Kreatik talks – Piotr Bucki’s recipe for a viral

We met Piotr Bucki at a training course. Maria, CEO and Strategist at Kreatik, had an opportunity to meet Piotr again. What could a CEO of a digital agency talk about with an authority in the field of communication? For example, about why it is sometimes better to get on a bus instead of taking a cab or what Anna Karenina has to do with marketing. Details inside.

Today, we will be talking about marketing, new technologies and strategies. I think that communication and cognitive psychology are tools that we have to master if we want to know what’s what in the above subjects. How to function in a world with so much information so hard to assess? Is it even possible to put a filter on what is happening around us?

– I think this filter is reflected in the words of Carl Sagan: Science show us the world the way it really is, not the way we would want it to be. There are many interesting threads in this statement. If we really want to see what the world really is or at least get near it, we need to choose some way of exploring this world – and science is not the only available way. It is probably not the best either, but it is only science that can help us find the truth.

I remember how Professor Mruk at the University of Economy said: The fact that I know what marketing mechanisms are used on me does not mean that I can defend myself against them. My question is: can we, should we… or let’s just go with the flow? 

– I think that going totally with the flow could be dangerous. We can say: So what we constantly give in to illusions, so what we believe in fake news – everything will work out somehow. Well, it will… “somehow.” Obviously, it is not that I – being aware of all the cognitive biases – do not yield to them. However, knowing the biases, I can verify my way of thinking from time to time and ask myself a question: How do I know what I know? It is like the principle of limited trust towards ourselves. What can help us is education. It sounds banal, but we should teach our children what opinion and what fact is. Naturally, there is nothing wrong in having opinions on various subjects, but you cannot have opinions on certain proven facts. 

And what if we want to use cognitive biases slightly to our advantage? I assume that we all want to do it ethically. You yourself deconstructs doing a good viral at your speeches and in one of your books. I wonder how these different ways we perceive the world can be taken advantage of for our benefit. Can you do it ethically and is it ok? 

– That is an interesting question. I often ask it myself and wonder if I do not fool myself a little bit by saying that it can be done ethically. On the one hand, we can say that knowledge I give to my students and knowledge I present in my books is widely available. On the other hand, it seems to me that because of the existing asymmetry of knowledge, some marketing techniques can be used slightly unethically. An example can be how price and pricelists are shaped: all the rules of influence described by Cialdini, the asymmetric dominance effect when making choices, shaping consumer choices, interpretation biases arising from the wording – for example a bias that leads to us preferring condoms that are 97% effective than condoms that are 3% ineffective. I always encourage my students to think whether the effect of a particular action is really that the customer should make a purchase, choose a given product, because it seems to me that there are marketing practices using those elements to lie deliberately. It is similar to viral stories. 

Is it just a tool?

– Yes, it is a tool. Obviously, there are also such stories as the story from the Christmas commercial of Allegro, which was very popular on the Internet. It was viral and had millions of views. It was not a true story, but it depicted a true statement. It is interesting because stories used in marketing, that is storytelling, can work like that. That is not anything strange or new, as, for example, fairytales or legends we know from our childhood are not true either, but sometimes they depict true statements.

They are illuminating in a way. As I understand it, you are trying to say that storytelling is just supposed to facilitate conveying a message that we want to get across.

– Exactly, but then you obviously need to be aware that the recipient also must know that it is a some kind of a story, narrative, formula, metaphor.

À propos the famous Christmas spot of Allegro – you have conducted a very interesting analysis of it at one of the conferences. You commented it using the following words: all good commercials are alike; each bad commercial is bad in its own way.

– That is a paraphrased quotation from “Anny Karenina.” There is a beautiful first sentence that I absolutely love. I generally love first sentences in books, films, or podcasts. The first line in “Anna Karenina” reads: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In my paraphrase relating to commercials, “alike” obviously does not mean that they are literally identical, but they follow a certain pattern that can be described with components and structure, that is features of what a good commercial is. Especially a viral commercial, which usually contains certain elements. And that can apply to any part of information. 

What emotion is better: a positive or negative one? Is it better to make people sad or laugh?

– Not sad for sure! When it comes to the “positive or negative” distribution alone, there is not a big difference here because social transmission, that is a tendency to forward information and share it on social media, is just as well affected by anger as it is by joy or fear. Parents tell themselves information on their children’s safety that makes them terrified, but also things that make them upset, laugh or cry. In any case, happiness, emotion, anger, fear, or moral repugnance, that is controversy, also increase the tendency to share information. However, there is an emotion that obviously makes us focused, it can even cause us to become more generous or helpful, but it stops social transmission. It is sadness. We can make a great social campaign that will be sad and depressing, one that people will watch with real focus; people even may be willing to help and generous, but they will be reluctant to share the story further.

Our value in the context of social relationships increases when we can give something, especially information or knowledge.

– Information or even something beautiful. I think that was the case with the Allegro commercials because people widely shared them with each other.

