Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Burial vs. Cremation: Changing Commitment Displays

The chart above plots year 2000 data from 48 states and the District of Columbia. The X axis shows the percentage of deaths resulting in cremation; the Y axis, the percentage of state residents identifying themselves as Baptist, minus the percent of state residents claiming no religious affiliation.

The choice to be buried or cremated appears to be heavily correlated with one's attitude towards religion. Comparing state-by-state cremation and religious affiliation rates, a pattern emerges that reasonably predicted cremation rates at that time.

Baptists were chosen as they were believed to represent a group with high social reinforcement for religiosity. Assuming states with high Baptist populations would be more traditional/conservative in social structure and traditions, it was expected that burial rates would be less likely to have been supplanted by the growing popularity of cremation. This appears to be the case.

With the growing popularity of cremation, a chart of current data would show increased levels of cremation in states with higher Baptist populations, shifting the trend line to the right.

The interesting question is this: Was it the traditions and rituals of active religious life that reinforced burial, or the cognitive biases in the brains of people drawn to active religious life that also biased towards burial? Perhaps time will tell as cremation grows in popularity and becomes the accepted norm, due to economic factors.

The data used in the chart can be found at these locations:

Cremation rates here

Religious Affiliation Data here

Thinking further about my question above, I've found additional data, from a survey by the National Cremation Association:

Cremation survey here

This survey, from 2005, corroborates the by state information linking religiosity to burial, and adds two more factors correlated to the choice of burial -- income levels, and self-identification as being "Black."

The picture that starts to emerge from these elements is one of the strength of group membership being a leading factor in burial choices. Factors -- economic, psychological, social, etc. -- which put a premium on group membership for well-being make it difficult for members to depart with deceased ones, and consequently, lead them to retain their bodies as both symbols of their commitment and touchstones of positive memories. The archetypal example being the policy of military groups to not leaving anyone behind -- alive or dead.

As acceptance of cremation becomes the dominant form of remains disposal over the next 10 years -- due to cost, land and "green" concerns -- it will be interesting to see what symbols and rituals arise in popularity to replace the practice of burial.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Brand Affinity in Addictive Products

The table above is from the 2003 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse report on cigarette brand preferences. Key findings from the report were:

  • In 2001, Marlboro was the cigarette brand used most often by past month cigarette smokers, followed by Newport, Camel, Basic, and Doral.
  • Approximately 85 percent of cigarette smokers aged 12 to 25 smoked one of the three most used brands, whereas smokers aged 26 or older reported more diversity in cigarette brand selection.
  • White and Hispanic smokers were most likely to use Marlboro, while black smokers were most likely to use Newport.

read full article

As with alcohol, it appears that the neurological effects of tobacco work to create strong brand memories and affinity in their users. However, looking at the dramatic differences in market share based on their stated race/ethnicity, it appears that brand choice for these products is also strongly influenced by social affiliation pressure as well. The social/group pressures seem to be a bigger factor than geographic difference for this product category.

This points towards several opportunities for improved marketing campaigns:

  1. When marketers think about brand affinity and strength, it is common for products with high emotional/neurological components -- automobiles (movement/speed), beer (alcohol), food (taste), etc. -- to dominate the ideation and examples they use between themselves and clients. This is true even when the category in question offers little direct stimulation to the brain. It would seem that marketers who disciplined themselves to focus on products that have similar nervous system interaction patterns should be more likely to product effective campaigns -- versus referring to the campaigns that have the most salience to themselves and others.
  2. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the strong impact that tobacco has on the brain, social expectations still appear to play a big role in preference. This probably contributes to the tendency more expensive alcohol to be perceived as tasting better. This same phenomenon may not be as strong in products without the same emotional charge.
  3. For product without a direct or continuous stimulation of the brain, messaging and position campaigns may have to be based on the incidents -- however infrequent -- when the brain is stimulated by feelings of intense satisfaction or frustration with the product. For instance, when the product fails, or is associated with positive situations -- like the care of baby or loved one.
  4. All too often, marketers worry more about geographic preferences when doing positioning or research. As this example points out, the groups people believe they belong to are better predictors of segmentation and behavior than are the physical location in which they live.

Have others experienced similar problems in researching products and services?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Consumer Perceptions of Volume -- Sight vs. Touch

Which Holds More: A Tall, Thin Glass Or A Short, Fat One?

ScienceDaily (2006-02-13) -- A fascinating new study from the March 2006 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research explores how our senses interact to gauge volume, with important implications for perception of consumer products and consumption patterns. Specifically, the article argues that "elongation effect" -- the common tendency to think that a tall, thin glass holds more than a short, stout glass of equal volume -- is reversed when touch is used instead of sight to evaluate how much a container holds....

read full article

This study contrasts the differences in perceived size, based on whether an item is looked at, or touched. For items that can't be touched before purchase, height seems a little more important in imparting a feeling of volume; for items that are handled, thickness conveys larger volume. What implications should this have on product and product display designs, if being perceived larger creates a positive sense of value?

Appreciating style -- Is it the Appearance, or Perceived Effort?

Recipe For Ad Success: Just Add Art

ScienceDaily (2008-02-15) -- Advertisers looking to add appeal to their products need to look no farther than their nearest art museum, according to a new study that finds that even a fleeting exposure to art makes consumers evaluate products more positively. The study represents a pioneering attempt to systematically demonstrate how visual art influences consumer perceptions....
read full article

This article summarizes a paper to be published in the Journal of Marketing Research, which shows that the addition of perceived artwork to a product -- a box, a soap dispenser, plumbing fixtures, etc. -- improves the likelihood the product is perceived more favorably or luxuriously. The nature of the artwork -- recognizable, aesthetically pleasing etc. -- appears secondary to the very presence of the artwork -- the impression someone made an effort to change the appearance of the package.

