applying the 7-38-55 Rule in your brand design is the key to winning shoppers at a distance with the right immediate impressions and feelings. You can’t rely on people to read the details on your pack. It’s not in our nature.
Shopping is not the rational exchange of demand and supply that some would have us believe. No, it is a messy landscape of behavioural quirks and habits that are sometimes tragic, sometimes funny and always insightful expressions of human nature.
Here are some examples that you may have seen in a store near you. Indeed, you may have been there yourself.
Re-shopping: When a customer is served at the supermarket checkout promptly leaves to go and get some other products they have forgotten – thereby holding the queue up.
Dazed & Consumed: When shoppers get overwhelmed by the store environment and lose all sense of self-awareness and social graces. This leads to abandoning their trolley in the middle of the aisle or blocking others in a mindless confusion.
Chat & Cut: (care of Larry David) This is when you’re standing in a shop queue and someone joins the queue ahead of you to chat with someone they know. Before you know it they have also joined the queue, thereby cutting in ahead of you.
Listlessness: A pathological inability to stick to only buying from your shopping list.
Home shrinkage: When you are convinced that clothes or shoes fit you perfectly in-store, but then seem to magically shrink to unbearable proportions when you get home.
Chill me out: Someone opening chiller door and pondering while you wait and wait to get your hands on the item you need.
Invisible in plain sight: Being apparently invisible to store staff while others who approach after you get served.
Mystical shopping: Arriving home with items that have magically been bought without any conscious decision.
Hate shopping: You love it in the store, but hate it when you get it home.
Sleep shopping: When shoppers make their way through the store in a zombie-like state of autopilot. Experiments at Sainsbury’s have been done that show how sleep shoppers can fail to see people dressed up in gorilla suits walking past them in supermarkets.
Trolley Trash: Shoppers who have no ability to park their trolley in a considerate place. They leave them in the middle of an aisle, or in the car park where cars park.
Deaf Parents: Parent shoppers who let their kids run amok with no consideration for other shoppers.
Social shoppers: People who stand around the store talking with other shoppers oblivious to the fact they are blocking the aisle, or worse, the entrance to the store.
Manbags: Poor suffering men who follow women around while they shop. They are often seen sitting in husband seats in women’s fashion stores playing with their phones.
Unmet Needs are like the Holy Grail in marketing. Those two little words spell greenfield opportunities and untapped potential.
The realm of Unmet Needs is certainly desirable, but is difficult and challenging. The reality is that most of us, most of the time, live in a world of met needs, or even saturated needs in a flood of over-supply.
Do we need another coconut water?
Another premium milk?
A new brand of detergent?
There are plenty of examples of marketers persisting with meeting non-needs. Your cellphone probably carries a graveyard of apps that were a moment of curiosity but offer no enduring value. Apparently, about 80% of all apps are used no more than once.
Unmet Needs can be hard to deal with because human nature errs to the known. Behavioural economics tells us that confirmation bias makes us favour information that reinforces our existing perspectives. We are naturally disposed to known assumptions, conventions, priorities and the status quo. This is easier than coming up with new, lateral or better ways to satisfy Unmet Needs. We are creatures of habit.
The satisfaction of Unmet Needs can take different angles.
- New improvements to an existing product. Adding child-proof caps on medicine bottles is a good example.
- New solutions to needs you never thought you had. This was the case when texting was first made available.
- Happy accidents that satisfy an unmet needs by chance. Viagra was the unexpected result of chest pain research. Post-It proved to be a very handy note tool, but a lousy glue.
- Satisfying Unmet Needs by design.
In the early 1980s Swiss designer Walter Düring designed the first toilet cleaner that used packaging as a tool. With its duck-shaped neck Toilet Duck provided a simple solution to kill unseen germs lurking under the rim and hard to reach. This idea elegantly neutralised a deep-seated fear of vulnerability to disease.
There are several different ways to identify Unmet Needs, but you need to be people-centred in your approach.
- Insightful qualitative and quantitative research
- Ethnographic research, or observation of people using your product
- User experience and path to purchase analysis
- Walking in your customers shoes
- Informal voice of the customer research
Whatever methods you use, look for examples where customer satisfaction is compromised by the means of use. These might be known annoyances or unknown inefficiencies that customers experience. Try applying these research techniques to your business and the customers you serve.
Four common symptoms of Unmet Needs to look out for are:
- Inefficiencies – when there is unnecessary effort, time, cost, or steps to take to use your product. The internet and mobile phones have disrupted many industries by redefining efficiency. Think Uber and taxis, or Air BnB and hotels.
- Frustrations – when customers must endure annoyances in using your product. The Dollar Shave Club successfully overcame the frustration of highly priced razor blades.
- Workarounds – when customers are forced to do additional tasks in order to use your product. This is essentially the entire software industry whose products are fraught with over-promised ‘minimum viable products’, diabolical incompatibilities and token support.
- User torture – when the actual use of your product creates negative unintended consequences. Flat-pack furniture is notorious for customer torture, especially when the instructions are obscure or in a foreign language.
Looking for Unmet Needs in your business and with your customers is a double-edged sword. It is a great way to identify opportunities for innovation, but it also provides a glimpse of threats that could bring disruption in the hands of competitors.
The bottom line is to satisfy your customer’s Unmet Needs before someone else does.