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The New Alchemy

Posted on: Thursday 18th of December 2008

The alchemists believed (or pretended to believe) they could turn lead into gold. In pursuit of this quest, they poured stupendous amounts of time, money and energy down the drain.
Modern marketing promises to turn customers into corporate gold – a source of superior, long term, secure revenue streams for the organisation. It is the modern alchemy.

Like alchemy before it, a surprising number of intelligent people accept its claims as both possible and desirable. They genuinely believe it’s the job of marketing (and other organisational activities) to changing customer attitudes and behaviours … so that customers end up doing what the organisation wants them to do.

Like the alchemists however, their track record of actually achieving these goals has been pretty dismal. But now they are garnering new hope from burgeoning field of neuroscientific research. “Perhaps, at last, we have found a way of reaching inside consumers’ heads to change what they think and do! Even better if we can do this without consumers ever actually realising what’s happening!”

I review the latest in this genre – the book Buy-ology by Martin Lindstrom – in today’s Financial Times (

There are two problems with this agenda. First, like alchemy, most attempts to prove that it’s possible turn out to be bogus. The wish is father to the thought, and pursuing the agenda is a pretty good recipe for wasting an awful lot of time, money and energy. (Criminally irresponsible in the current climate, I would have thought). Second, it catapults organisations into adversarial relationships with the very people they’re supposedly trying to get close to.

When push comes to shove, there’s an easy definition of value. For the individual, value comes from ‘my ability to make the best decision for my circumstances, goals and priorities and to implement these decisions’. In which case, any attempt by any organisation to obstruct, divert, de-rail, manipulate or undermine the individuals’ quest to make and implement better decisions can only destroy both value and trust at the same time.

Long term, the ‘change attitudes and behaviours’ agenda is a dead-end – with or without neuroscience. Organisations need to find ways of succeeding by helping their customers succeed. Mindset-wise, that’s akin to a move from commercial alchemy to commercial chemistry.
That’s an agenda that really is worthwhile researching.