Returning to the question of style preferences -- how much is a preference based on aesthetics alone, and how much is it based on the perceived effort and value added to the item in question?

Brand Extensions versus Brand Birthing

Old Dogs Don't Notice New Tricks: Prior Knowledge Affects How Consumers Accept New Information

ScienceDaily (2008-02-16) -- Over time, consumers develop a set of cues that we then use to make inferences about products, such as "all French restaurants have great service" or "more expensive candles smell better." However, this set of predictable beliefs can make it difficult for us to learn and recognize other real, positive qualities that are indicated by the same cues, reveals a new study....
read full article

The article above points to an interesting problem with brands and brand extensions. Often the accumated memories / brand experiences make it difficult for new advertising and products to change the experience that consumers expect, and consequently, enjoy.

Shouldn't we expect more literature and growth in the area of how endorsed brands can be used to give birth to new brands, in situations where paradigm changing products or services are developed that would best prosper if unconstrained by the "baggage" of the well-known brand?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Conservatism and Early Adopters

The chart above is from the paper "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition", by Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway.

Link to paper here

The paper summarizes several studies linking the psychological traits of individuals to their political views, focusing on which traits are positively and correlated with conservatism.

As the diagram above illustrates, fear & uncertainty are underlying contributors for the expression for political conservatism.

From a marketing standpoint, this presents an interesting challenge: if political conservatism is positively correlated to wealth and disposable income, how do get these consumers -- the ones who can afford to take risks -- to try new and innovative products (as innovation has been negatively correlated to conservatism in some studies)?

For this group, should innovative products be positioned as extensions of existing products -- downplaying their innovative features -- and emphasizing their performance attributed vis-a-vis peers? This would shift the consumer's mindset from a sense of risk of experimenting with unproven technology, to a fear that a competitor would be gaining an advantage.

Building further on this notion, it would seem that products that mitigated fears and anxiety of unseen contagions -- disease and crime -- would also be well positioned for the politically conservative segment, and a means for innovative ideas to gain access to the financial power of these consumers.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Escalation of Commitment and Jonathan Swift

Escalation of Commitment (or irrational escalation) occurs when people persist in investing in an idea or course of action, despite an inflow of new information indicating that the idea or action is irrational. Psychologists and Organizational Behavioralists have been studying the phenomenon for quite some time; the table (click on it to enlarge) above summarizes several published studies (Mahlendorf, 2007).

Examples abound of ideas that were pursued to great economic loss, despite readily available rational information that could foretell the probable outcome. From a market research perspective, understanding why this information was not used -- or counter-information was fabricated to negate the rational information -- is central to the understanding how new insights from research can be exploited by organizations.

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into... J.S.

In response to these papers, some have argued that the largely emotional causes (optimism, selective perception, over-confidence, self rationalization, bias towards weighing project completion higher than the project value, etc.) do not adequately explain the behavior, and that the behavior at some level is rational.

What if both sides in this argument are correct: Escalation of Commitment can be irrational at the local level, but rational at the species, or super-organism level?

In a social species, genes guarantee a bias for following amongst the masses -- via tendencies that express themselves in feelings like the need for conformance, and to the extereme, in "separation anxiety". At the same time, there must be sufficient genetic variation to provide a varying amount of more aggressive individuals to lead. These innate desires may be in constant need of satiation; forming & maintaining social structures automatically.

It is difficult to argue, looking at the evolutionary success of species that seem to function as "super-organisms" -- ants & humans -- that these genetic biases have operated in a way that appears rational, contributed to this success.

At the local level however, where evolutionary competition is largely intra-species and typically between groups, the constant need for commitment on the part of individuals requires socially uniting hopes and goals to be generated at regular intervals.

This would imply that the most important attribute of a hope or goal is its availability when needed -- the extent to which a goal is perceived rational is secondary, and will be accentuated by the emotions involved in anxiety reduction and belonging to a group. A key to leadership is often keeping a simple goal or hope foremost in the minds of followers.

Faith! he must make his stories shorter or change his comrades once a quarter… J.S.

While there is no doubt that more rational goals (from an economic perspective) will be more salient -- stronger and longer lasting -- than irrational goals, the key for organizational and social stability may just be the presence of goals and hopes of any kind. For leaders, the key may be to keep goals in front of people, with the hope that some will be deemed successful at a later date.

I have always believed no matter how many shots I miss, I'm going to make the next one…. J.S.

From market research perspective, the questions then become:

When and where should research be done and communicated, to maximize the transference of rational information about customers and the market? Can it be funded in this manner?

If much of the funding for research derives from projects already undergoing Escalation of Commitment, can rational insights be incorporated into the findings in a way that they stand out from any biased information produced by directed research activities?

As market researchers strive to survive and thrive as a coherent function at the service of other organizations, what prevents them from falling victim to enabling irrational commitment, rather than ameliorating it?

Finally, with market researchers organized into groups, in competition with other such groups, how immune are they to also experiencing Escalation of Commitment, and in their roles as advisors to others, how much damage can result to not only their reputations, but their clients’ businesses as well?

Ambition often puts Men upon doing the meanest offices; so climbing is performed in the same position with creeping… J.S.