There is No Blank Slate in Marketing

First published May 26, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In 2002, Steven Pinker wrote a book called “The Blank Slate.” For 509 pages, Pinker argues that when it comes to our brains, and by extension, our minds, there is no such thing as a blank slate. While our destinies are not predetermined by our genes, there are certainly hardwired mechanisms that influence the paths we take.  It’s not solely nature or nurture, but a combination of both. Our minds are neither perfectly malleable plastic (the “blank slate” of behavioralists) nor are they cast in stone. In the end, you cannot deny human nature.

Recently, Google has been spending a lot of time talking about the Zero Moment of Truth, or ZMOT for short. In effect, they’re saying that when it comes to influencing a buyer, Pinker’s argument is also applicable. In marketing, as in psychology, there is no such thing as a blank Ssate.

Former Procter and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley started this market-driven quest for truth a few years ago when he introduced the first and second moments of truth. The first (abbreviated as the FMOT) was when the customer is standing in front of the store shelf, trying to decide which package to pick up.  It’s been labeled the most important moment in all of marketing. The second moment of truth is what the customer actually experiences when she uses the product.

But Google, led by ZMOT evangelists including U.S. director of sales Jim Lecinski, is stepping backwards from the FMOT to show that there’s a whole chain of activity that now leads up to the FMOT, which has received the collective Zero Moment of Truth label. It appears that we marketers need a crystallization of the ultimate moment of decision where the balance of a consumer’s mind is tipped in favor of our product.  To use the blank slate metaphor, it’s the moment when the “brand” is seared into our cortical grey matter.

Google is correct in drawing attention to the substantial research that precedes most purchases. The biggest change in the marketplace has been the balancing of Akerlof’s information asymmetry in favor of the buyer. No longer does the seller hold all the cards in the typical transaction. We buyers research because we can. It’s the way we not only mitigate risk but also explore the expected utility of a purchase.  These are fundamental components of decision theory.  The mechanisms that drive decision theory haven’t changed, but the information available to us certainly has.

But even with all this access to information, we still approach buying decisions with our all-too-human biases and foibles. Our online research is filtered through brand beliefs and emotional prejudgments. Even on the search results page, that most brand-agnostic of advertising pallets, brand is a powerful predictor of behavior.  If we launch a search by using a generic product category term, we often have a short list of brands we expect to see bubble to the top of the results page. There is no blank slate here waiting to be impressed upon. There is a sometimes-vague notion of brand preference waiting to be confirmed by Google’s algorithm. And we scan the results page guided by our expectations and preconceptions.

The ZMOT landscape is a difficult thing to map. Google is providing some guidance through the new ebook,, with some practical advice for marketers. This should be a valuable addition to the marketer’s virtual bookshelf. Jim is a smart marketer and Google has privileged access to all of our ZMOT behavior. But, as with everything in marketing, there will be no hard and fast rules. One of the challenges in producing repeatable results in an experimental setting is to control the variables that could impact outcomes. But one of those variables is human nature, and when the experimental setting is marketing, you’re just going to have to accept the fact that there will always be a significant degree of unpredictability.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.