Winning in a world of choice overload

Winning in a world of choice overload

Consumers have more choice than ever before, but does that make them harder to influence? Not necessarily. By applying insights from behavioural science, you can give your brands a hidden advantage.

On 8th October, 82 Baker Street played host to ad-man-turned-behavioural-science-guru Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory. He brought good news – and bad news.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: as consumers, you and I are not as rational in our decision-making as we’d like to think. Here’s why.


The cost of paying attention

Did you know that you’re exposed to more information each day than your 15th Century ancestors were in their entire lifetime?

We live in an age of ‘peak stuff’, rampant communications and choice overload. Yet our capacity for attention has not evolved to keep up. Our brains are still wired to save precious mental energy for situations that require it most – be it ‘fighting the tiger’ or today’s caffeine-fuelled equivalent. To cope, we subconsciously filter out most information.

Think of it as autopilot: a whole range of hidden biases and heuristics (mental shortcuts) that save us time and energy. Usually, these work just fine. But they also cloud our judgement.

Is human behaviour predictably irrational?

Richard’s own fascination with behavioural science began when planning a blood donation campaign for a public health client. After his first pitch fell flat, he hit a low point. Then something happened.

He heard the story of Kitty Genovese, who was tragically killed outside her house in New York, 1964. Of the 37 people who witnessed it happen, how many of them called the police? Not one.


Image of Kitty Genovese

Explaining this irrational behaviour is what psychologists call the ‘bystander effect’. The larger the number of people in a group, the less each individual feels the responsibility to act.

Now for the good news: the more we, as brands and communicators, understand behavioural principles and apply them to our marketing challenges, the greater our advantage. Here are four ways you can use behavioural thinking:

1. Make it personal

For Richard’s public health client, his behavioural insight was a lightbulb moment that transitioned the campaign. By targeting messages more locally to highlight low blood stocks in ‘your local area’, they overcame the bystander effect. Instead of apathy, individuals felt greater personal responsibility. The result? Blood donations increased significantly.

2. Set your anchor

If Nespresso coffee units cost 10-times more per gram than the equivalent ground coffee, does that mean it’s poor value for money? Well, it depends. By getting consumers to think instead about the value of a cup of coffee, Nespresso positioned their product favourably compared to visitng a coffee shop.

This is nothing new: in the 1940s, De Beers used the same technique to get customers to part with a months’ salary on a timeless diamond engagement ring.

The perception of value is relative. ‘Anchoring’ is about giving people the desired benchmark.

3. Admit your flaws

A Harvard University experiment showed that a competent person can become more likeable if they commit a small blunder, like spilling coffee on themself after winning a quiz.

This is known as the ‘pratfall effect’. It’s humanising – and people can relate to it. From Listerine confessing that it tastes bad to KFC totally owning its recent chicken shortage, admitting a flaw can make brands more desirable.

4. Create magic moments

If the Magic Castle Hotel in Los Angeles is shabby and expensive, why is it so highly rated on Trip Advisor? The answer lies in what psychologists call the ‘peak-end’ rule.

We can’t remember all of our experiences, but we can remember one or two moments. This hotel doesn’t try to make its customer service consistently exceptional. It just sprinkles a few moments here and there – like when a waiter hand delivers your popsicle on a silver plate. Magic.

Get creative with behavioural science

As marketers and communicators, behavioural science is just another starting point for creativity. We can’t rely on the same insights to be the answer to every challenge – but that’s where the art meets the science.

By using these principles to better understand our audiences and reframing how they approach their choices, and by testing and learning what does and doesn’t work for them, we can stack the odds higher in our favour.

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