Tom Ewing of Brainjuicer Labs on the science behind influencing consumer activity.
Tom Ewing of Brainjuicer Labs on the science behind influencing consumer activity.

Opinion: The feel-good factors

Tom Ewing of Brainjuicer Labs on the science behind influencing consumer activity.

There's a revolution in progress in the way we conceive of human decision-making, and at its core is a simple idea: we think much less than we think we do. Human beings – as best-selling books such as Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast And Slow have made clear – are not generally considered to be careful decision-makers. Instead we are fast, emotional, largely automatic choosers.

And we have a host of biases, rules of thumb, instincts and loopholes in thinking that make the process simpler for us.

If you're a marketer, it's easy to grasp how this might affect you. If people don't consider most decisions, persuasion is largely a wasted effort. All that time spent honing your message is a lot less important to your brand than making people feel something.

And if people's behaviour is so often nudged by unconscious influences – like the actions of those around them, or the place a decision happens in - isn't it time to stop asking them what they do and start looking at the context for the decision?

The implications of this on communications and research are fairly obvious. The problem arises when you start asking the very practical question: how do we change behaviour?

Behaviour change is when the simple lesson of the decision revolution - that we think much less than we think we do - becomes rather complex, because there are a lot of factors influencing decisions.

The emerging discipline of decision science draws on learnings from behavioural economics, cognitive and social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and more. There are hundreds of studies looking at aspects of decision making, and a legion of identified effects - the Wikipedia entry for 'list of cognitive biases' details 168 in total.

From the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Differentiation Bias to Regulatory Fit and the Recency Illusion, how do you know where to focus to create the behaviour change you need as an experiential marketer? Knowing when to use these effects can feel less like effective marketing and more like a game of theory Pokemon.

Some would say that's why you hire a consultant – and there are plenty of firms springing up that know their way around these principles. That's one way of doing it, but it's possible to be more practical and think your way through these concepts yourself, by simplifying the various effects into three broad areas that form a framework for thinking about behaviour change.

This is the behavioural model we use at Brainjuicer - a template for starting a behaviour change project by exploring three overarching areas of influence on decisions: environmental, social and personal factors.

Here I'll take a look at each in turn, with an example of how brands use them.

Fit the frame

First up are environmental factors - or to put it more simply, framing. These factors are all about how a decision is presented, or framed, for people. They can be physical - classical music nudging people to buy more exclusive wine, for instance - or they can be based on how a choice is presented. Is a £20 bottle of wine expensive or not? The answer will feel different depending on whether it's next to a £10 bottle or a £50 one on the list.

For an example of how tiny environmental changes can subtly alter decisions, consider credit card company Maestro. The choice of credit card you use in a shop is generally determined by what you have - but Maestro managed to shift results simply by positioning its logo nearer the point of sale, rather than further away: usage of Maestro rose four per cent.

So is the answer to plaster a logo all over the place? Certainly not - multiple logos caused usage to drop, an effect known as negative priming, which is a reminder that you should always test how well a behavioural principle works for your brand, not rely on theory.

Copy cat

The second set of factors to consider are social ones - more succinctly, copying.

As Mark Earls identified in his marketing classic, Herd, humankind is a social animal, homo mimicus, who learns what to do or avoid as a result of unconsciously copying others. This makes information about what other people are doing a tremendously powerful tool for marketers. For instance, when energy companies told customers they were using more electricity than their neighbours, usage fell, but when told they used less electricity than average, people's consumption increased.

Copying can even work when there's no one to actually copy. Brainjuicer ran an experiment in the bars of Northampton to encourage binge drinkers to switch to the free water each was obliged to offer. One of the tools we used was a poster saying 'FREE WATER', showing a man's face with a glass of water at his lips, drinking. The idea was to activate people's mirror neurons - parts of the brain that respond to seeing activity by creating feelings associated with that activity (in other words, it has a lot to do with copying). The activation worked - the poster, in association with other behavioural interventions, raised water consumption by more than 300 per cent.

Getting personal

The final set of factors are personal ones, particularly how people feel about a decision or brand. For example, there is evidence that it is emotion, not persuasive messaging, that makes advertising effective. That fits with what we know about the brain, even if it doesn't match what brand managers would like to believe about their products. Importantly for experiential marketers, feeling encompasses all the senses - if someone is holding something warm, studies have shown their price sensitivity decreases.

But it's not just about making people feel happier about brands - it's about making decisions feel easier and better. Brainjuicer has run tests on promotional strategies for brands to show how tactics such as free gifts and expert endorsements can create better value for brands - and make customers happier - than deep discounts.

The world of unconscious decision making is a complex one, but marketers wanting to align their work with how decisions really get made don't need to become psychology PhDs. Reducing the subject to its most useful core principles - like framing, copying and feeling - is an important and practical first step towards joining the behavioural revolution.

BEHAVIOUR

Case Study: Hunkemoller

The Dutch lingerie chain is a great example of changing the environment to imrove a brand retail experience. In an experiment run by Brainjuicer, it tried various interventions designed to make its shops more attractive. One involved greeters at the entrance to shops handing out chocolates to customers - the idea was to tap into the social principle of reciprocity, where if someone receives a gift they feel not just happy, but on some level will want to do something in return.

The intervention seemed to work, with sales to customers who took a chocolate six per cent higher.

Even more successful was an experiment involving scent. We introduced a pleasant perfume into selected Hunkemoller stores to try to make customers feel better and create associations of indulgence and luxury. Average basket value per customer rose during the tests by as much as 20 per cent.

The success of both these experiments demonstrates the power of behavioural interventions to create a positive environment and experience for brands - one that can have a real impact on consumer behaviour.

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