One winter's day in 1961, Professor Edward Lorenz - one of the first meteorologists to use computer-based prediction - decided to run a weather simulation in his MIT lab. He'd run this one before, so he was pretty sure he knew what to expect. But on this occasion, to save time, he inputted the data using three decimals places, rather than six as he had used originally. So, for example, 23.348 rather than 23.347813: a difference of just 0.000187.
When he ran the programme, the model's prediction varied radically from the original. This confused Lorenz. Why hadn't a small change had a small impact?
Over the next decade, came to recognise that his finding wasn't an aberration. Lorenz had uncovered what we now call "the butterfly effect": the theory that in complex systems, small differences can have radical effects.
And it's as relevant for communications as it is for climatology.
The Butterfly Effect in action
Take Brexit, described by David Cameron as the biggest political decision of a generation, with far-reaching consequences.
Brexit comes down to a single question: stay or go? To investigate what happens when a seemingly inconsequential change is made to this question, Zenith recruited 500 nationally representative people and asked them about their voting intention. However, we made a subtle tweak to the wording. Half were asked if they wanted the UK to remain in the EU; the rest if the UK should become independent from the EU.
Considering the gravity of the matter, you might expect the wording to be insignificant. However, we found the opposite. When voters were asked about remaining, the majority wanted to stay. But when the question was phrased as a matter of independence, more people wanted to leave.
Stop and consider how strange this is. On a vote of international importance, the result could be swung by a peripheral factor - the mere phrasing of the question.
What is depressing for democrats is interesting for marketers
If a referendum can be swayed by wording, then seemingly peripheral tweaks can be a far more powerful influence on the unthinking purchase of everyday goods, like deodorants, shampoo or beer. If our views are lightly held, then a nudge can create a dramatic shift in behaviour.
The sales impact generated by subtle changes in purchasing conditions has been demonstrated by Adrian North, psychology professor at Heriot Watt University. He persuaded a supermarket to alternate the music in the wine aisle: one week it would be traditional German oompah music, the next French accordion music.
When accordion music was played French wine accounted for 77% of wine sales whereas when oompah music played German wine accounted for 73% of sales. A detail so small that most consumers failed to notice, had a huge impact on sales volumes.
Start from a principle of zero budget
There is a misconception, rife in marketing, that big problems can only be solved with big budgets. However, our research shows that minor changes in the context of decision making can have a disproportionate influence. Before assuming that a multi-million pound marketing campaign is the answer, brands should imagine they have no ad budget. What simple change could they make to the purchasing context?
The power of words
Fittingly, the popularity of the butterfly effect itself shows the importance of apparently trivial changes in communications.
Lorenz originally published his findings in 1963 in a paper called 'Deterministic Nonperiodic flow'. It was a flop: cited just three times in the next decade.
In 1972 he presented his work at a conference under the title "Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" The emotive title attracted attention and was a hit among scientists and public alike. His ideas became the basis of chaos theory and one of the few scientific principles of recent years that has taken a hold on the popular imagination.
So remember, in communications as in climatology, tiny changes really can have huge effects.