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A marketing expert explains why American consumers buy what they buy.
Beckwith (You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself, 2007, etc.) runs his marketing firm on principles that have attracted more than 20 clients from the Fortune 200, as well as start-up venture-capitalized companies. The author's three basic principles revolve around childhood experiences (the love of play, love of surprise and love of stories); fitting into the overall culture (desire to be individualists some of the time, a part of groups some of the time, and wanting to feel optimistic); and wanting to see beauty in design.Consumer products aim to trigger happiness in potential buyers. After all, Beckwith writes, while the Enlightenment French expressed their goals with the phrase "liberty, equality and fraternity," the new American nation embraced "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Marketers of products cannot rely on logic to sell. Consumers frequently decide based on their feelings rather than on evidence, "then reassemble the facts to support [their] decision." Beckwith opens with an extended example involving the best clutch shooter in professional basketball. The author demonstrates that fans and even professional players believe Kobe Bryant fills that role, when statistics show that he is a misguided choice. The author explains that the reason Malcolm Gladwell's books have become so successful is because he has figured out how to tap in to what American consumers want to read and hear. This book is reminiscent of Gladwell's bestsellers, with the notable difference that Beckwith's interesting stories tend to be much more abbreviated than Gladwell's. Beckwith discusses countless companies and their products, looking at how executives accumulate and lose fortunes through branding and positioning in the marketplace. For example, the author explains why Krispy Kreme doughnuts achieved remarkable popularity, only to then fall out of fashion. For many Krispy Kreme customers, the attraction derived not so much from the taste of the sweets as from the difficulty of finding Krispy Kreme stores. When the doughnuts no longer qualified as a cult item—caused by the corporate decision to sell them at Target and convenience stores—the idea of Krispy Kremes changed and the lure dissipated.
An approachable primer with an upbeat tone, grounded in a mixture of cynicism and shrewdness.
In February 2009, the editors of Sports Illustrated asked the players in the National Basketball Association a question to which the editors already knew the answer: “With a game on the line—where one shot will win or lose it—which player would you choose to take the last shot?”
Every basketball fan can guess the players’ answer: Kobe Bryant, the handsome veteran All Star shooting guard of the world-champion Los Angeles Lakers. The voting wasn’t close; 76 percent of the players chose Bryant. In a tie for a remote second place, Denver’s Chauncey Billups, Boston’s Paul Pierce, and Cleveland’s LeBron James each won just 3 percent of the votes.
Like basketball fans, Kobe’s NBA colleagues had seen ESPN’s highlights for years, which included over a dozen clips of Bryant making game-winning shots. In “crunch time,” as fans call these final moments, Kobe’s chiseled face conveys that any resistance to him will be futile. That’s why fans and players often repeat, “Kobe is the Man.”
So Kobe was the expected choice, the logical choice, the overwhelming choice; he received more than twenty-five times more votes than each of the three runners-up. There was just one problem:
It was a horrible choice.
We know this because in the 2003–2004 season, 82games.com started tracking these last-minute shots. Their computations showed that between the start of the 2003–2004 season and the time of the Sports Illustrated poll, Kobe had made fourteen last-minute shots. That’s a lot—more than two shots per season—but three players had made more, most notably James, who had made seventeen.
But the problem with the players’ choice wasn’t that Kobe doesn’t make these shots. He does. But as skilled as he is at making them, at that point he’d proven even more adept at missing them. He’d missed forty-two: 75 percent of his shots!
For perspective, compare Bryant’s numbers with those of Carmelo Anthony, the 6-foot-8-inch small forward for the Denver Nuggets. Kobe Bryant looks like a stone killer at crunch time, but Anthony plays like one. In “clutch” situations in the 2008–2009 season—with a game in the last five minutes or in overtime, with neither team having more than a five-point lead—Anthony made 56.5 percent of his shots. Bryant made 45.7 percent.
On three-point attempts, Anthony performed even better, making an amazing 58.5 percent of these attempts, compared to Bryant’s 40 percent. (The league’s season record for the three-point percentage is 52.4 percent.)
And on game-winning shot attempts with fewer than twenty-four seconds remaining, how did Anthony fare? Again, “Melo” was mellow: 48.1 percent—almost twice Kobe’s 25 percent.
Despite what most NBA players thought they’d seen and believed they knew, Kobe Bryant is not a great last-minute shooter. He’s not even an average player in these situations; the NBA last-minute shot average is 29.8 percent. Had Kobe been merely average, the Lakers would have won two more games over that stretch. Had Kobe possessed Anthony’s gift in these situations, the Lakers could have won as many as twenty-three additional games—almost three more wins per year.
The players hardly could have made a worse choice. Several NBA players had made at least half of their last-minute shots at the time of voting, and Travis Outlaw of the Portland Trail Blazers had made six out of seven.
Which raises the question: Could the NBA players have made a worse choice?
The players could have chosen the player who, on thirty-seven last-minute shots, had made just six, a woeful 16.2 percent, for the worst record in the league. Now that guy is absolutely the last NBA player you would want to take a last-minute shot. Whatever you do, do not choose him. Give the ball to anyone else. If you can’t think of anyone else, shoot the ball yourself.
And that man’s name? It’s Chauncey Billups—the man who got the second-most votes in this poll.
How could these players, with their night-to-night, eighty-two regular-season games a year, and weeks and weeks of playoffs, and all the knowledge that comes with that, make two such bad choices? And this is the best answer:
These players are just like us.
All of us quickly learn rules of thumb—shortcuts for making decisions that psychologists call heuristics. We learn and use them because we must; we don’t have the time to ponder every decision. And one of our favorite heuristics is stereotyping: Older is wiser, accountants are analytical, and huge animals aren’t agile. The NBA players were doing what we do every day: They were shortcutting.
