Episode 343 – Decoded with Phil Barden

Phil BardenEver wondered why people don’t immediately shout ‘Of course!’ and shake you warmly by the hand when you share your insights with them? It’s because we find new ideas hard to accept, especially when they contradict things we’ve believed up until now. So how as a writer can you help people get past that initial negative reflex and take your ideas on board? 

Marketer Phil Barden experienced this for himself, when he discovered that everything he thought he knew about advertising was wrong. In this week’s conversation he shares how what he learned about how decision science transformed his own approach to marketing, and also how you as an author can help your readers take your ideas on board more effectively. 



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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Phil Barden, who’s the Managing Director of Decode Marketing Limited, where he combines his more than 25 years of brand management with Unilever, Diageo and T-Mobile with leading-edge cognitive and social psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics to help businesses increase their marketing effectiveness and maximize their brand growth.

And he’s the author of, I’ve got it here if you’re watching on video, Decoded: The science behind why we buy. This is the second edition now I think, Phil?

Phil Barden: Yes, it is Alison, that’s right. First one was published nearly 10 years ago, but lots has happened since.

Alison Jones: I mean, 10 years ago is a lifetime in sort of behavioral science and…

Phil Barden: …well, it is…

Alison Jones: …isn’t it?

Phil Barden: Yes, and the whole marketing of behavioral science has exploded in that time. There are many, many more practitioners, many more vendors and many more cases of course, because new academic and scientific studies are published on a, almost on a weekly basis.

So it…

Alison Jones: He said with relish…

Phil Barden: …yes, it’s a fast evolving field.

Alison Jones: Well, let’s take a step back a second and just kind of, you know, what is it we’re talking about here? Because you talk about decision science and how it applies to marketing. So for people kind of fresh to this, just just give us the sort of idiot’s guide.

Phil Barden: Well, decision science is a bit of a holistic term, which describes a group of different fields of academic and scientific study. All of which have to do with human decision making and human behavior and behavior change, so that it encompasses things like cognitive psychology, social and evolutionary psychology, neuroscience which can be cognitive and effective, and also go into greater depth, so visual neuroscience is a field in itself, for example. And more recently a field that’s become known as behavioral economics, popularized by a book called Nudge, which then manifested itself in several so-called Nudge Units in various governments around the world.

So decision science is really a catch all description for all of these different fields of study that have to do with human behavior and behavior change. And the reason why it’s so interesting to marketers, well, business people in general, is because marketing and advertising is fundamentally about behavior change. You want someone to buy your brand, switch to your brand, use more of it, talk about it, tell their friends about it, go on social media about it.

Whatever it is, it’s about human behavior. And what I found in my journey was that the fields of science and academia have studied this deliberately and systematically for decades, and the big sort of eye opener and revelation for me, having come at this from a purely commercial background, was that, naively thinking that I knew everything about behavior change and how brands worked and how advertising worked or didn’t work, that actually there was this huge repository of knowledge in science and academia that was dedicated to understanding this and could be leveraged, could be translated for the commercial world.

Alison Jones: I imagine there’s a little bit of pushback sometimes with marketing professionals on this, because marketing has been traditionally seen as creative, instinctual, you know, it’s that famous quote about half the ad budget is wasted, but nobody knows which half.

You know, there’s a sort of mystique about it. And in a sense, you’re just blasting through that, aren’t you?

Phil Barden: Well, it’s interesting you say that because the reaction that I have had now having sort of switched over to the other side of the fence, from having been a client for the vast majority of my career, to now being a supplier, a vendor, and going to talk to advertising agencies and clients, the reaction’s been quite polarized.

Some people say, Wow, this is amazing. It helps me understand so much more that I didn’t know the answers to, or now it explains hitherto unanswered questions. And at the other extreme you get a reaction, which is, as you say, this is all about magic. This is not about science. So please don’t try and explain creative genius using science.

And within that sort of response, I’ve had people actually change their opinion because, creative people, whether they’re in advertising or in design of course have huge, huge skills. But some of them have come to me after their initial negative, very defensive reaction and said, Actually, now I listen to you, now I understand some of this. It helps me be a better creative.

