“Utterances that will Profit a Listener …”

Relevance means understanding people deeply and giving them communications that are valuable and help them live better lives. Implications for marketing and advertising are drawn and a path towards humanistic marketing is put forward.

and therefore recommend the speaker as an ally.” That’s how Marshall T. Poe defines relevance in his book A History of Communications.  Expanding, he writes:

If you can regularly say “there’s some food over there” and be right, then you have probably signaled to me that you can probably do me some good and therefore that I should select you as a partner. Being relevant helps you a lot: the more relevant you are, the more allies you will have; the more allies you have, the larger your coalition; the larger your coalition, the more likely it will dominate the band …

The key idea locked inside the quote – “signalling that you can probably do me some good” means that relevant stories and relevant brands convey knowledge or provide pathways that help people live better lives. They go beyond merely furnishing information or products to consumers.

Many marketing communications and brands, perhaps the majority, don’t do that vital signalling. Brands tell people how wonderful they are and what they offer. Those “me” messages and me-too products flunk in the evolutionary sense. People don’t connect with them. Lacking connection, the messages and brands become profoundly irrelevant.

Each one of us experiences irrelevance daily. Open your inbox. Start going through it. How many emails did you skip past or delete because it seemed that the senders were pushing something on you, or that the emails’ contents focused more on them than you?

Those senders think their messages matter to you but they failed to ignite your interest. Without understanding you and helping you do something meaningful, there’s no reason for you to give them any attention or engage as they would like. You realize: they’re not your ally.

Connecting – neuroscience and motivational psychological researchers agree, requires thinking deeply about people. Not as an afterthought. From the outset.

UCLA’s Matt Lieberman and colleagues in his social cognitive neuroscience lab make that exact point in their study “Creating Buzz: The Neural Correlates of Effective Message Propagation.”

They looked into the brains of people who would be communicating messages by sliding them into fMRI scanners. Lieberman and his collaborators found that ideas which successfully spread were associated with the brain’s reward and mentalizing circuits. (Reward circuits concern the value of a particular message to the sender. Mentalizing circuits concern the anticipated response a message will have on the message recipients).

These neural systems turned on immediately when the communicators-to-be first heard the messages.

Dr. Srini Pillay of NeuroBusiness Group summarized the findings simply and practically:

If the message has value and takes into account the needs of others, and if you are committed to spreading this message, it is more likely to reach many more people than if you were just communicating a message that you were excited about.

How much marketing communication is spreading “messages that [brands] are excited about?” And by extension, their products, services, or experiences?

Columbia University’s Professor Heidi Grant Halvorson identified relevance as one of three “loyalty triggers,” warmth and competence complete the trio. Relevance promotes feelings of connection, a desire to stay around, and aids in building relationships. (Katherine de Cerbo offers a good summary of Halvorson’s loyalty triggers here in the context of blogging audience development and loyalty).

It might seem that relevance is one-way, that if we think that people’s needs are deeply understood and met, then that is enough and Bob’s your uncle. Poe makes the essential point that we constantly test for relevance because our ability to live good lives depends on it. Ultimately relevance is a judgment each of us makes. We are wired to be relevant and to recognize relevance.

Appreciating relevance from the evolutionary perspective charts a course towards improving brand communications, whether in straight-up advertising, content marketing, or whichever form brands choose. The challenge before us is a big one for most brands. Understanding people as they would like to be understood and serving them runs counter to many ingrained mental models and marketing practices.

As I’ve talked about relevance with friends, some of them ask about empathy, probably because it is gaining attention in the marketing world. Relevance as conceived here goes beyond empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – and on towards a humanistic business approach. There the goal is to be an ally helping people improve their lives by empowering them to live them to the fullest extent.  And isn’t that marketing’s purpose?