An Evolutionary Psychology Perspective on Marketing for Personal Hygiene Products

In “The Rational Animal”, Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius say that within each person there are seven sub-selves, each being adapted to accomplish seven evolutionary goals:

1. Avoid physical harm.

2. Avoid disease (through contamination).

3. Gain (social) status.

4. Making friends and allies.

5. Attracting mates.

6. Retaining mates.

7. Caring and investing in children.

This seven sub-selves model explains, at least in part, the differences in behavior exhibited by the same person in different contexts.

To overstretch Kenrick and Griskevicius’s thesis:

When we are set on achieving an evolutionary goal (e.g. attracting mates) one of the sub-selves activates and we behave very differently than we would have if a different goal was activated (e.g. caring and investing in children).

From a marketing perspective, this model sheds some light on the very deep motivations people have when buying and using (consuming) products and services.

Ideally, a product or service would address more than one of these evolutionary goals.

Take cars for example:

On the one hand, a SUV helps one gain status, attract mates and, at least in theory, provides increased protection against physical harm in case of an accident.

On the other hand, a mini-van is linked to kin-care (caring and investing in children) and it also helps with mate retention since driving a mini-van clearly signals that one is not on the mating market anymore.

Frankly speaking, I can’t think of a car with more sexual repelling (unsexy) power than a mini-van.

There is, however, another product category that addresses simultaneously five or six out of the seven sub-selves and all with the same products. This is hygiene products, particularly personal hygiene.

Personal hygiene products such as soap, body wash, toothpaste, mouthwash, floss, shampoo etc. clearly address the avoid disease goal. For those with children they address the kin-care goal as well.

At the same time, they address social oriented goals of gaining status, attracting mates, retaining mates and making friends and allies.

Please note that I didn’t include in the category products that are clearly designed for gaining status and making oneself irresistible (attracting mates) such as makeup, perfume etc.

Quite interestingly, the roles played by personal hygiene products in achieving these evolutionary goals are quite different.

In the cases of avoiding disease and kin-care, personal hygiene products have a “gain” role in the sense that they help achieve the goals.

In the cases of gaining status, making friends, attracting mates and mate retention, the personal hygiene products play an “avoid loss” role in the sense that not using them will hurt in achieving these goals.

Simply put, we use personal hygiene products to avoid disease and to avoid being socially and sexually repellent.

If a product addresses more than one of the seven sub-selves, then there are implications for communication and frequency of use, regardless of product category.

In communication, which sub-self is active / which goal one is set-on influences what type of messages people will respond to.

In personal hygiene, messages about killing germs are (obviously) speaking to the avoid-disease sub-self.

Messages about freshness, nice smell, feeling energetic etc. are speaking to the status seeking and mate attraction sub-selves.

The challenge is how to get one brand to address and communicate to these distinct and different sub-selves at once.

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