Tapping behavioural science for consumer influence

Kyle Ross

Kyle Ross is a strategist at TRP; a creative and media agency helping premium brands sell to more people, for more money.

We know full well the business we’re in as marketers is really the business of choice. But recent discoveries from behavioural science are leading to a psychological revolution that challenges many of the accepted models of how communication, creativity and advertising influence a consumer’s preferences.

For a brand to build penetration, it needs people to choose it. Given the exponential increase in choice surrounding every waking moment of our day, it’s vital for marketers to understand the way in which we make brand decisions. Once we have a clear understanding of the thinking systems that drive choice, we can better direct our marketing to satisfy the conscious needs and unconscious desires of our customers.

Over the course of our lives, we are presented with millions of choices, ranging from trivial to life changing. To cope, we have evolved a number of mental shortcuts that allow us to quickly navigate the endless array of decisions we face.

In order to make these quick decisions, for example, we have developed efficient cognitive processes, known as heuristics. Our brain developed these heuristics to allow us to make quick decisions without any real mental energy or effort.

Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economic sciences, provided a framework for judgement and decision-making in his acclaimed book, Thinking Fast and Slow. That framework involves two primary thinking methods: System-1 and System-2.

System-1 or fast thinking

  • Our fast, auto-pilot response is in-charge of somewhere between 90 per cent and 95 per cent of decision making.
  • Example: 2 + 2 = ?

System-2 or slow thinking

These concepts can be applied powerfully in the context of creativity, advertising and communications.

  • Our slow, reflective system is consulted when System-1 is bypassed for more effortful decision-making.
  • Example: 264 ÷ 3 = ?


Heuristics and brand choice

In the context of our industry, are three primary shortcuts we need to manage very closely in order to build powerful brands.

To illustrate the concept of availability, consider which is the bigger city:

  • London or Lima
  • San Diego or San Antonio
  • Tokyo or Istanbul
  • Bangkok or Bangalore

When faced with the above, the vast majority will choose the cities on the left. The answer? Those on the right, by a lot in some cases.

The reason for the error in judgement is that the cities on the right are simply not well known. They’re not talked about often and they’re not seen on the news. As a result, they don’t come to mind easily. The cities on the left, however, are famous. They readily come to mind so we assign a high likelihood that they are the right choice.

Consider the availability heuristic in the context of media planning. Is it better to choose a continuous ‘always-on’ approach, or concentrate messages only at key times of the year? If it’s the latter, you better be sure you have a high share of mind or you’ll be leaving money on the table as your category buyers shop without you on their mental lists.

Operationalising System-1 within your marketing

In light of the overwhelming body of marketing science research, what marketers should be doing is working to build their brand so it becomes an obvious, automatic and default choice. Here are four ways to achieve that:

1. Stop thinking that your customers are thinking about you

Fast, automatic, System-1 thinking is the real driver of our decisions. Slow, conscious, System-2 thinking simply rationalises reasons behind our choices. When it comes to brands, we don’t make considered choices the way persuasion communication models have perpetuated. Rather than spending our precious time in the shopping aisle pondering the future utility we’ll realise between two differentiated frozen fish fingers, we go with what feels right. And what feels right is largely driven by our non-conscious.

2. Get your story straight

Our mind is equipped to respond to stories, not logic. The reality is that people, places and humour beat statistics, numbers or reason any day of the week. The reason is obvious: Great stories help us organise the information we receive, they help us remember it and fundamentally help us make sense of the world.

A good example comes from the long-running “Get a Mac” series of advertisements. The series deployed people and humour to personify the bumbling PC and the hip, unflustered Mac. A simple heuristic that established Mac as the cool kid, and PC the pudgy old guy riddled with issues.

3. Communicate fluently

Popularised by the work of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, distinctive brand assets create memory structures so a brand is recalled easily in many buying situations. Slogans, pack shape, colour, advertising style, characters – these all add up like mental compound interest to ensure your brand springs to mind easily.

As brain science has repeatedly shown, recognition speeds decision. This can all be boiled down to a simple concept, be easy to buy. We must research what assets (colours, shape or packaging for instance) make our products easy to buy. Then we must fiercely protect those assets.

For instance, red, yellow, da-da-da-da-daa. Which brand are you thinking of now? This type of research need not be costly. Simply take some de-branded colours and ask people to tell you which brands they belong to. You may be surprised by what assets cue your brand.

4. Impact over efficiency

One area that has dominated discussions of marketing efficiency is the digital media buying landscape. As heads of print and TV networks proclaim we are undervaluing traditional channels, perhaps counter-intuitively the best insight comes from the pages of evolutionary psychology.

Rory Sutherland provides a fantastic example of this. Imagine you’re invited to two weddings on the same weekend. The invitations you receive both follow the standard format for a wedding invitation – the parents of John and Jane, invite Mr and Mrs Smith to the wedding of their daughter at this time and this place. The difference, however, is that one of those invitations arrives by email, the other arrives in a handwritten envelope printed on an embossed card. The message is identical. The inferences you’ll draw from those two things are entirely different.

The reason is partly why efficiency is a very dangerous thing to pursue. The idea that we can make all of our advertising more efficient by shifting it into digital at a lower cost may be a disastrous mistake because when I perceive that messaging has cost you nothing, I may devalue the significance of the communication.

Amid the promise of automated, hyper-targeted programmatic media, marketers should consider the impact these channels carry in delivering our communication. Not simply the efficiency.

In the context of fast and slow thinking, the role of advertising, marketing and communications is clear - create mental shortcuts for our brand so that it becomes an obvious, automatic and default choice.

Tags: customer insight, marketing strategy, brand strategy

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