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How can behavioural science be applied to advtg

When it comes to advertising, marketers are always looking at more ways to understand the consumer. According to Richard Shotton, author of the book The Choice Factory and Head of Behavioural Science at Manning Gottlieb, OMD, behaviourial science is the key to change consumer behaviour and can help solve any client’s communication challenge.

In a one-on-one with Digital Market Asia, he discusses  his inspiration behind the book, what makes behavioural science so relevant to advertisers and how it can change the marketing strategy.


What is the concept and inspiration behind the book The Choice Factory?
The book explores the psychological forces that shape shoppers’ purchasing decisions. The book follows a single person through their day and analyses 25 of their decisions. Each decision is then explained with reference to a classic idea from psychology: from priming to the pratfall effect, from charm pricing to the curse of knowledge.

I then draw on the results of experiments that I’ve conducted over the last decade. These prove that the findings from classic psychology experiments are still relevant today. Finally, I explain how companies can apply these insights, whether that’s through their marketing, pricing or promotions. It’s the emphasis on simple practical applications that separates the book from others in this area.
The title comes from the fact that many choices, even the ones that feel natural, are shaped by brands.

How do you think behavioral science can help advertisers?

There are three big reasons why advertisers should care about behavioral science.

First, it’s the study of decision-making. Pretty relevant to advertising. After all, changing consumer decisions is at the heart of what marketers do, whether that’s persuading shoppers to switch to your brand, buy it more often, or pay a premium for it. All of it involves changing decisions.

Second, behavioural science is more than just relevant, it’s also robust. It’s based on the experiments of leading scientists, such as the Nobel Laureates, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and Herbert Simon. Better to base marketing decisions on their experiments than the opinion of the most eloquent person in the board room.

Third, behavioural science has identified such a breadth of biases so that whatever your client’s communication challenge, there’s a relevant bias to solve it.

What are the 5 key takeaways from the book for the advertisers?

1. If you want to appeal to people don’t brag, instead admit a weakness (Pratfall effect)
If you want to impress someone what would you do? If you’re like most people, you’ll try and wow them by hinting at your many accomplishments.

Brands tend to apply the same tactic. They typically show off and bombard the listeners with a monotonous list of the reasons why they’re wonderful. However, evidence from Harvard psychologist, Elliot Aronson, suggests that they might be using the wrong tactic.

In his most famous experiment Aronson recorded an actor answering a series of quiz questions. In one strand of the experiment, the actor – armed with the right responses – answers 92 per cent of the questions correctly. After the quiz, the actor then pretends to spill a cup of coffee over himself (a small blunder, or pratfall).

The recording was played to a large sample of students, who were then asked how likeable the contestant was. However, Aronson split the students into cells and played them different versions: one with the spillage included and one without. The students found the clumsy contestant more likeable.

The smartest brands have recognised this, and they use the pratfall effect to stand-out from their braggard competitors. Just think of VW (Ugly is only skin deep), Stella (Reassuringly expensive) and Avis (When you’re only No. 2 you try harder). Three of the most successful campaigns of all time are based on this simple psychological insight.

However, it’s still a minority tactic. Most brands brag far too much.

2. Don’t follow the herd

Much advertising slavishly abides by category norms. Car ads are prone to loving shots of the model rounding bends in the rugged countryside. Fashion ads feature beautiful people pouting at the camera. Watch ads take it the furthest. Almost every ad shows the same time on the watch: a few minutes either side of 10:10.

But this mimicry comes at the cost of memorability. You’re hard-wired to notice what’s distinctive.

3. Beware listening to customer claims

When asked to explain their behavior many consumers simply don’t know their motivations.

This has been demonstrated in multiple studies. One of the most famous was that run by Adrian North, a psychologist at the University of Leicester. Over a fortnight he alternated the background music played in a supermarket wine aisle, between traditional German oompah music and French accordion music. He surveyed customers who had bought either French or German wine. When accordion music was played, French wine accounted for 77 per cent of wine sales; when the soundtrack was oompah music, German wine represented 73 per cent  of sales.