So I’ll give you a practical example. Many advertisements that you see, or designs, use capital letters only, and you’ll see lots of block text written in capitals. And that’s, I’ve found, that’s for two reasons. One is that the art director or designer who’s created it, believes that it will cut through because it’s going to be shouty, a bit like a newspaper headline.

And the other is, frankly, that it looks nicer than lowercase because it’s symmetrical and blocks better. And that is true. It does look nicer than lowercase. But what none of them know, and I have teased this out of them because I’ve found it’s not taught in art school or art college at all.

What none of them know is that actually using only capital letters is really effortful for people to read, and it slows down reading speed by up to 20-25%. And the reason is simple, because human beings learn to read words in lowercase. And once we’ve got past stringing the letters together and blending the letters, we learn the word shape and you destroy that when you put everything in capitals.

So if you want to have an effective advert, not just an ad that looks pretty, but one that communicates very easily for the brain in a brain friendly way, then you should be using lower case, not all capitals.

Alison Jones: And it makes complete sense to me as a publisher actually, when you think about how people set out the typography on a page and the readability of it, so beyond Gotcha, you just, you lose all the readability, don’t you, when it’s…

Phil Barden: Absolutely. And that’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever use capitals because of course you can use them to emphasize certain words or two or three words to make them pop out because they contrast with the surroundings and there are indeed some words whose shape we learn in capital letters.

So things like free, win, stop, buy, now, these sort of short words, we learn the shape so there’s no interruption in what the academics call fluency, which is the ease of processing in the brain. But if you put everything in capitals, oh it’s just, it just hurts. And in the end, human beings give up because it’s too much effort.

Alison Jones: And we feel shouted at, which is not good.

Phil Barden: Yes, that’s right.

Alison Jones: And another of the, it’s a really interesting specific point, love that, especially as a publisher as I say, love that. Another thing that really made me stop and think was when you were talking about how our goals define how we direct our attention.

So I think just to give people a flavor of the sort of stuff you’re talking about, just tell us a little bit more about that and why it matters. I think this is particularly relevant if you’re writing a book, honestly, for everybody.

Phil Barden: Yes, definitely and I think of all the things that I’ve learned from working with the scientists and academics in Decode, this is probably the most fundamental and the most important for marketing. And that is that human behavior is goal directed.

And what that means is, just to step back a little bit into the theory, we exist as you know, in our current states, as we actually are. And there is our current state, but there’s also like an ideal state. And if there is a, if we perceive a gap between our current state and our ideal state, that represents a goal and we will be motivated to fill the gap, to close the gap, to achieve the goal.

And these goals exist at a functional level. So if I’m thirsty, my goal is to quench my thirst. So I’m motivated to have a drink, or if I’m hungry, have something to eat, or if I’m tired, go to sleep, whatever it might be. So there are a whole range of functional goals, which are very easy for everyone to understand and relate to.

Alison Jones: Down the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Phil Barden: Well, it’s kind of like, kind of, yes. At the sort of the lower levels, the sort of homeostasis. And that also helps us understand why people buy and use certain categories. So if I’ve got dirty laundry, I will buy a detergent because my goal is to clean the laundry, right? That’s fairly obvious.

But there are also other types of goals which are much more implicit rather than explicit. So these are more social, emotional and psychological goals, that human beings either can’t self-report or won’t self-report. They’re much more to do with our sense of self purpose and self-esteem. So things like protection, reassurance, belonging, warmth, closeness is one set of goals.

Another set of goals might be to do with pride and power and self-confidence and superiority. And a third set of goals can be to do a novelty seeking, so excitement and change and variety and individuality. And we are constantly motivated to achieve these goals, and we’ve come to learn that brands, products and services, are instrumental in helping us achieve those goals.

And goals not only exist in terms of motivation, but they change our neurophysiology. So if I’m hungry, then I am more likely to look at food-related signage or imagery. And the really interesting thing is, I’m not consciously aware that I’m doing it. We have got a system in the brain which we use a metaphor of an autopilot because it just gets on and does its job kind of under the radar and automatically, which is constantly scanning our environment to help us achieve our goals and keep us alive, help us survive on the planet.

