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Reframing Marketing Psychology



From the desktop of Amanda Vande Brake for the Technology Marketing Center Leaders' blog.

As the year comes to a close, I’ve been taking stock of all the new beginnings I’ve enjoyed in 2016. Earlier this year, my husband and I officially joined marketing forces and formed our consulting and design firm KINDRED LA after years of individually working with clients. The biggest new beginning of all, though, came when I landed, gnarled, dazed and with a thud, on my longer-term career path and began coursework toward becoming a psychotherapist and psychologist.

Whoa, Really!?!

Ever since I started down this path, I’ve heard the widest range of responses like “Whoa, that’s a leap! How’d you ever decide on psychology?” to “Well, that sounds like fun. I mean, everyone has so many problems today, I’m sure you’ll be busy,” to a skeptical or shocked “Really!?!”. 

Really, though, it doesn’t feel like a leap to me. I like to think of my new area of interest as offering the inward-facing balance to my previously outward-facing efforts, giving me a stronger foothold for tackling whatever consulting challenges my clients bring forward. I see marketing, or at least my deep-and-wide experience of the practice of marketing in the digital age, as the massive-scale efforts of Group A to connect with Group B (and C, D, E and F) for the purpose of X, Y and Z.

While real-world, authentic relationships aren’t this binary - and, let’s be real, neither are real-world marketing efforts, either - our psyches, just like our target markets and audiences, are always in contact with other context-making entities like our partner, our friends, our family and even our unconscious selves, shaping our experience of the world and ourselves. And although working concurrently in the two fields of marketing and psychology makes perfect sense to me, my coming out as a psychology graduate student has clearly revealed to me that these two areas just don’t seem to overlap or relate in most people’s eyes.

A Perfect or Toxic Match?

From informing where certain products are placed within a certain type of consumer’s path through a retail store to the shapes and colors used in a business’ logo, psychology, or the science or study of the human mind and behavior, is at the center of countless marketing disciplines. The user-centered design wave that took off in the 1990s relied heavily on scientific insights similar to those pouring out of traditional academic psychology’s ‘rats and stats’ approach to understanding human mental processes and behavior. Demographics stepped aside to give their friend Psychographics some room as social media was taking off in the Web 2.0 era. Marketing’s more recent obsessions with Big Data, machine learning and predictive modeling all point to the industry’s reliance on better ways for understanding the human psyche and behavior.

Sigmund Freud & Associates

While the connection between marketing and psychology is long standing, it’s also inextricably tied to a quest for power over consumers’ choices, big and small. In researching for this post, I stumbled upon the story of Edward Bernays (1891-1995), commonly referred to as the father of public relations . . . who . . . was also the nephew of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. At age 27, Bernays led the successful wartime effort of Woodrow Wilson under the slogan, “Making the world safe for democracy.” Shocked at how effective his methods of applying the science of psychology to sway public opinion were, Bernays doubled down on his approach and worked to apply them during peacetime, working with those at the highest levels of government, commerce and policy to scientifically “engineer consent” while also bolstering his as well as his uncle’s respective states-side popularity.

The legacy of the marketing-psychology mashup, especially amid today’s polarized and unstable political and social climate, is as alarming as it is enlightening to me. No wonder my move into the field of psychology while continuing my work in marketing is so charged and strikes such a distinct chord within my marketing network. There is a source of power in this connection or integration; however, the power I’m interested in establishing a relationship with has to do with rehumanizing the connections we have with our self and others and is not for manipulation at any level.

New Job Description

According to a popular online human resources recruiting site, a Marketing Psychologist is “a person who studies the psychology of what attracts people to merchandise, and what impels them to prefer one product over another. This is done by a close study of how age, gender, culture, interests, education, personal philosophies, and other factors combine to drive buying behavior.” In order to make the most of the potential found where these fields overlap, I propose the following: a Marketing Psychologist is one who studies the complexities of the human psyche - body, mind, soul - to shape how products and services can better serve the individual and society, finding a balance between corporate and brand goals with the needs of the consumer.

We’ve already seen how ‘purpose-driven’ marketing is effective via brands’ alignments with nonprofits, one-for-one businesses like Tom’s and user-centered design. So, rather than perpetuating the manipulative and trickster-like application of psychology to marketing that the previous job description describes, I’m committed to reframing marketing psychology to be the regenerative and creative force it can be while I continue to explore opportunities for re-humanizing marketing communications however possible.



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