About a year ago, I began managing a handful of brands who all believed a laser focus on “martech” would solve their most complex consumer problems. Before our partnership began, each group invested heavily in technology that promised them leads. After months of setup, deployment went smoothly but when the first month’s numbers came in (and the second, then the third), nothing had changed. Was it the wrong message? Wrong target? Wrong time of day? Maybe. But the real reason the bullet missed the target was a failure to influence choice.

 

We are in the business of choice.

This is actually the name of an incredible book written by Matthew Willcox that explains what we as planners know to be universally true: human instinct is our obstacle and our advantage. Those who truly understand the behavior patterns of PEOPLE (your consumers, members, customers, clients, etc.) win. The technology helps but not without critical psychographic insight.

 

So what’s marketing, then?

Well, Willcox says marketing is the management and measurement of programs designed to influence the choice you need to people to make to market your objectives.

I hear a lot of people say, “We just need a gut check.” But behavioral science reminds us that what we really need is a head check. Our rationale brain is just rationalizing what our intuitive brain has already decided to do. In other words, we make nearly all of our decisions based on emotions. Based on “gut.” And this poses an interesting challenge for those of us whose business it is to influence “gut” reactions.

But we can do this by considering three key things:

Evolution. We are all a product of a LONG string of choices, some of which we inherit. For example, America’s #1 fear is snakes but fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year leading to five to six fatalities per year. Cars, on the other hand, kill about 37,000 people a year, but we’re not afraid of cars. Some choices are hardwired.

Our brain function. The brain occupies two percent of the body but uses 20 percent of our energy. We are inherently drawn to shortcuts, and drawn to “easy.”

Cognitive biases. These are the foundations for how humans make choices.

Okay, so what matters most? Six things. There are six major pillars that drive behavioral economics. When we build products and experiences that cater to human instinct, we start to influence CHOICE. And when we can couple these instinct-friendly products and experiences with whatever’s going on in culture right now, change starts to happen.

 

ONE: MAKE IT EASY

If you want to encourage someone to do something, make it easy for them. Google once displayed bowls of M&Ms at their offices for staffers to munch on, but as the Company looked for ways to promote health and reduce the number of calories consumed, they employed a special ops team of behavioral science PhDs to search for a solution to deter staff from scooping up handfuls of junk food. The solution was simple: a jar with a lid. This jar made it only marginally harder for staff to help themselves, but that small barrier reduced calories consumed in the New York office alone by 3.1 million M&Ms over seven weeks.

Conversely, if you want to discourage a behavior, make that behavior a little more difficult. Too many companies invest heavily in driving leads to a clunky or cumbersome interface. Simplify at every opportunity.

 

TWO: LOSSES MATTER MORE THAN GAINS

Always avoid the temptation to make NEW SEEM LIKE BETTER than the existing choice; reinforce the choice they’re making now. Similar, but better is the most powerful platform. We’re hardwired to do anything to avoid loss.

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese famously changed its recipe last year, and only told the public after they had been selling and serving the new (similar, but better) recipe to avoid customer revolt.

Consider reusable grocery bags: 13 percent of shoppers use them with no incentive; 15 percent when there’s a $.05 bonus; and a whopping 44 percent use them when there’s a tax for NOT doing it. The loss matters more than the gain.

FOMO (fear of missing out) is another way of thinking about loss. People want more of the things they can have less of. Studies show that when cookies in a glass jar are scarce, they’re described as tasting better and people want them more. How is the prospect of loss working for or against you?

 

THREE: OUR INTUITION TELLS US OUR BEHAVIOR IS CORRECT BECAUSE WE SEE OTHER PEOPLE DOING IT

Humans have a herd mentality. Have you ever been in a hotel room that asked you to reuse your towel as part of their environmentally friendly initiative? Hotel towel reuse data jumps when 1) hotels indicate other people are already doing it (i.e. 75 percent of guests in this hotel usually use their towels more than once), and 2) they connect their target to those people (75 percent of guests who stayed in this room used their towel more than once).

Don’t ever shock people by telling them the behavior you want to encourage is NOT already happening. Highlight those who are already adopting the behavior change you require to the people whose behavior you want to change. Then sit back and watch the sheep. Baa!

 

FOUR: WE WILL TAKE SMALLER SOONER OVER LARGER LATER

A recent study asked participants to describe present self and future self, then present others and future others. The outlier was present self. When we think about ourselves in the future, it’s like thinking about someone else entirely.

We even discount pain in the future. If we want people to do things in the future, we have to close the gap between present self and future self. Make your benefits felt NOW, not in the future. This is called hyperbolic discounting. Ocean cleanup initiatives, for example, with long-term benefits have trouble gaining traction without a right-now reward. Groups incentivized (or worse, penalized—remember, losses matter more than gains) right now, create change.

 

FIVE: COMPARISONS ARE GOOD

Never be above comparisons. This is about choice! Contrast comparisons by showing reference: prices with lines through them vs. our price vs. a way higher comparison point. This makes it EASY to visualize your choice.

It’s not just what you want to be different from; it’s what you want to be similar to.

 

SIX: FAMILIAR IS GOOD

This is a big evolution marker. If something is familiar, it hasn’t eaten you yet. Familiar is very good. It’s one important reason why equity-building in visuals and messaging around brand are critical. But it also helps us create connection with the community around us. Think about Amazon’s “people just like you also bought…” This gives me a comparison, reminds me that my behavior is correct (because other people are doing it) and gives me a simple way of accessing stuff I recognize! Win!

These six concepts are the hallmarks of behavioral economics. Couple them with what wholly differentiates your brand and add that to what’s going on in culture for an unstoppable trifecta.

Happy herding.

Mandy Haskett headshot

Written by Mandy Haskett

“I help people think about things in a different way.”