Much of what we do as humans is a form of signalling. In a nutshell, that’s what marketing is - a costly form of signalling. It’s an investment of time, resource and money into signalling to prospects exactly why they should do business with you.
In 1975, Amotz Zahavi (an evolutionary biologist) developed what has come to be known as the Costly Signalling Theory (CST). CST proposes that expensive and/or wasteful behavioural or morphological signals seen in nature, serve to instil trust between the signaller and observers.
A prime example is a male peacock. In 1860, Charles Darwin wrote, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.” This seemingly useless display of plumage contradicted his theory of natural selection.
As far as Darwin was concerned - how could this conspicuous, cumbersome tail serve to improve the bird’s evolutionary fitness? It would surely be a sitting duck (or peacock, in this scenario) for predators to easily identify and snap up. However, after further study Darwin came to realise that the male peacock’s tail served as an indicator of sexual fitness, increasing the male bird’s chances of reproductive success.
“Fine, that’s all well and good, but what does a flippin’ peacock have to do with marketing?” - I hear you cry (or maybe that’s just the voices in my head again). Well, the (not so) humble male peacock is just one of many examples of CST found in nature.
Before the advent of conventional marketing, organisms the world over have been advertising their wares in one form or another. All in the name of survival. So if CST is leveraged by all living things to signal genetic prowess and increase the likelihood of survival, then what can we learn from this that can be applied to marketing?
Well, the purpose of marketing is to invoke memorability and trust. CST is a powerful tool that can help us achieve this when devising messaging and other creative assets. For instance, if all flowers looked and smelled the same they would have no competitive advantage over the other flowers. As a result, Berty Bee & Co. would have no way of distinguishing which flowers to return to when on the lookout for more delicious nectar. Thereby, reducing the flower’s chances of spreading its seed.
To quote Rory Sutherland (Author, serial TED Speaker, and marketing powerhouse): “A flower is a weed with an advertising budget.”
A beautiful flower with its elaborate coloring, form, and heavenly scent is the perfect marketing analogy. These traits are an expensive use of resources and have been honed through millions of years of evolution to harness the desired effect. Much like a sensual floral display, brands rely on marketing to distinguish themselves from the competition. With the aims of making a memorable impact, influencing repeat custom, and encouraging word of mouth (free advertising).
Let’s turn to the human realm for a second…
What differentiates wedding invites from most other invites? Wedding invites, unlike inviting someone to a work meeting or the pub, require a bit of extra effort. For instance, people may spend more time and effort writing bespoke messages to each guest. More money is typically spent on paper, envelopes, ink, typography, bows, ribbons, gold leaf, wax letter seals, etc., etc.
Whilst this is all very thoughtful and nice, it doesn’t actually make any rational sense. A purely rational approach to inviting guests to a wedding would simply involve sending out a group email or Whatsapp. This would help save on time, effort and money. One and done. Lovely! In reality, though, the purely rational approach often lacks meaning and significance. Whilst this type of invitation may be fitting for arranging some birthday drinks, a wedding is a more significant event.
Much of what we do in business is in the name of increasing efficiency. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are often implemented and refined over time to minimise the margin for error, save time and maximise the bottom line. However, when we opt for a purely rational and clinical approach to marketing we risk neglecting the emotional value that a bit of extra effort, expense, or difficulty may bring.
In his book - ‘Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas that Don’t Make Sense,’ Author Rory Sutherland sums up CST as - “the meaning and significance attached to a something is in direct proportion to the expense with which it is communicated.” Perhaps you remember receiving a handmade birthday card from a son, daughter, niece or nephew. Most of us ‘grown-ups,’ if we send cards at all #savetheamazon, will pick up a card for £2-3, sign our name and be done with it - ’Until next year, Gran.’
However, unless the card is especially hilarious or you choose to write more than the bare minimum, your petrol station birthday card is unlikely to make any real emotional impact. The handmade card you received from your son, however, will likely hold more meaning and memorability. Despite the fact that art isn’t his strong suit, and the picture he drew of you looks more like a misshapen potato with straws coming out of it.
In the riveting world of business correspondence, the fallback option is trusty email. However, if you cast your mind back - “What emails have you received over the years that have made a lasting impression on you?”
Essentially, CST is an expensive form of communication, which requires an element of extra effort/difficulty. It can be achieved through marketing in a variety of different ways, including:
- economic expense
- candour (honesty)
…to name just a few.
It’s ‘Reassuringly Expensive.’
This messaging devised by Stella Artois in the 1980s is a good example of CST in action. It’s costly because it is drawing attention to the beer’s high price. This phenomenon of focusing on a negative, was termed ‘The Law Of Candour’ by marketers Ries & Trout.
This type of candour is an extremely effective messaging device. Many businesses take the ‘safe-ish’ option of focussing solely on positive statements. This is fine if you are a well known brand, say Apple or Tesla, that has generated a great deal of reputational equity.
However, most businesses aren’t well-known household names, and simply making positive statements like: “We’re No. 1…”, “High Quality Services...”, “Best In The Market…” - can come across as dubious and disingenuous, especially when a prospect has never heard of you.
(Also, ‘high quality’ should be implied! If your product or service is not of a high quality and you don’t believe you’re the best the market can offer, then you should reconsider being in business in the first place.)
Basically, this is lazy marketing. How can a business expect to stand out if they play it safe and say what everyone else is saying?
That is why radical candour, as a form of costly communication, can be so effective. It is costly because it may backfire and it illuminates a downside. However, when done right it serves to disarm and increase the credibility of positive statements that precede/follow.
See the following examples of ‘The Law of Candour’ in action:
VW Beetle - “It’s ugly, but it gets you there.”
Avis (car rental) - “We’re number two. We try harder.”
Alternatively, some brands favour extravagance when marketing. For instance, Red Bull and Nike spend hundreds of millions each year on celebrity endorsements, lavish events and elaborate advertising campaigns. Red Bull even owns an F1 racing team, which is a ludicrously expensive way of getting their brand name out there.
...it can be easy to forget that they are an energy drinks brand at times.
If done right, spending heavily on marketing efforts may signal to potential customers that you are willing to put your money where your mouth is and back your brand. This indicates, at the very least, that a business believes in what they are selling and are willing to invest generously in it succeeding.
Once again, though, it may backfire if not implemented correctly. Hence, why extravagant marketing expenditures fall under the umbrella of CST. In reality, most brands are not established enough nor do they have the purse strings to replicate this kind of extravagant marketing. Fortunately, though, spending the most is not always a prerequisite to drumming up more business than your competitors.
Often, it may just involve:
- Refreshing stale ad copy - perhaps injecting some candour, humour, and/or scarcity.
- A change of colour scheme/logo.
- A cleaner, fresher website with improved UX and conversion tracking.
- A more active and engaged social media presence, which may involve exploring different channels (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, SMS, Youtube, Google Ads).
- Producing more relevant written content (e.g. blogs, whitepapers, newsletters)
These are among the issues that we at Curated tackle on a day to day basis on behalf of businesses across a number of different verticals. Check out our case studies here or get in touch if you have any questions.
In summary, Costly Signalling Theory (CST) is ubiquitous throughout the natural world and inherent to human psychology. It informs almost every interaction we have with each other and the outside world.
We neglect it at our peril!
The ultimate purpose of marrying CST with our marketing efforts is to make an emotional impact. If we succeed in doing this we invoke memorability, trustworthiness, and commitment in those that consume our products, services, and business content. Next time you see marketing that you find impactful...that sticks with you - take a minute to think as to why that may be.
Perhaps there’s some underlying CST at play.