What The Book Sapiens Can Teach Us About Marketing


You’ve probably either read or heard of the book, Sapiens. A remarkable chronicle of humanity’s evolution, and a book that, on the surface, has absolutely nothing to do with marketing. But what it does teach us is why we are the way that we are; the way we interact, build networks, process information and make decisions. And all of this, of course, is very bedrock of marketing.

The first big marketing lesson relates to how we form social structures and it’s all to do with the size of our brains. Not that bigger brains = greater social ability. The effect is rather less direct. You see because we have such large brains, a huge proportion of our energy is required to keep them active – about 25%, compared to just 8% for chimpanzees, for example, who can instead direct that energy towards their guns, chest and legs. We’re basically pretty pathetic creatures from a physical perspective.

The other effect of our large brains is the relatively short gestation period of humans. You see if the gestation period were much longer, our large craniums would have caused horrifically high death rates in childbirth. So instead we’re born useless, utterly incapable of doing anything ourselves for the first couple of years and completely dependent on our parents, which means that in turn they are then limited in their ability to gather food, kill predators, etc.

This double whammy of physical ineptitude, all caused by our oversized heads, means that we are entirely dependent on broader social networks to keep us alive. Consequently, our ability to build social bonds has become far more important than our ability to do anything as individuals. We have to be able to fit in, to be part of the gang, to identity with those within the tribe and make enemies of those outside it. Being objectively right has never really been important in our evolution. What’s been important is that we fit in. We’ve therefore not evolved the brains of scientists, but of defence lawyers. This has all sorts of implications to marketing:

  • It explains confirmation bias
  • it explains the rise of social media networks
  • It explains people’s motivation to make purchases based on self expression and how it helps them to identify with certain social constructs
  • It explains why influencers have become so powerful
  • It also explains our risk aversion, and why it’s so difficult to get mid-level management in large organisations to ever make big decisions

The second big lesson for marketing is this. The book argues that these social networks and the gossip that took place within them, were sufficient to organise us in groups of up to about 150. What enabled us to go beyond that in a way that no other animal could, was our ability not to communicate about fact, but to communicate about fiction. This ability to tell stories about religion, myths, nations and money (and more importantly, believe them ourselves!) is what enables us to organise large numbers of strangers who then channel their collective energy towards the achievement of colossal acts, from the pyramids to space travel.

Critically from a marketing perspective, it’s also the reason why great brands have to be able to tell great stories! And this applies just as much in the world of B2B as it does in any consumer market. Yes, B2B brands have to provide more detail to help those concerned rationalise their decisions, but the decisions themselves are still made on a deep, visceral level, based on the stories we hear.

As marketers we obsess with the here and now; recent google algorithm updates or social channel. But I think we might benefit from taking a break from the latest trends and get to grips instead with the underlying behaviours and traits that have driven us as a species for the last 300,000 years.

See you next time.


Cookie Consent

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with it. Read more in our Privacy Policy.