Marketing lessons from psychopaths

psychopath booksLike millions of you, I’ve been reading about the psychopaths in our midst. A slew of books posit the theory that roughly one in every 100 of us scores extremely highly in diagnostic checklists of certain personality traits – highly enough to be identified as a card-carrying psychopath.

This doesn’t mean one per cent of the population might, at any moment, extract their neighbour’s spleen and store it in the fridge next to the blancmange. Just because you are a psychopath, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to kill people.

But you are very likely to be overflowing with characteristics like stress immunity, superficial charm, narcissism, social influence, a tolerance of punishment and lack of empathy, remorse or shame. No surprise then there are likely to be relatively higher numbers of psychopaths among FTSE 350 chief executives than in the general population. It turns out psychopaths also make good heart surgeons, bomb disposers and political careerists.

Now I’m no expert on psychopathy and I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to try and educate you about the disorder – the books above are a good starting point – but it occurs to me that psychopathy should be interesting to marketers. By exposing the eccentric decision-making of the psychopathic one per cent, it necessarily reminds us how we, the ‘normal’ 99 per cent, make decisions, including the decision to spend money.

We go shopping with our lizard brain

A clear difference, it seems, is that psychopaths have an underactive amygdala.

This is the small, ‘ancient’ part of the brain (Seth Godin calls it the ‘lizard brain’), which, in most of us, produces emotional reactions, like fear, love, and loyalty – the things we needed to survive when we were covered in hair, hunting our food on the African savannah and at constant risk of violent death in the jaws of wild animals.

Because psychopaths don’t use their amygdalae, it would be pointless trying to make them feel warm about your brand – they don’t feel warm about anything. To sell them something, you’d have to talk to the frontal lobe, the more recently evolved part of their brain; the area that gives rise to reasoning, planning and language. In other words, you’d need to explain how the trainers can protect them from injury, how the kettle is less prone to limescale…or how the meat cleaver will slice more cleanly into human flesh.

Not so for most of us. You need to get the blood racing. Accordingly, inspired brands, like Apple, have realised that often it is not as simple as telling consumers how, practically, a product or service will solve a problem efficiently. You need to tell them how that item fits in with their worldview, re-affirms how they see themselves, or supports their cause, purpose or beliefs. This is emotional, not logical. These things stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, excite the amygdala, as opposed to the modern, reasoning frontal lobe.

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it

This idea was, in my view, most ably explained by Simon Sinek in his 2009 Ted talk – “How great leaders inspire action”. Throughout the presentation, which is 20 well-spent minutes if you have the time, he proposes that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”.

So if you want people to buy your product, you might be wasting your time explaining what it does. Sometimes you need to convince your potential customer that you share with them a belief, a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

To paraphrase a Sinek example, if Apple were talking to the psychopath, a marketing message might read: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed and user-friendly. Want to buy one?”


But Apple talks to the 99 per cent of us who shop with our amygdala. The company’s marketing narrative boils down to this: “In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed and simple to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

See the difference?

So next time you bump into a psychopath, ask them what factors might make them buy your product or service – then, if you survive the encounter, do the exact opposite.

Michael Taggart is director of digital at MRM. You can follow him on Twitter at @michael_taggart