Advertising has benefited significantly from the application of Daniel Kahneman's research into behavioural economics. However, Kahneman is not the only Nobel Laureate that advertising should look to for inspiration. Konrad Lorenz's work, for which he was awarded the Noble Prize in 1973, deserves more attention than it currently receives as it has direct relevance to marketing.
In Lorenz's most famous experiment he split a batch of Greylag geese eggs into two. One set, the control, was raised by their mother while the experimental set was exposed to no-one else but Lorenz. The goslings in the experimental set became deeply attached to Lorenz; to all intents and purpose he became their mother figure. They followed him wherever he went and mimicked his behaviour. When, after a few days, they were introduced to their mother they showed no sign of recognition.
From this experiment, and others like it, Lorenz developed the theory of imprinting. He hypothesised that there was a short window of open-ness, roughly 32 hours for geese, in which basic characteristics and behaviours could be shaped. Outside of that window habits became solidified and no amount of hectoring could change them.
In many ways consumers are like those geese. There are short windows of opportunity in which brands have a good chance of influencing behaviour.
Most of the time consumers are hard to influence as they make most decisions habitually; some psychologists estimate that 95% of decisions are subconscious. This is a problem for advertising as how can consumers be persuaded to buy elsewhere if they're on auto-pilot?
One solution is to identify the rare moments when decisions are made consciously. Our research suggests that the short period after undergoing a life event is one such opportunity. By life events I mean major changes such as, amongst others, going to university, moving house, getting married, changing job or retiring.
Life events cause disruption to consumers' routines and environments. This destabilisation means that consumers are shaken out of their habits causing them to consciously weigh up their decisions, including purchasing ones.
ZenithOptimedia's research proves the importance of life events
At ZenithOptimedia we quantified the effect by asking 1,121 consumers two simple questions. First, which of nine life events had they undergone in the last year and second, had they tried a new brand in any of eight categories.
The results were striking. In every category people were more likely to have tried new brands if they had undergone a life event. For all product categories, bar one, the probability of trying new brands increased by at least 75% after a life event. And in over half the categories the trialling of new brands doubled.
Our findings are backed up by other research which shows that life events are trigger moments. One of the most authoritative experiments was conducted by the Universities of West England and Essex and the Department of Transport.
They monitored more than 40,000 households for a year and cross-referenced life events with car purchasing. They found that consumers who, in their words, "gained a life partner", or, in English, got married, were four times more likely to change cars than the population as a whole. Moving house and getting a new job also significantly increased the chance of purchasing a car.
Other studies have also found that areas as diverse as diet, newspaper reading, even weight loss, are strongly affected by life events.
What should brands do?
Most decisions are made habitually, making them hard to influence. However, consumers, like Lorenz's goslings, have rare windows of opportunity when they are easier to influence. These moments tend to be after life-events when consumers' routines have been so destabilised that a greater proportion of decisions are made consciously. If brands focus their communications around these moments they will have a better chance of a successful campaign
Richard Shotton is Head of Insight at ZenithOptimedia. Find him on Twitter @rshotton