Apple, Darwinism, and Evolutionary Marketing

Last Updated Jun 26, 2009 9:55 AM EDT

In the book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that consumers buy goods because of subconscious, deeply-seated motivation to find mates and procreate. And a prime example of a company that has ridden Darwin all the way to the bank is Apple.

"There's a lot more human behavior that is unconsciously motivated to do this trait display and signaling than people realize," he says in a phone conversation. "In capitalism, what people think is, 'What I care about is money and status and education and others should care about it too.' [But] people are not actually displaying the traits they thing they're displaying."

According to Miller, an increasingly large body of studies and research suggests that people are focused on a number of inheritable characteristics -- general intelligence, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion -- that happen to be sexually attractive traits. People are looking for these traits, and trying to display them, because of the evolutionary drive to reproduce. However, marketers generally have never heard these theories, having at best learned Maslov's hierarchy of needs, which did not incorporate any part of the theory of evolution.

And so, marketers and product designers fail to take into account the unconscious need to display personality characteristics, though some buck the trend.

"Apple, for example, is extremely good at appealing to the consumer who scores high on this trait of openness to experience," says Miller, who doesn't know whether Apple has actually studied concepts of evolutionary biology or somehow managed to stumble upon the principles. "Openness is one of these so-called big five traits. It predicts interest in new ideas, art, interest, reading, foreign films, foreign travel, and making friends with other people across boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and nationality. The highly open tend to be the early adopters of new products. Apple intuitively knows that the cost of that is it won't appeal to the highly conservative tech buyer, who doesn't like products that have the fetishistic attention to design."

Most marketers misread these traits and assume that something else is the sole driving force. Someone in marketing might assume that a person was impressed by a doctor or lawyer because of the earning potential. Miller sees it differently. "When people hear, 'Oh, I just made partner at the law firm,' they're not seeing dollar signs registering in their eyes," he says. "They're hearing at an unconscious level that this person is really bright, really hard working, and those are traits that are going to be really, really useful in a potential mate." And when the professional does get married, often the spouse "likes it when the doctor or lawyer downshifts and comes home earlier every evening to help cook and take care of the kids."

Evolution, according to Miller, could also explain Apple's remarkable success in extending the brand from computers to phones and media players. "The fact that the Apple computer was the choice of artists, graphic designers, architects, that reinforced its appeal to the highly open," he says. "Once Apple's positioned to do that, it can spread itself into any product line where showing off openness is potentially useful. That could apply to office furniture, house design, coffee mugs. It could apply to almost anything. Once you've got the signaling power of the brand established, it is almost like having an evolutionary innovation like flight. You can diversify into many other niches, [like] when that lineage explodes into hundreds of thousands of new species."

You can expect a growing interest by marketers in evolutionary psychology. At a recent annual conference, there were multiple papers on consumer behavior as a form of signaling. But the use of signaling must be subtle, as it largely works only when unconscious, called the theory of adaptive self-deception. So long as consumers are unaware of their motivation, they are free to continue to send signals to show suitability as a mate, even when married. "They might be unconsciously pursuing a mating strategy of, 'I'm not going to put all my eggs in one basket, I'm going to keep my options open, I'm going to have enough friends of the other sex that if my marriage breaks down I can quickly find another mate.' But you don't want your spouse to find out." And so the consuming, and the spending, continues.

Book jacket image courtesy of Penguin Group USA.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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