How to use behavioural science in marketing

An old pocket watch dangling hypnosis style in front of a leather chair with a speech bubble saying "Buy me..."

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Snapshot : You can use market research and data analysis to uncover customer needs, but the growing use of behavioural science in marketing offers an exciting third way to do this. Learn how to connect behavioural science learning to the brand choice funnel to create and test marketing ideas that are more likely to influence what your customers do. 

The basic job of marketing is no big secret. Understand customer needs, build a brand to meet those needs and then activate your marketing plan to win customers.

But if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. And looking at some of the bad marketing out there, there’s clearly more to it. Because you need to develop skill in doing each of these basic jobs. 

Marketers are always on the look-out for new skilful ways to win customers, build brands and grow their business. That means digging down into the detail of “how” you do those core jobs. We know certain business leaders always like to bang on about the “why”, and yes, it’s important to have that – but it’s “how” you do things that makes the difference for customers. 

Behavioural science and decision-making

One of the newer “how” approaches for smart marketers is behavioural science. It’s primarily psychology (with a bit of anthropology and sociology thrown in), but for marketers, the work of behavioural scientists has thrown up new ideas about how people make the decisions they do.

And of course, as marketers, we’re all interested in how people make decisions. We want them to make decisions that lead them to choose our brand after all.

Behavioural science isn’t about “tricking” customers into doing something they don’t want to. It’s not some sort of hypnosis mind control technique.

But it is about getting under the skin of what makes people tick, how they think, what influences them and why and how they do the things they do.

For smart marketers, there are opportunities in using behavioural science in marketing plans and activities to get closer to customers, to create better performing marketing activities and to get ahead of the competition.

An old pocket watch dangling hypnosis style in front of a leather chair with a speech bubble saying "Buy me..."

Behavioural science – some context

Behavioural science comes from the world of social psychology. It’s a specific area of study to understand why people do the things they do, and what you can do to influence those behaviours. 

It’s been used in all sorts of situations and contexts to try to influence the way people behave. 

In Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern for example, the author shares stories of his role as head of the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (nicknamed the Nudge Unit), who used learnings from behavioural science to drive improvements in different Government UK departments. 

He shares examples of how behavioural science has been used to get people to be more honest (on their tax returns or insurance claims for example), how to reduce speeding (by entering those keep to the speed limit into a lottery), and how to get job seekers to stay motivated (by asking them what their future plans are, not what they’ve done in the last week).

E.A.S.T. – Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely

He argues that to change behaviours, you need to follow what he calls the E.A.S.T. principles. 

E stands for Easy. People are more likely to do things if you make it easier for them. Remove friction and stress points. 

A stand for Attractive. People are more likely to do things if it’s attractive to them They’re more likely to notice it in the first place, and to feel positive about the benefit of the change.

S stands for Social. People are more likely to do things if they see other people already doing those things.

T stands for Timely. If you get people at the right time, if you establish habits early, then they are more likely to keep doing the things you want them to do. 

(He also has a more complex model called M.I.N.D.S.P.A.C.E with 9 potential influencers of behaviour – Messenger, Incentive, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitment and Ego that’s worth checking out). 

Marketers can learn from these broad society-level factors that shape everyone’s behaviour, and apply the same thinking to the customer behaviour they want to influence.

Marketers want to understand customers needs. Needs drive behaviours. Behavioural science helps understand and influence these behaviours. 

So for behavioural science in marketing, there’s a clear connection between understanding needs (marketing) and understanding behaviours (behavioural science).

Behavioural science in marketing 

Smart marketers understand the benefit of marketing that “pulls” customers in, over marketing that you “push” out to customers. It’s more efficient and effective, because you have less persuasion to do, and you have to spend less money to do it. 

A pull approach starts by deeply understanding customer needs and then creating brands that fulfil those needs. Each set of actions that you take through the brand choice funnel is designed to influence the customer to take the next step on the journey. Each step they take is a behaviour change from what they did before.