And we ran a really interesting experiment in Germany, where we recruited some people, put them into two groups. They were matched groups, so demographically they were identical. We gave them eye tracking glasses and then we sent them off down the same street in Germany and at the end of the street, we stopped them, retrieved the glasses and asked them what they had looked at.

And both groups reported that they’d looked at similar things, like their surroundings, other people, the shops. But when we analyzed the eye tracking data to see where they had actually been focusing their attention, there was a significant difference between the groups and actually the difference is explained by the fact that one of the groups were hungry and the other group had eaten.

And what we found was that the hungry group were looking far more at things like McDonald’s signs or food stalls, it was like an open market, whereas the group that weren’t hungry were looking at shops, they were looking at other people.

But both groups reported the same. The hungry group weren’t aware they were looking for food, but actually they had a goal that was motivating them and their attention was almost like a radar scanning for things that would help them meet their goals. It goes even further. So if, for example, we have learned over time that the Coca-Cola brand is instrumental in helping achieve a goal of refreshment and when that goal is relevant, a bit like for the hungry group, you know, the goal of ‘satisfy my hunger’ was relevant at that time. If we are thirsty and in need of refreshment, then the sensors in our optic nerves that deal with the color red become more sensitized. So we are even more likely to find Coca-Cola, with its red livery, because our brains have learned an association between Coca-Cola and refreshment.

So we’re trying to find that thing which has a very high reward value. It has a high goal value because it’s going to help us meet our goal of refreshment. So it is an incredibly powerful system to understand because it not only motivates our purchase behavior, but our daily behavior and our choices.

Alison Jones: And it’s fascinating as a consumer, but the reason I think it’s, and the reason I wanted to highlight it here as well, is that I think, you know, as product designers, but also as writers of, sharing our expertise, we tend to focus on the features. We tend to focus on the rational elements and explaining ourselves and isn’t all this really fascinating, and it’s very easy to forget that nobody’s going to care if you are not signaling that you are meeting a need.

So that sort of awareness, that this is how we make decisions, that people who are in a particular space, or particular sort of neurological impulse, to meet a particular need, those are the people you want to be reaching. Then you have to really speak to that so that they can recognize you. You have to put your Coca-Cola flag up, whatever that looks like to you.

Yes, it’s fascinating.

Phil Barden: Yes, it explains so much of human behavior the more that I work with it, and we use a model which I show in the book, of these implicit goals that is, well, firstly, it’s complete. There are no new goals. It is what it is, they have evolved over millennia, so it’s a complete model. But it’s also universal, which means we can use it across countries and across categories, as well as demographies and it’s utterly fascinating to work with clients and help them understand what drives and motivates purchase in their category, and then also for their brand, and how does their brand differ to the competitors within that category. Because that will then help them understand what associations with which particular goals they need to focus on and build and strengthen in order to become more competitive and take share from another brand.

Alison Jones: It’s absolutely fascinating. I want to talk about the writing as well, because you know, I always do. And I’m just wondering, I am always interested when I’m talking to professional marketers, how far that marketing instinct and what you know about how to capture people’s attention, how far does that inform your writing and in what way?

Phil Barden: Well, instinct is built on years of experience and can be very valuable. You know, it’s what we call sort of gut feel, if you like. What I’ve found actually in my whole journey through, and into decision science, is that a lot of the instincts that I had built over 20 plus years working with clients, were wrong, and that was quite a shock because I’d been using a certain mental model and the way I would’ve written a book like this prior to working with guys who spent their careers in science and academia, the way I would’ve written it would’ve been very different because I had grown up with very different mental models of how communication works.

So I had to unlearn and unpick some of the stuff that I had learned and relearn, learn something new. And I think the approach was very much, what I wanted to do was make it accessible to people like me. So I haven’t got a PhD in neuroscience and I never will have. But I’ve spent a long time on the client side of the desk marketing brands.

