a creative agency that takes care of healthcare brands
Dr Ryan Wallman
08 May, 2014

consumer behaviour

Sigmund Freud.

Now there’s a name with connotations. And undeniably Freudian connotations, at that.

For most of you, the Freud name probably brings to mind a stern-looking Austrian with a stern-looking beard. Leather couches. Existential angst.

And, needless to say, sex.

So you may be aware of Freud’s place in the medical pantheon as the ‘godfather of psychoanalysis’. He was responsible for some hugely influential theories about the way the human psyche works.

And one of these theories is particularly relevant to consumer behaviour, I think.

Before we get to that, however, I should probably mention that quite a bit of Freud’s work is considered complete tosh by modern psychotherapists. So it probably wouldn’t meet today’s peer-review standards. But why let that stop us, I say. If genuine scientific validity were a necessary criterion for discussing consumer behaviour, what on earth would most marketers talk about?

And anyway, criticisms aside, Freud undoubtedly tapped into some universal truths. (In a ‘one track mind’ kind of way, granted. But that’s in your favour, dear reader. Wouldn’t you rather speculate about repressed lust than discuss the role of the insular cortex in regulating impulse control? Thought as much.)

So, back to that theory I mentioned.

It’s called the structural model of the psyche. You’ve probably heard of it – or at least heard of some of it.

According to this model, the psyche is made up of three (intangible) parts:

  • The id

This is the instinctive part of the psyche. If the id were a person, it would be a hormonally charged teenager, full of alco-pops and folly. It is the madman to whom we are chained, as the saying goes.

  • The super-ego

The super-ego is essentially our conscience, which serves as a moral brake on our runaway desires. It’s the buzz-killing parent that stops the id from doing whatever the hell it likes.

  • The ego

The ego, meanwhile, is the voice of reason that mediates between the rampant libido of the id and the overbearing criticism of the super-ego. “Come on now, guys,” the ego says, “we’ve all had a hard day, but let’s just work this out so we can go home to watch Game of Thrones. And yes, id, before you ask, I’m sure there will be sex scenes.”

As far-fetched as the specifics of the structural model may seem, I’m sure we can all relate to the idea of the psyche being a delicate balance of competing interests. And no doubt you can see how this might affect us as consumers.

Why does this matter to marketers?

When you’re trying to persuade someone to buy your product, or use your service, or be more healthy, you’re notionally up against all three of the psyche’s factions. You’re wading into a quagmire of internal politics.

So appealing to a consumer’s naked desire (as it were) is all very well, but you also need to get on the right side of its guardians. And vice versa.

In other words, raw emotion plays a role in behaviour. But so too does morality. And reason. And all of the other nuanced elements of our psychological make-up. It’s a complex situation, to say the least.

This is why people who talk about consumer behaviour as being ‘all about emotion’ are guilty of oversimplifying the issue (as this article from Marketing Magazine argues). Others are similarly reductionistic in assuming such behaviour to be rational.

Rory Sutherland, in this excellent TED talk about consumer psychology, makes the point that modelling human behaviour is not the same as modelling the behaviour of something like commodity prices. To treat them the same way, he says, is like equating clouds and clocks: one is complex, with non-linear relationships, while the other is measurable and predictable.

Appreciating this complexity of consumer behaviour is characteristic, Rory says, of the Austrian school of thought.

Austrian? Complex? Sounds rather Freudian to me.


By Ryan Wallman, Head of Copy at Wellmark. Ryan has qualifications in marketing and medicine, and practised in clinical psychiatry for several years. 

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The Wellmark team regularly tweets about topics relating to brand strategy and marketing communications. Simply follow the Twitter feed most relevant to you: @wellmark_corp (corporate communications and annual report design), @wellmark_health (healthcare communications and pharma marketing) or @wellmark_psf (online branding and thought leadership for professional services firms).

‘And how did that make you feel’ image by Kenneth Moyle, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons under a CC BY 2.0 licence.

Dr Ryan Wallman, Creative Director at Wellmark. Connect with me on LinkedIn