IF MARKETERS want to wield greater influence over consumer behaviour, they must learn to accept that people do not act autonomously but largely follow what other people do. Over the past 10 years or so clusters of cellophane-wrapped bunches of flowers seem to have appeared with increasing frequency on Britain's roadsides. It is a phenomenon that satirical magazine Private Eye has dubbed the 'cellotaph' syndrome - the setting up of floral shrines to the victims of traffic accidents. But how did these shrines start? And how did they spread and the practice become 'just what we do' when a few years ago it was not?
One line of explanation is that each flower is the result of an independent decision based on some cost-benefit trade-off, or is driven by a desire to express an individual's grief. This is what we assume when we conduct marketing research: we ask individual consumers what they do now, why, and what they might do in the future. We also work on the basis that individuals decide what they do independently of others and can tell us about it.
Almost everything of worth in our world - including the power we have over the future of the planet - comes from this herd nature and our ability and passion for social interaction and collaboration. The same is true of the technologies that are reshaping the media environment: SMS and the internet are built on our species' inherent desire and need to interact with others.
Recognising the herd instinct has important consequences for marketers. For a start, it explains why mass behaviour is so hard to change. Most public-policy initiatives struggle to demonstrate any long-lasting change in citizens' behaviour, while most change programmes within companies fail to produce the radical alterations in employee behaviour specified in the objectives.
In theory, marketers should be experts at changing mass-behaviour: after all, we have the experience, analytics and practical tools to understand, describe and reshape it. Putting the consumer at the heart of business is supposedly our raison d'être. And yet, despite the rightly-praised exceptions - Tesco, Dove, Innocent and iPod - most marketing activity struggles to demonstrate the kind of significant sustainable change in customer behaviour that we imagine is our right. Moreover, this has been the case for as long as most of us can remember; marketing scientist Professor Andrew Ehrenberg once suggested that keeping things the same would represent a reasonable success for most promotional campaigns.
We may have become better at managing things well at the edges in the short term. After all, much of the appeal of the revolution in one-to-one marketing over recent years seems to lie in harvesting marginal opportunities - the 'low-hanging fruit'. But in the main we are no better at creating sustainable changes in mass behaviour than our peers in other disciplines; the changes we do create are minor and fleeting.
The next step is to look at marketing as consumer-to-consumer, rather than business-to-consumer. This means recognising that the most important relationship is not between the company or brand and any given consumer, but between the latter and other individuals. What matters in real life is what matters to or between them.
The acceptance of our herd nature is changing the way some media players are evaluating media channel options. While most of the media world is getting excited about moving on from counting audiences and weighting them according to their wallets, to counting them according to how 'engaged' they are with the medium, agencies such as Naked have proposed that the real currency of the media world should be the extent to which an audience passes messages on to others beyond it; the 'propagation' value. For example, in terms of sales or readership a brand may only reach half the number of people through an ad in The Guardian than in The Daily Telegraph, but each Guardian reader might influence several times the number of people their Telegraph-reading counterpart does.
This is significant, and represents the first major shift away from thinking about media as 'channels' down which we tip messages and information; media become important only in so far as they serve and help advertisers access and harness the power of the social networks which lie behind them.
At the same time, the dubious idea of exploiting the most valuable customers must be ditched. This kind of micro-targeting has no impact on the mechanisms of mass behaviour and risks letting the market move away, suddenly and rapidly. Instead, marketers should focus on the most influential customer; that is the consumer who holds the greatest sway over the majority of his or her peers. Marketers must understand the types and sources of influence that shape customers' behaviour both positively and negatively and think about how their opinions, and more importantly, their actions, can fuel this.