And so I kind of felt if I could understand it, you know, anyone could. So the approach to writing was very much, let me take the science and put it in layman’s terms, but also be very clear how the science could be applied and leveraged so it’s not just a sort of a brain dump of Oh Look… Here’s a bunch of fascinating studies, fascinating though they are, but more importantly, what does this mean for us as marketeers? So how should we apply it? Provocative questions as well. You know, I would explain a concept and then say, Right, you think about this, think through X, Y, and Z. See if you come to a different answer.

So that kind of, that was my way of getting people onto a similar journey that I’ve had because what I now know, and there’s even a name for this in decision science, is that if you confront people with information that contradicts their existing mental models or paradigms it evokes a what the scientists called reactance, which is like a defensive and negative response in defense.

 And there’s even a name for it. It’s called the Semmelweis reflex, which is a tendency to reject new information if it contradicts with my existing beliefs or paradigms. And the reason why we reject it is because it’s potentially threatening, you know, we have to expend cognitive effort to understand something new. And the status quo is safe, because I know it’s secure.

But if there’s something that risks upsetting the status quo, that’s threatening and that’s why we exhibit this type of response.

Alison Jones: That’s tied up to identity as well, isn’t it? I mean, I was really struck before when you said about all my instincts were wrong, and you said it almost casually, but actually, I mean, that’s an existential crisis for a lot of…

Phil Barden: …at the time, yes, absolutely. I can look back on it now and realize what went on. But at the time, deeply, deeply uncomfortable. Yes, you’re absolutely right because, you know, I had guys who were professors and had PhDs in fields of decision science saying, Well, you know, what you’re telling me Phil is not how the brain works. You know, you may think that but that’s not what science tells us. That’s not what science knows. And so to be challenged and confronted like that was indeed deeply uncomfortable, and it took me quite a while to come through that and it was based on personal experience. So I was a client of Decode and the work we did together was so impactful and so successful commercially.

It was the relaunch of the T-Mobile brand and it resulted in what was a famous ad in the UK, over 10 years ago now, but a flash mob dance at London’s Liverpool Street Station.

Alison Jones: Remember it well, yes.

Phil Barden: And that one ad grew sales by 49%. It doubled footfall into T-Mobile stores within 48 hours of going on air. It’s got more than 41 million YouTube views. And that was astonishing.

And it took me and the company by surprise, but just being part of that experience and witnessing the power of applying decision science to marketing helped me through the journey. And the more I sort of read and the more I talked to the guys at Decode, the more comfortable I felt and a lot of this just felt right because in my previous 20 years there had been lots of unanswered questions. There’d been a lot of frustrations. You know, you test an ad and it performs well in research. You put it on air and it fails or vice versa, and no one can ever explain exactly why. Lots of people have lots of different hypotheses which may or may not be plausible, but it’s never perfect.

And it wasn’t until I worked with decision science that the pieces of the jigsaw really started to fit together. So yes, deeply uncomfortable to be challenged like that, but the more you work with it and the more you witness it working, the more it makes sense and hence the more comfortable one becomes with it.

Alison Jones: But that’s a challenge as an author, isn’t it, because you’re not in the room with somebody and you can’t kind of disarm their objections. So how as an author, when you’re presenting someone with something that feels unfamiliar, that goes against their instincts, are there ways that you can convince people or kind of disarm that instinctive rejection of what it is you’re saying?

Phil Barden: I think it’s by using cases, case studies and examples, and bringing it to life for them in ways that they understand. So using language that, as I said layman’s terms, using language that’s familiar, to explain concepts, which themselves will be unfamiliar. But using those concepts to bring things to life and then saying, Okay, so this is the theory. Here’s the concept. Here’s how you apply it, and now here’s what you should do as a marketeer.

And I think that that sort of very simple step through the process is what works. And I’m delighted to have had lots of feedback from people saying, This is really practical. You know, we’ve read lots of books written by academics, which are great at telling you all the wonderful studies, but they don’t tell you the ‘so what’, they don’t tell you the ‘now what’. And that’s what I hope my book does.

Alison Jones: It’s the biggest demand, I think, of a business book author. You’ve got to engage with the ‘so what’, haven’t you, for your readers. Brilliant.