“I’m one of the first to share it” – this effect is also important, isn’t it?

– Yes, certainly.

What is also interesting is how some marketing teams work on creating advertising campaigns. Unfortunately, they often base their ideas on what is well-proven and what the team members like. I consider it the biggest sin of marketing specialists. In my opinion, before we even start creating a campaign, we should try to understand who we are doing it for. It is naturally not that simple. You first need to ask yourself a question: How to understand a user while working in the world of limited data? How to use our psychological knowledge to better communicate with the user? I believe we should start from surveys, but I am aware that many people associate them with something very expensive. From experience, I know that it is sometimes enough to call and talk. Invite even just three customers and have a talk with them. It can give you information that will allow you to take a few steps further. 

– I absolutely agree that surveys are necessary. However, it is sometimes also better not to overrate those “potent surveys”, not to be caught in a trap of having to carry out some incredible neuromarketing surveys in order to find what’s in customers’ minds. Sometimes, just interest in another human being and listening to them carefully can do the trick. I agree, then, that we should not say from the start: Ok, we can’t afford expensive surveys, so let’s not do them at all and let’s just be guided by our own instinct and what we seem to know is true. Our own conjectures are very limited, although I must admit that I sometimes find myself caught in this trap. Working mostly with customers who operate in big cities and big corporations, who represent a certain psychological profile, are more open and thirsty for knowledge, I can assume that the whole world looks the same because mine looks like that – I ride Pendolino and Pendolino is where people are. From time to time, you need to do something I call “expanding your cognitive empathy” and, besides conversations you have mentioned, it is worthwhile to do something we do not do every day. Very often, I deliberately choose to travel by bus instead of car or cab proposed by the customer.

Indeed, we are not representative – it is something I tell our customers times and times again. Have you seen “Stranger Things”?

– Mhm

As supposedly 51% of Polish marketing specialists have. However, at the level of our whole Polish population, it is just 6%, but we often talk about how it is in “Stranger Things”… how it is so…

– …iconic.

Exactly, iconic, which is why we use it in communication. We refer to it, but the rest might not understand our language because we have closed ourselves in our bubble.

– There are 160 million Netflix users, while there are almost 8 billion people in the world, so it is not that all people use Netflix or Facebook. I presume that you know the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority involving electric shock. I was convinced that this experiment has been subject to such acculturation that almost everyone knows it, while in the meantime, when Professor Doliński and Doctor Grzyb replicated the experiment, that is repeated it after many years in Poland, then there was obviously a fundamental problem at the very beginning: how to select a group of study participants who do not know the Milgram experiment, as otherwise it would completely disturb the methodology. So they tried to find such a group and it turned out it was not that difficult because out of all the people who came to participate in the experiment, only a small percent had any idea of what it involves. This is the curse of knowledge we give in to very often. Also, as marketing people – we cannot imagine that the world does not ride Pendolino, does not watch “Stranger Things” and has not heard about Milgram. And instead of considering it weird that someone does not know it all, we should be amazed by that: Don’t you know it already? That’s great!

Thank you for today’s conversation. Last question: what, in your opinion, marketing specialists should pay attention to?

– I strongly believe that marketing people are a group that can make the world a better place. It might sound banal, but especially in a situation when there are increasingly more belief-driven consumers, that is consumers who pay attention to values – not only price, product functionality and features – we should remember about it and talk about these values, think about them and incorporate them into our creation.

Piotr Bucki

An architect who chose to design sentences rather than buildings. An actor who turned the theater stage into training rooms and meetings with audiences at conferences. A psychologist who likes to research and constantly asks himself "how do I know what I know?".

For 18 years he has been teaching people to design communication in various dimensions. In doing so, he always bases his work on cognitive psychology and neuroscience. He has tested theories in practice working with companies in Australia, Austria, Slovenia, Chile, Moldova, Italy, and Poland. He is the author of the books, "Let's Talk About Communication," "Catch the Balance" and "Viral," "Presentations. Simply!" and the English-language "Life's a pitch and then you die". He has translated 12 books on counseling and psychotherapy. He has collaborated with Maleman, Charakter, Dolce Vita and Mother Mag. His speech at TEDx SGH has been viewed online more than 110,000 times. For more than 9 years he has been working with WSB, where he designs courses and teaches, mainly in the areas of branding, marketing, and communications. He also lectures at USWPS, SGH, and AGH.

He trains at Allegro, Dynatrace, Santander, and Nordea IT, among others. He works with the European Space Agency and GNSSA, where he co-creates training programs for startups and consultants.


Maria Połońska

Creates marketing, sales, and go-to-market strategies. She advises startups, develops digital products, and conducts workshops in the spirit of design thinking.

She is the founder of Kreatik. As a traveler, she reached Beijing by Trans-Siberian Railway and Istanbul by Fiat 125p, but her heart was stolen by South Korea.

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