How my interest in marketing started

My interest in marketing started one day in my father’s drug store. I watched a Camel Cigarette salesman repeatedly approach customers who had just bought a pack of the largest competing brand, Chesterfield.  He had pushed a Camel and a Chesterfield cigarette through two holes in a 3 x 5 index card, so that they couldn’t see the cigarettes’ brand names. He asked them to take a few puffs of each and tell him which they liked better. Most of the Chesterfield smokers said that they preferred the taste of the one that turned out to be a Camel. He showed them that they had chosen a different brand, Camel, over their regular brand. They were shocked, much to my amusement. It looked to me, at about the age of 12, like a pretty good joke on them. But then came my turn to be shocked. He offered to exchange the cigarettes they had just bought for his brand, whose taste they had just proven they preferred.

Most of them stuck with their regular brand!

I saw another salesman do a similar comparison test with Breyer’s Ice Cream. Same results. Even though they preferred Breyer’s, they walked out with their regular brand. “Why?” I wondered.

At the same time, I was learning to practice the art of slight-of-hand.  As I mastered more and more sophisticated magic tricks, I realized that people saw what they wanted to see, no matter what the evidence said. Why?

I was hooked.

I became a psychologist and professional-level magician, and concentrated on understanding the secrets of why people made the choices they made — brand choices, beliefs, spouses, jobs, strategies — anything that involved decisions. Even my magic revolved around the choices people make about what to believe, and the questions of choice, chance, prediction and influence.

In 1971, I invented the telephone focus group, which became my laboratory for observing people in the decision-making process. This is the work that led me to a systematic approach to stimulating word of mouth detailed in “The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing,” and the decision simplification issues in, “Easy Choices: The Secret to Marketing in the Age of Overload”.

I came to understand when and why people change their brands, beliefs, attitudes and practices — and why they cling so desperately to their Chesterfields.

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