Evolutionary biology is the study of how specific species and specific traits came to be through the process of natural selection and other evolutionary mechanisms. In its most practical sense, it’s used to help understand molecular biology, genetics, and different evolutionary processes. But since I’m not a scientist in any literal capacity, I’ve found a different use for the basic findings of evolutionary biology: rational explanations for consumer spending habits.
As a marketer, consumer spending habits are what drive my strategies. I have to know where people are, what they want, and how to give it to them, which is hard — even with market research in tow. By better understanding the root psychological dispositions people have toward different phenomena and situations, you can ground your strategies with more favorable tactics and understand not only what type of behaviors most consumers act out, but why they do it as well.
Let’s take a look at some of these ideas individually.
(Disclaimer: I am not, nor do I claim to be an evolutionary biologist. I’ve gathered most of my information from publicly available and secondary research)
1. Pattern Recognition
Pattern recognition is one of our best-evolved and most valuable skills as a species. It happens on multiple levels, such as being able to recognize human faces in otherwise random, complex designs, or being able to spot characteristics that signal the presence of a predator, such as sharp teeth, claws, or a stealthy movement pattern.
Consumers often apply their pattern recognition skills in complex, subtle ways. For example, most consumers who are met with an advertisement that features flashing lights, obnoxious colors, and multiple exclamation points will immediately click away because they’ve associated these types of ads with scams in the past. On the other hand, users may be drawn to brands that leverage patterns that call upon more pleasing or familiar constructs. For example, a user might be drawn to a brand because it exhibits characteristics they find among their friends and family members. For this reason, it’s imperative that you know your audience, inside and out, and make your users find meaningful patterns in your brand and products.
2. Loyalty and Pride
Tribalism permeates our society. We’re naturally inclined to align ourselves with one side, an “us,” and conflict with an opposing side, a “them.” This “us vs. them” mentality is everywhere you look. It’s why most people consider themselves either a Democrat or Republican (with the other side clearly being the wrong one), why people pledge themselves to a sports team and hate on a rival, and why cliques form in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.
Human beings are naturally loyal once you’ve given them something to identify with — and it’s for this reason that branding is so powerful. Instigating this tribal mentality can help you draw more users to your brand and retain them for a longer period of time. All you need to do is establish a clear, consistent identity that your target demographic would like to associate with themselves, such as the way Apple considers itself unique, intelligent, and cutting-edge.
3. Sex Sells (and Other Emotional Associations)
When people experience multiple sensory inputs simultaneously, they have trouble distinguishing separate elements from the group. That is to say, when a consumer feels one emotion from one part of an experience, the whole experience is infected with the emotion. For example, when an ad targeted at young men features a sexy model eating a hamburger, the young men naturally feel hints of attraction and arousal, and whether they realize it or not, they project those emotions onto the burger itself. Suddenly, sometime later, they find themselves craving one.
This isn’t limited to sex or arousal; it works with any emotion. If you include funny images embedded in your blog posts, people will naturally think of your brand as friendlier and more approachable. If you have authoritative influencers frequently guest posting on your blog, people will come to see you as more authoritative. Use this power carefully, and associate yourself with the emotions and constructs that are primed to serve you best.
4. Prosocial Behavior
There’s a bit of a debate in the scientific community over whether prosocial behavior is the result of natural selection. Some argue that collective, prosocial behavior is maladaptive since it favors a wider gene pool over any one individual’s specific genes, but regardless of its evolutionary origins, the fact of the matter is that most human beings are social, benevolent creatures.
What does this mean for consumer spending habits? It means they tend to prefer brands that other people prefer, as well as brands that give back to their communities. These demand two separate strategies; first, you’ll have to encourage more user reviews and testimonials to show off the fact that you are positively associated with other individuals. It illustrates you as a positive contributor to the community. Second, you’ll have to incorporate some kind of corporate social responsibility initiative, giving back through charitable donations, time spent volunteering, or some other positive action. Together, these tactics will make your brand seem like an integral and beneficial member of a broader community, which will make you more attractive to consumers.
These are just four examples of how evolutionary biological understanding of our species can make you a better all-around marketer. If you dig a little deeper, as I intend to, you’ll be able to learn more. While we generally like to think of ourselves as strong, independent-minded individuals with sophisticated and unpredictable decision-making abilities, many of our tendencies harken back to simple mechanisms present from the early days of our species. The better you understand these, and the better you can tap into them, the more likely you’ll be to succeed.