Marketing triage: why brands need to categorise consumers into three groups

Dominique Jean Larrey, chief surgeon in Napoleon’s Army, developed the concept of triage on nineteenth century French battlefields and saved many lives. This process can also be applied to marketing targeting and it can help increase revenue. How does this work in practice?

Imagine you're faced with the following scenario. You're a doctor with three patients in varying degrees of distress, all requiring immediate attention.

But as you're the only medic available you have to decide in what order to treat them? How would you decide?

The answer lies in the work of an eighteenth century orphan, who rose to become the chief surgeon in Napoleon's Army: Dominique Jean Larrey.

Larrey invented the concept of triage. (Incidentally, the term comes from the French verb for 'separate'). This process, developed on nineteenth century French battlefields, involved separating patients into one of three categories:

  • Those likely to live regardless of the care they received
  • Those unlikely to live regardless of the care they received
  • And finally, those for whom immediate care might make a difference

Larrey ordered his medics to categorise patients upon arrival and then focus on the final group, regardless of rank or nationality.

Radical? Yes. Ruthless? Possibly. But this approach, which focused finite medical resources where they made the biggest difference, saved thousands of lives.

Why marketing needs triage

Two hundred years later, the process of triage should be applied to marketing targeting; it won't save lives, but it could save millions of pounds. Marketers must create a similar three-fold categorisation.

  • Those likely to buy regardless of communication
  • Those unlikely to buy regardless of communications
  • And those for whom communications might make a difference

Marketing efforts should ruthlessly focus on the final category.

How does this work in practice?

Marketers must identify who falls into each category for their particular brands. But there are some broad rules. The heaviest buyers tend to be in the first group. Their attitudes towards the brand are primarily driven by their product experience.

Furthermore, Byron Sharp's work has shown heavy buyers of established brands offer less scope for increased frequency of purchase.

The second group, can be broadly described as rejecters of the brand. Even heavy spend against this group will have minimal effect, because of the problem of confirmation bias.

This bias, first described in 1954 by the psychologists Albert Hastrof and Hadley Cantril, suggests that we interpret messages through a lens of our existing feelings. So if we dislike a brand, any message will be interpreted negatively, through a lens of cynicism.

Advertising, as a relatively weak force, will struggle to over-turn these misconceptions.

Along with Jenny Ridell I ran an experiment to understand if the bias was still as powerful today. We surveyed 1,004 nationally representative voters about their views on raising VAT by a penny to fund 10,000 extra nurses.

The results were then split by political affiliation. The twist was that half the respondents were told it was a Conservative policy and half Labour.

When Labour supporters thought the policy came from Labour there was strong support: 14 per cent completely agreed. However, support plummeted to 3 per cent when it was described as a Conservative policy.

Similarly, amongst Tories the policy was four times more popular when it was positioned as coming from their party.

The results show that voters interpret policies through a lens of their feelings for the party. If they dislike a party they'll interpret any policy through a negative filter.

As can be seen from the scale of the effect this is not an insignificant factor: policy is far less influential than existing party affiliation.

By recognising the limitations of advertising brands can focus their advertising resources where they work best. This means that more brands will be able to afford a constant presence among key groups.

What happened to Larrey?

The idea of triage worked out well for Larrey. After Napoleon's defeat Larrey was captured by the Prussians. They would have executed him but he was recognised as the famous surgeon who had saved the life of the son of the Prussian General Blucher.

Blucher's son had been severely injured and captured by the French a few years earlier. Larrey, true to the principles of triage, had attended to the young Prussian officer, rather than a less in need Frenchman.

Who knows, maybe marketers who apply the principles of triage will end up benefiting too.

More about the author

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at MG OMD. He’s interested in how psychology can be applied to marketing. He’s a conference speaker and author of the book "The Choice Factory: 25 behavioural biases that influence what we buy".

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