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The purchase funnel isn't curvaceous enough

Opinion, 07 January 2010

People lived in a state of positive expectation. There were relatively few products and great demand. Most products enjoyed high brand differentiation. This was the world circa the 1950s and '60s, the era when most of the marketing models in use today were developed; for example, the purchase funnel, which measures advertising effectiveness.

But while the world has changed dramatically, and despite the rise of digital and the downturn of the economy, most of the old marketing axioms and assumptions are still operative, miring marketers in an approach that was designed for a bygone era. 

Take the relationship between supply and demand - it's been reversed. Now demand is scarce, supply plentiful. Second, over the past half-century we have learned so much more about what makes people tick and how they engage with brands.

We now know that people are not two-dimensional demographic datum to be manipulated into action by coupons or the latest hot-button. The latest evidence from anthropology, linguistics and neuroscience demonstrates that humans attach to things - be it a product, person or idea - through a process of identification that coalesces longings at the personal, social and societal levels.

Peoples' experience and behavior cannot be comprehended by the old-school logical, linear conceptions of human action. What Don DeLillo said about how he enters writing a book is true for life in general: "Things begin to happen just outside the range of the immediate action. There's very little sense of logic behind it.''

So now that we agree life is not a straight line, marketers need to accept methods and tools that address this reality. A case in point is the Purchase Funnel, an  invited guest that attends most new business pitch or initial client meetings: Awareness, Consideration, Preference, Action, Loyalty. 

People are not linear

Funnel or repetitive loop, it matters not. The human, cognitive dynamics of the attachment process are the issue, not the number of touch-points or channels.

When one considers consumers as people, one immediately appreciates that logic is a puny force in the face of emotion and beliefs, that identities trump interests, and narrative transforms products into personally-relevant stories crafted by one's own brand of meaning. In this art-like, improvisational, non-linear process, awareness does not precede consideration, then tumble into preference and finally into action.

Zig-Zagging to Attachment

In actuality, the attachment process carves a zigzag route, sometimes even regressing before making a mobius strip of convolutions in the service of the emotional reasoning, as people make symbolic associations with what they deem familiar, participatory and self-expansive in their image of the product.

Only if and when the product is successfully transformed into a personally-meaningful idea, does manufacturer and advertiser reap the benefit of the person's loyalty to self - not to the product.  This process can take time or immediately convulse but, in either case, the best a marketer can hope for is a spasm of sentiment that bears no logical relationship to the product attributes.

As examples, note what two people say about Apple's iPhone:

"Apple is a smile. It makes me smile. I'm a happy person. Apple and me are the same."

"The iPhone, like Apple, is a circle, it's smooth and it glides. It's easy and feels good. All other phones and providers are a box; they have corners and squares, are highly structured, have many rules, are too technical and linear. And they are too corporate. The iPhone is fun and natural and lets me do my own thing."

Purchase funnel vs. Yellow Brick Road

The emotional logic of human longing and attachment is as merciless as the laws of gravity, but a lot more curvaceous.  At this tick of the clock the time is right for marketers to comes to terms with the meanderings of authentic human life, and reflect back to the people - in creative, artful ways - their true nature: poised and unsettled, majestic and mundane, courageous and hesitant, marooned and moored, tough and tender. Only then will it be possible for marketers to have their share in attracting people while, at the same time, having people (AKA: the "consumer") soar.

Marketers need to acknowledge and respect people as curvaceous souls, and supplant the purchase funnel with the image and idea of The Yellow Brick Road: the product as venue for peoples' realization of what is already authentically latent in themselves.  

This will both re-humanize advertising and make it, once again, a cultural act. Then people may be again inclined towards more products and again love advertising the way they did in the era of Bill Bernback and David Ogilvy.

DeLillo has written, "Longing on a large scale is what makes history." Longing cannot be funneled. Marketers take heed.

About the author

From contributing to Military Review ("The Droning of Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy", Sept/Oct 2009), Joint Force Quarterly magazines ("Ambassadors to the World", Jan 2010), to speaking to the USG Intragency Committee of Strategic Communications (published in Vital Speeches of the Day, December 2009) to portraying a college professor in a McDonald's commercial, cognitive anthropologist Dr. Bob Deutsch breaks the mould.

The founder and president of consulting firm Brain Sells (, Boston, MA, Bob has worked in the primeval forest and on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenues.  His focus, since the mid-'70s, when he was living with pre-literate tribes and chimpanzees, has been to understand how leading ideas take hold in cultures.

Since opening Brain Sells, in 1990, he has applied this understanding to how people attach to products, persons and performances.  He is fond of saying, "Reasoned judgment about attributes is not the issue.  The brain evolved to act, NOT to think." Brain Sells' retail clients include: TJ Maxx, Marshall's, Home Goods, Radio Shack, Sephora, Verizon stores, McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, and Toyota.

You can count on the good Dr. for one to two posts monthly.

You can link to his website He should soon have a blog to link to as well.