There’s three ways to find out what customers need. 

Firstly, you can ask them directly with qualitative or quantitative research. That’s the approach that’s been around for the longest time.

The brand choice funnel - trust - aware - consider - trial - loyalty - repeat purchase

 Then, you can observe what they do, either through secondary research or by analysing your digital data. With the growing amount of data that advances in marketing technology offers, this is becoming more and more popular. 

But lastly, and still a relative new approach is to use behavioural science in marketing. This is based on a social psychology approach to generate and test ideas on what people “generally” do when presented with specific situations and contexts.

Marketing goals – influence customer behaviours

Influencing customer behaviour is basically how you hit your marketing goals. The better you are at it, the more successful your marketing activity.

You want customers to notice your advertising and PR. You want the to buy into your brand identity and brand story. And of course, you want them to buy your products and services, and stay loyal to your brand. 

These are all behaviour changes in customers. So understanding how to use behavioural science in marketing makes you more likely to do marketing that changes customer behaviour the way you want.

The science in behavioural science

We’ve talked quite a bit about “behaviours” so far. But, it’s important to also recognise the “science” part of behavioural science.

We’ve just finished reading Presuasion by Robert Cialdini, the follow up to his wildly successful behavioural science focussed book Influence and about half of the book is taken up with scientific study references and academic citations. 

The “science’ part of behavioural science comes from the scientific process of creating a hypothesis about what people do and why they do it, then testing and experimenting to see how valid your hypothesis is. 

For marketers, it’s similar to what used to be called “test marketing”. These days, it’s often called prototyping when used in marketing innovation or concept testing when used in marketing communications.

The “science” comes from the research methodology. You test out an idea with a small group of potential customers in a controlled environment to see how they behave. You learn from the results of that test. 

Behavioural science and marketing decision-making

The results of your behavioural science led testing help you make better marketing decisions. Rather than “guessing” what customers will do, the results help you make more informed choices, based on how they respond to the test. 

This gives you more confidence in your chosen marketing activities and helps you avoid obvious mistakes and failures. 

Of course, success isn’t guaranteed this way. Your test takes place in a 100% controlled environment, and of course, in real-life you don’t wholly control the environment in which customers interact with your brand .

But even so, using behavioural science approaches significantly increases your chances of influencing customer behaviour. Results become more predictable because they’re based on scientific research. This increased predictability and better results is usually what justifies the cost of following a behavioural science approach in marketing. 

Behavioural science can give you ideas to test in marketing

It’s not just the scientific testing approach that behavioural science brings to marketing, it’s also the ideas on behaviours and drivers of behaviour you can test that make it useful for marketing. 

There are many general learnings from behavioural science about how people behave you can apply to your marketing activity and test out with your target audience.

We’re going to take the five main stages of the brand choice funnel and share examples of learning behavioural science  you could use at each stage. 

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

Behavioural science in marketing to build trust

The first part of the brand choice funnel is trust. If customers don’t trust you, they won’t buy from you. 

But it takes time to build trust. You trust friends you’ve known a long time more than you trust strangers you’ve only just met. 

So, it’s a big part of marketing to try and show customers you’re trustworthy as soon as you can. 

However, you can’t just tell people to trust you. That usually makes people trust you less. It’s better to show them you’re trustworthy.

Close up of two hands in a handshake

They need to make up their own minds about your trustworthiness, but there are things you can do to make it easier for them to associate you with being trustworthy.  

In Presuasion for example, Cialdini shares an interesting example of a house call on a customer with an extremely successful salesman. This salesman sold fire safety equipment and regularly outsold all other salesmen in the business. 

What he discovered made a difference was how this salesman carried out a specific part of the company’s sales process. He was supposed to run through a 10 minute written test on fire safety with the customer. Most other salesmen took the test into the customers homes with them. But this salesman always “forgot” it. And he always asked if he could pop out to his car and get it. 