The scale of the variation shows that music was the prime determinant of the type of wine bought. However, only two per cent of buyers spontaneously attributed their choice to the music. Even when prompted, 86 per cent of people stated that it had no impact at all.
It’s not that they were lying; more that they were unaware of their motivations. The reasons proffered were mere post-rationalisations or, in the psychological term, confabulations.

4. Research doesn’t have to be cumbersome and slow
One key element of the book is that I’ve done lots of my own primary research. I have run hundreds of experiments over the last few years which look at how people actually behave, rather than how they claim to behave.

An example of this approach was for a clothes shop, New Look, who were due to launch a menswear range. Their initial plans were to put a small budget behind a simple announcement.

I suspected this wouldn’t overcome men’s reluctance to buy clothes from what was perceived as a women’s clothes shop. However, that was a hunch and we had no budget to fund a survey.

As an alternative, Dylan Griffiths and I recruited half a dozen men and photographed them twice: first holding a New Look plastic bag emblazoned with their logo, then one while holding a Topman bag. We uploaded the images to a dating site where people rate the looks of other users’ photos. The pictures were left up on the site for two weeks while we waited for them to be rated.

We found that when our volunteers were holding a New Look bag they were rated as 25 per cent less sexy than when they were clutching the Topman bag. This demonstrated that the brand had a bigger task than they had initially suspected, and that they needed to redouble their efforts to persuade men that they were a unisex brand.

The benefit of this technique was that we quickly and cost-efficiently found out what people genuinely thought about the brand when they didn’t know anyone was watching.

5. Behavioral science is more than just tweaking, it can have huge effects on brands
One of my favourite examples of behavioural science having a huge effect stretches back eighty years. Back in the 1930s there was no tradition of buying diamond engagement rings: sapphires, emeralds and rubies were just as popular.

But that all changed with perhaps the most effective campaign of all time: De Beers diamonds. First, De Beers linked a diamond’s durability with the enduring nature of true love. They did this with a wonderful strapline, written in 1947 by Frances Gerety, “A diamond is forever”.

However, once De Beers had established that a diamond was the ideal choice for an engagement ring, they still had to convince buyers to spend heavily. To do this, they communicated the idea that nothing less than a month’s salary would do.

Surely, that’s laughable. Why believe a salesman who has a vested interest in you spending heavily? But the ploy worked, not just because of memorable copywriting, but because of a psychological principle called anchoring.

Anchoring is the idea that if you communicate a number, however spurious, it influences the listener. The bias, discovered by two psychologists, Kahneman and Tversky, believed that anchoring works because listeners inadvertently use any arbitrary number as a starting point for their deliberations. Crucially, even if the listener recognises that the number is irrelevant they don’t adjust enough away from the anchor.

So, ring buyers recognised that a month’s salary was a touch on the expensive side, but it served as a starting place for their deliberations and they failed to adjust down enough.

The results were staggering. Not only did diamonds become the default choice, people were prepared to spend lavishly. De Beers US diamond sales rose from $23m in 1939 to $2.1bn in 1979. Even accounting for inflation that’s a nineteen-fold increase.

How important is it for advertisers to understand the consumer’s behaviour for an effective media strategy?

If brands apply behavioural science to their marketing – whether that’s strategy, creative or media – they’ll improve their odds of success. After all, they will be working with human nature rather than against it.

This book provides simple, actionable tips so that marketers can apply insights from behavioural science to their work. I was keen to make the book as simple and practical as possible. There are lots of excellent books about behavioural science: Nudge, Predictably Irrational, and Thinking, Fast and Slow are just a few. However, there’s a dearth of books applying the science to advertising. That felt like a gap.

I’ve identified the 25 most relevant insights from psychology, explained the academic evidence behind them and then, most importantly, how your business should apply them.

Shubhi Tandon

Shubhi Tandon is the Assistant Editor at Digital Market Asia. Fascinated by the evolving digital media industry, she has focussed on tracking developments in the Asia Pacific market since 2014.