PIG is a Great Name for This Strategy

I find it fascinating, as a psychologist, that so many marketing researchers are very quick to reference psychology as a justification for their musings, even though they have little knowledge of psychology. Lately, it appears that we believe that a cursory reading of the literature suffices to make one an expert in that topic.  I understand the desire to add a “why” to a “what” and a “why” that has some validity based on some psychological principle. I understand research vendors trying to go beyond making things up and actually having a rationale based in science. “Good for us”, I say, because I believe that if we deeply understand why shoppers behave the way they do, we’ll be better at marketing to those shoppers.  And it’s nice to see my academic profession being used in my making-a-living profession.

Except when people take one little idea, misunderstand it, misrepresent it, and build a whole (and silly) theory behind it. Take the PIG strategy espoused by Mr. Sampson Lee. Were this not published on LinkedIn and available in book form (from the author) you might find yourself inside a Monty Python skit or reading about it on The Onion. Here’s how Mr. Lee’s logic goes:

  • He references Kahneman and says that all we remember about an experience is the average of the peak of an experience and the end-point of an experience.
  • Therefore, instead of using resources to make the whole experience good, Lee says we should make only a small part of the experience great – the rest of the experience doesn’t need to be good.
  • Indeed, causing some friction in the process heightens the amplitude of the peak of an experience – we should make things a little difficult.
  • With a high positive peak during the experience and a good ending, you create a better memory of the experience.
  • Hence the PIG (Pain Is Good) strategy (you can read more at linkedin.com/public/pain-good-sampson-lee, among other posts of his).

There are a number of problems with Mr. Lee’s strategy:

  • First, Kahneman doesn’t say this is how memories are formed or retained. He does say that the average of the peak and the ending are good predictors of affective recall.
  • Second, all the work Kahneman (and Lee) cites is unidirectional. That is, the subject’s experience is all positive or all negative, not a mix of the two. We have no idea whether this encoding would hold up for experiences that are both positive and negative.
  • Third, there are simpler psychological explanations for the examples Mr. Lee cites, ones that don’t require the creation of friction points in a shopper’s experience in order to heighten the good parts. For example, a business improving the end of the experience can be recognized as making an effort and achieve better ratings.
  • Fourth, if pain is good, we would not be seeing the relatively painless growth of online sales on Black Friday. Assuming the same high from finding what you want and buying it online or in brick and mortar, the greater hassle of brick and mortar should be more appealing – it’s not.

Mr. Lee has taken one sentence from Kahneman’s book, taken it incorrectly, and come up with a whole theory that says customer experience isn’t worth a bucket of spit except for the peak and the end. All you need is one good piece of the experience and a happy ending (no snickering, please). I suspect that if you provide lots of bad experiences and one good one, and a happy ending, this will not bode well for your business – memory is just not that simple or that lazy.

All that said, to the extent that Kahneman is right, there’s a great lesson for retailers. Providing at least one peak experience during a shopping trip and a great ending (i.e. checkout) may go a long way towards improving customer satisfaction. This is why stores like Publix and Wegman’s are always highly rated and Walmart is not – differences at checkout. Hey Walmart – this would make a great test.

A quote attributed to William James goes, “Psychology is the study of the obvious. It tells us things we already know in a language we can’t understand.” Sometimes life is simpler than Mr. Lee would have us believe.