As behavioural economics, and its cousin behavioural science, move into the business domain, and are settling down in sales, user experience, product design and management and advertising. An important question has arisen: what’s actually the difference between marketing and the behavioural sciences? Initially you might go: “What an odd question, these fields are very different!” But are they? When you really look into the foundations of what marketing and behavioural science study and aim to understand and influence, or they really that different?
If you ask a layman what marketing is, they’ll give you an answer that focusses around the idea of influencing and persuading people to buy certain products. If you take it more broader it’s the influencing of behaviour in a certain direction. This direction is often towards selling products, as we are talking about a business domain, but you could easily run a marketing campaign on healthy eating or weight loss. Marketing as a research field aims to find which levers it needs to pull and how it needs to pull them to make you behave in a certain way. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Let’s go back to the influencing of behaviour. Healthy eating and weight loss as mentioned before have been key items when it comes to behavioural scientific interventions. Popular science books such as Nudge are filled with examples of interventions that show how people can be made to eat less, eat healthier, exercise more, become more self-disciplined etc. So this isn’t unique to either field. As a behavioural scientist I like to think that “my” field is the one that has research that truly goes into depth when it comes to understanding behaviour. Truly diving into “why things happen” rather than just making them happen. It’s cool to find correlational or even causal relationships between things. But it is better to understand the underlying mechanism that create that relationship. And that can influence it. Comparatively, marketing seems much more superficial. Much more aimed at result rather than knowledge creation. And I suppose for marketing in a predominantly corporate context, this holds true. It is true that if you’re trying to sell products, it’s important to know what makes people buy more of them. It’s important to understand, predict and potentially create hype, and profit of it. And in a world that has different hypes for different days of the week, this leaves relatively little time, or even desire, to conduct research that goes much deeper into the underlying mechanism. However, this is, in my humble opinion, only true for marketing in a corporate context. But marketing is an academic research field as well. And within that field, studies do go much deeper in the creating of frameworks, and trying to understand human perception and decision-making. And then its research becomes closely aligned with that of behavioural science.
Ultimately, I think behavioural science and marketing are very similar. Sure, there are different ways to approach either field. Marketing is much more applied in a business context, whereas behavioural science has a much stronger grounding in academia, and increasingly in policy making. Regardless of this, I think we should keep our eyes open to a merger of the two. Marketing can go much deeper if it’s taken out of the business context. And behavioural science isn’t immune to this either. The “superficiality” that is associated with corporate marketing is sneaking into behavioural scientific applications into business as well. Don’t think for a second that behavioural science can escape blatant generalizations, large scale misinterpretations and misuse of its scientific insights. I think this is something to worry about. I think behavioural science can prove a useful redirection for some of the marketing research. I think marketing as a field should be a case study for behavioural science as to what the future could look like. And whether behavioural scientist want the future to look like that.
All in all, behavioural science and marketing have quite a bit of overlap, whether they like it or not. But, not every marketing campaign has behavioural scientific insights at its core. And not all behavioural science has been designed with a marketing purpose. Both fields aim to influence behaviour. How deep they take this is up to the individual. I think either field can learn a lot by taking things from the other.