So I always ask people for their best tip. So if somebody’s listening who hasn’t yet started on their business book, or they’re starting and grappling with it, what would you say to them?

I guess I’m asking you, what do you wish you’d known when you started?

Phil Barden: I wish I’d known how long it would take.

Alison Jones: Don’t tell them that.

Phil Barden: Well it depends. It does depend how much time you have at your disposal because I was running my own business in parallel, so it was very much snatched time. So, you know, late night calls with my colleagues in Decode to check stuff and really carving out some time, sort of very early morning. I’m a morning person. I tend to work better when I’m sort of fresh and newly awake rather than late at night. Just carving out time to do it in amongst all of the other pressures of the day to day.

But in all it took a year to do. It would’ve been a lot less if I’d had just the free time to concentrate on it.

Alison Jones: You say that, it’s not always true.

Phil Barden: No, no, that’s true. I mean, you know, the task always expands to fill the time available, doesn’t it? But discipline, I think is the key. Punctuating your day, carving out a period of time every day that you can devote to it.

Also having time to review things as well. Because you kind of, you build up a head of steam and you rush and you think that’s great I’ve finished, but then put it to bed and revisit it as well. Because one of the other things I’ve learned from decision science is, you’ll have heard the expression sleep on it, and somehow, you know, in the morning if you’ve been wrestling with an issue and you’re in the shower or whatever, and the answer or an idea pops into your head, it’s because this autopilot in your brain it never sleeps it continues to work.

So, having worked a lot on a book, then put it to one side, let it gestate in the brain and then come back fresh to revisit and edit. I think that’s a very powerful tip.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Really good tips. Thank you. Yes, I recognize all those, also I take it out on a run that always seems to help as well.

Phil Barden: Yes. Yes

Alison Jones: Yes, what book would you recommend that listeners should grab a hold of and read? And you’re not allowed to say Decoded obviously.

Phil Barden: Obviously. Well, there’s an author that I really like, he’s in the same space and he’s come at this in a broadly similar way. He came from the advertising and media side and came into decision science. But the interesting thing that he’s done is that he has run his own experiments. So he talks about a concept, talks about the studies and the findings, but then has set up his own tests and trials specifically related to advertising.

The book is called The Choice Factory and it’s by a guy called Richard Shotton. It’s very readable. I love his style. It’s very easy to read. And it’s a great introduction to, he lists, I think there’s about 20 or 25 particular cognitive biases, but then applies them to advertising.

So I’d certainly recommend that one.

Alison Jones: Actually, I know that one because it was in the Business Book Awards a couple of years back. It’s extremely good book. Yes, really, really good. Yes. Great recommendation. Thank you.

And just a side note, it’s really interesting as well, often first time authors are a bit nervous about competing titles or titles in their space. They feel a bit shy about them, a bit awkward about them.

It’s really nice to hear someone say, there’s this book in my space which I think is really interesting. I like that, it’s just you’re part of a conversation and your relationship with the people who are in that space is one of sort of collaborators and people who are moving the conversation forward rather than competitors.

Phil Barden: Absolutely. Yes, and I take the view that decision science is by no means mainstream within sales and marketing, whether it’s UK or elsewhere. And so people, like myself and Richard, whilst at one level, we compete with each other, but on another level we want to grow the whole size of the pie.

Alison Jones: Yes, the same same side.

Phil Barden: You know, then we both win out of that.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. So it’s a nice point for any business book author I think that. Brilliant. Thank you so much.

Now, if people want to find out more about you, more about Decoded, Phil, where should they go?

Phil Barden: Well Decoded, they can find on Amazon, it’s the easiest. If they want to connect with me or find out more about me. I’m on LinkedIn and also Twitter. My Twitter handle is @PhilBarden, P h i l b a r d e n. I’d be very happy to connect with people and continue a conversation.

Alison Jones: Fantastic, and I’ll put those links up on, well, the Twitter link on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com.

Such a fascinating topic and a really great conversation, could have spoken to you all day. Thank you so much, Phil.

Phil Barden: Oh, thank you, Alison. It’s been a pleasure.

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