Why marketers should study biology

Everything we need to know (as marketers) we learned in biology class. I kid you not. I’m not talking about university-level courses such as neurobiology or cognitive/ behavioral psychology – which are certainly relevant to our field but beside the point I’m making.

I’m referring to the basic knowledge we absorbed – or perhaps ignored – in high school, when our teachers tried in earnest to teach us about two subjects: how our cells work at a basic level, and how groups of animals behave in flocks and herds. These are things you can basically learn today from good Netflix and BBC documentaries about nature. In these realms are clues that will help us understand at a deeper level why, as individuals and as groups, we behave the way we do, and why we respond to certain stimuli (messages, offers, brands) and not to others.

It will be a distant or vague memory for many of us, but in biology we learned that every cell has a “permeable membrane”, an outer shell designed to allow certain molecules to interact with it and even enter the boundaries of the cell, while other molecules are kept out. We also learned that there are things in our bodies called “enzymes”, which act as factory foremen and facilitators for cellular function.

There are different enzymes for different purposes. For example, there’s a specific enzyme responsible for producing red blood cells, and a different one for creating immune cells. An enzyme has a particular structure – one that is adapted for a specific purpose and designed to communicate and engage certain cells in our body. This enzyme literally attaches to the membrane of the cell, like a key fits into a lock. When that “click” happens, the chemical reaction begins and an important, life-giving function ensues.

Why is this relevant to us as marketers? Because human personalities are like cells – semi-permeable systems with specific patterns that are kept active, resulting in a situation where we readily receive certain messages and ignore others. Whether we are driving to work, watching television in our peripheral vision as we cook dinner, or scanning a website or social media feed for relevant news, our minds are ruthlessly triaging and ignoring most messages that are irrelevant, in favour of ones that matter.

When the “chemical structure” of certain messages “fit” our neuropsychology quite well, we pay attention, and might even be changed a bit by interacting with it. It could be news about a recent election, or a seat sale on an airline we use frequently. It could be a flavor at Starbucks that happens to appeal to us on a sensual/emotional level at a certain time – like pumpkin spice latte during October and November, or eggnog during December.

Or, it could be a brand message or an ad that, because of the combination of words, position, images, etc., strikes a note with us.

Whatever the message is, if it is designed with a clear understanding of our psychology, includes the things that matter to us, and the packaging  appeals to us, then we pay attention.

As marketers, we should take inspiration from the very cells and enzymes in our bodies, and think like they do. If we can first determine the structure and content of the ideas that are most active in the minds of our customers, we can then design the messages and actions to fit that psychology like lock and key – resulting in a chemical reaction that changes their behavior in our favor.