Herding’s not just for Christmas…

Posted by on Oct 28, 2008 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


Pic c/o Meerkatmedia.com

Cross posted from the Marketing Society (UK) blog

"It can’t have slipped your notice that there’s been a strong whiff
of herd-behaviour around the news recently: from Wall Street to
Washington, from Tokyo to Frankfurt and on to London Wall, journalists
and commentators have all reached for the ‘herd’ epithet as they seek
to explain the extreme volatility of the financial markets. Even
investor blogs find it handy to conjure up all that you should avoid in
deciding what to do with what’s left over of your cash stash, with it’s
suggestion of blind, unthinking animal panic, folk being swept along by
their peers and rushing “headlong” and “lemming-like” to their
destruction. If only people would be more rational – if only they would just stop and think

All of which we here at HERD Towers think is missing the point and
just a little unfair to this central feature of what it is to be human.
You see, the mechanics that lie behind the destructive behaviour in the
City are the same ones which shape most of the rest of our behaviour
and indeed, are probably responsible for our extraordinary success as a
species – to the point that we hold the fate of the rest of the planet
in our curious pink paws. And now seems a great time for marketers to
get their heads around the real power of human herding.

Let me explain: human beings are brilliant at copying;
it is our number one learning strategy, which we deploy from birth to
death (it’s not something that gets switched off at puberty or upon
attaining a legal majority, I’m afraid). We do it all day, every day,
absorbing and copying the behaviour and moods of those around us. While
it can lead to the “madness of crowds” – as one famous 19th
Century book put it – it is a very useful skill. It saves a lot of
energy and cognitive effort: far better to copy the fella next to you
than for each of us to have to work out what’s going on independently,
all of the time.

As one recent letter to New Scientist put it, we are probably more Homo Mimicus than Homo Sapiens:

“Many animals mimic each other's behaviour but we do it more
often and with greater fidelity. Our compulsive copying encodes
collective knowledge into our society, and it is really our society
that possesses humanity's "intelligence”
Without copying, most anthropologists now agree, ideas, culture
(and that includes brands) and technologies don’t spread that well
through populations: copying really is the key to our species’ success,
even if when done to extremes it can lead to the destruction of my
pension fund.

To be honest, copying is much more important than independent
thinking to shaping human behaviour and is much more common: as Nobel
Laureate Daniel Kahnemann puts it, humans are to independent thought as cats are to swimming. We can do it if we really want to but will avoid it like the plague if we can…

Of course, you say, this may be true for children and fools and
agency art directors, but you and I are much smarter than this; we
generally think things through. This is a great example of how our
minds and our culture distort things from us (in this country we’re
proud of our rational and independent traditions). As an antidote to
this, you might just care to consider the famous scene in Monty
Python’s Life of Brian in which the crowd chants at Brian that “we are
all individuals…all different”.

Marketing activities don’t achieve their effects by some different means than everything else in our world (do
you remember the silliness of the possibility of some special 
‘buy-button’ that some neuro-marketers promised? Nonsense – neither
evolution nor the creator is likely to have adapted our brains for
marketing in particular). No
, Marketing does what it does through
the same herding mechanics that every other bit of human culture
works, rather than working primarily through direct influence on
individual consumers (or even through the direct influence of human
surrogates – the ‘influentials’ or ‘navigators’ of some consultants).

of our own world: CRM and WoM-marketing didn’t spread by targeted
communications but by business folk copying each other. Agencies and
providers also go up and down in popularity as a result of this
herding: when the herd is going your way, you can’t lose; when they’re
moving away, it’s much harder (as anyone in a big agency today will

So our Herd-nature is not just for Christmas or Economic Crisis;
it’s not just for the bad times but for all times. Now – when we’re all
having to rethink our routes to market and approaches to our businesses
– is a good time to get to grips with this. The question is, do you know how to harness your customers’ Herd-selves with your marketing?"

BONUS: Santaflashmobbing here,  here and here


  1. faris
    October 28, 2008

    i try to avoid all independent thought – genius steals
    speaking of herding – see what happened to VW share price today?

  2. kevin
    November 3, 2008

    Really good summary of Herd theory, thanks. Interesting piece on the radio yesterday about rhythm (prog called sthg like, why do we sing?) which noted that we are the only species who signal to each other (copying again) using basic, repeated noises. It was well before language, even before vocalisation.