Let’s see how.
To understand the players’ unthinking, look at the phrase that describes Kobe Bryant: “the world-champion Los Angeles Lakers’ handsome veteran All Star shooting guard.”
Because of their years of title-winning success (only the Boston Celtics have won more NBA championships) and their position in the nation’s second-largest media market, the Lakers appear on television more often than any other team. Television executives know there aren’t enough viewers in Carmelo Anthony’s Denver—or in Outlaw’s then-home of Portland—to justify covering those teams when there are so many more viewers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. So for every time that Anthony’s Nuggets appear on national television, Bryant’s Lakers appear five times.
As a result, Kobe has the most often seen face in professional basketball; he’s familiar. And as we will see throughout this book, we humans are unusually biased toward choosing things that seem familiar.
To make Kobe even more familiar to fans and players, Kobe is a veteran. At the time of the NBA poll, Kobe was midway through his thirteenth NBA season, having skipped college and gone straight to the NBA in 1996. Anthony and James were just in their sixth seasons, relative new kids. That longevity made Kobe even more familiar.
In addition, when we hear “veteran,” we make other favorable assumptions about a player; we stereotype. We call veterans “cool” and often “wily.” We think veterans have acquired the emotional makeup to withstand late-game pressure and the cleverness, based on their many years of play, to find some way to get the ball into the basket. So we want a veteran shooting a last-minute shot—a thirteen-year veteran like Kobe.
And lo and behold, if Kobe isn’t available, then the NBA players want twelve-year veteran Chauncey Billups, the NBA’s worst last-minute shooter, to take the shot instead.
Two other words gave the players a shortcut to deciding. Basketball is played with five players on a team, each with specific roles with specific names.
First, there are the centers. They usually stand about 7 feet tall and are most skilled at retrieving missed shots and making shots near the basket. Centers are rarely good long-distance shooters, in part because it’s foolish to practice 20-foot shots when you can perfect slamming the ball through the hoop from inches away.
So you don’t want a center taking a last-minute shot. He’s not prepared.
A basketball team also sports two forwards. One is bigger and stronger and called the power forward. The other is smaller and faster and called the small forward.
That leaves two more players: the guards. The first directs the offense, which is why he’s called the point guard.
That’s four players, and it doesn’t sound like you want any of them shooting a last-minute shot. Centers aren’t good shooters, big guys lack finesse, small guys are small, and point guards direct the offense but aren’t usually known for their shooting.
Fortunately, the final position sounds ideal for taking this last-minute shot. This player’s primary role is to shoot, often from a distance, which forces defensive players to come out to stop him. He’s called the shooting guard, and—as you knew or just guessed—that’s Kobe Bryant’s position.
You do want the shooting guard shooting your last shot, don’t you? Especially the twelve-time All Star shooting guard—wouldn’t he be the best shooter in the league?
Another force that biased the players’ choice is one that biases all of our choices: money. We consistently take price as a quality signal; the higher the price, the higher the perceived quality. In 2009, Kobe’s salary from the Lakers was $23,034,375, a total surpassed only by the $23,329,561 earned by the Houston Rockets’ Tracy McGrady, who had been injured for three months when the editors polled the players.
One final element may have influenced the players’ choice: Kobe’s face. It’s beautiful; People magazine has featured Kobe twice in its annual “50 Most Beautiful People” issue. Looks tricks us, repeatedly, in ways we will explore. We think attractive people are more intelligent, honest, and emotionally sound—better than average at almost everything. Other things being nearly equal, we want the beautiful person to make the presentation, land our plane in Minneapolis, and take the last shot.
Now, many Americans react to this entire argument in a typical American way, insisting, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” They see statistics like Kobe Bryant’s ugly 25-percent performance on last-minute shots and respond, “I don’t care what the numbers might say. You can prove anything with statistics.”
That’s not true.
There are many things you cannot prove with statistics. You cannot prove that it’s safer to drive 95 miles an hour than to drive 60; you cannot prove that New York Decembers are warmer than New York Augusts; and you cannot prove that Kobe Bryant is a good choice for making a last-minute shot—unless your only other choice is Chauncey Billups.
But you can prove that every day, we make odd choices like the NBA players did in this case. Why? Shortcutting is one answer, and the second lurks deep in each of us. Within the last five years, I’ve been inside two Fortune 100 companies that made critical decisions: choosing a provider for a massive outsourcing contract in the first case and picking a new investment bank in the second. In each case, the companies’ decision makers tried to assemble all the facts but still couldn’t decide; something was missing. So they made unannounced visits to their finalists’ headquarters, felt the pulse, got a feeling, then flew home and chose their firms. How did all of them explain their final choice?
“It just felt right.”
That’s the rule, not the exception. When our shortcuts don’t work, we decide with our feelings, usually within seconds, then reassemble the facts to support our decision. So what are these feelings that lead us to choose what we choose?
An important force that explains the players’ choice is fear. We deeply fear looking and feeling foolish. Like all those corporate purchasing agents in the 1980s who knew the axiom that “no one ever got fired for choosing IBM,” the NBA players knew they’d never look foolish for choosing Kobe. Even if Kobe missed, they and everyone else still would think they’d made the right choice.
This book examines three major influences that drive our feelings—our childhoods, our American culture, and our eyes—and it’s to those influences, and some of the most remarkable stories I have ever heard, that we now turn.
Excerpted from Unthinking by Beckwith, Harry Copyright © 2011 by Beckwith, Harry. Excerpted by permission.
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