Of course most people said yes. But letting someone out and back into your house unaccompanied is when you think about it, a strong indicator of trust. That early associate with trust helped that salesman generate more sales, because the customers trusted him. 

Create a good first impression

Now you might think this was a slightly unethical “trick”, but there was no coercion involved. And he genuinely believed the product he sold would do people good. (Presuasion also has a whole chapter on the ethics of influencing people by the way). 

So, if you think your product is something that’ll do customers good, it’s worth looking at ways to build trust before you even start selling the product. 

First impressions matter when it comes to building trust. Behavioural science shows first impressions “stick” and influence everything else that comes after. (known as first impression bias). If your first impression is that you’re trustworthy, customers are far more likely to believe everything else you say afterwards. 

Marketers should ask themselves what’s the first thing a potential new customer will see or hear about our brand? 

On your website for example, something as simple as a branded URL, particularly one with a HTTPs secure connection helps show you’re a credible trustworthy brand. Contact details, examples of your work, terms and conditions all help build a first impression of being trustworthy.

This creates a solid entry point as we discuss in our article on design psychology

Social proof builds trust

Many business also build trust by highlighting reviews to show they’ve done good work for others. This plays to the influencing bias of social proof

People feel safer doing what others have done before them. It’s safer to be part of the herd than to strike off on your own. 

In B2B businesses, this is why recommendations and referrals work so well. If you’ve done good work for customers, you can ask them to refer you to other people they know.

Because the referral comes from someone they trust, you by association benefit from that trust. 

Close up of a hand with thumb up

Likeability and relationships build trust

The best sales people build relationships and engage emotionally. The aim to build trust first before doing anything else. Before introducing their subject, they arranged to make their audience sympathetic to it. 

They aim to be liked by customers. 

This can be as simple as complimenting customers and actively listening to their needs. Rather than push out what your sales message, listen to what the customer needs and then create something that pulls them towards your brand. 

Be likeable, focus on building a relationship first and you’re well on the way to being trusted by customers.

Behavioural science in marketing to build awareness

While trust gives you a foundational connection with customers, it’s rarely enough to make your brand stand out for customers. Most brands are trustworthy. You need to do something else to make customers aware of you among all those other trustworthy brands. You need to get them to notice you. 

Two key learnings from behavioural science that you can use in marketing, is that to make people notice things more, you need to make them different and relevant. 

Be different to drive awareness

We’ve talked about the differentiation learning called the Von Restorff effect in another article, but it’s worth looking at it again in the context of driving awareness. It’s based on the psychological observation that people notice things that are different, and ignore things that are the same.

Even subtle changes in context like a colour change, or a size or layout change can be enough to capture someone’s attention. You can see this in our example here, that one logo stands out even though it only uses different shades of red, blue and purple. 

Be relevant to drive awareness

Being relevant also helps build awareness. But to be relevant you really need to understand the context – where, when and how customers will see your marketing activity. It’s important because the mood or emotion the customer feels when exposed to communications can highly impact whether they find it relevant or not. 

Sex and violence – standing out versus fitting in

For example, Cialdini shares the example of two very old and basic human evolutionary motivators – sex and violence. The drive to reproduce and to stay safe when threatened run deep in our collective psyche. 

But interestingly, he looks at the context of those motivators when used in advertising. 

Sex-led messaging (e.g. in fashion and cosmetics) focusses on the individual. They encourage using products to standing out so the customer is more attractive than other people. But this only works when the audience wants to stand out. So, when they’re actively looking for a prospective partner for example or are prompted by relevant context – e.g. watching a romantic movie. 

He argues sex led advertising which encourages people to stand out from the crowd works best when targeted at those looking to get romantic, or at moments associated with being romantic. 

Conversely, when humans feel threatened (by violence), the opposite applied. They don’t want to stand out. They want to feel safe by being part of a crowd. 

So he argues advertising that emphasises being part of a crowd (e.g. the most popular brand of x) work especially well when people feel under threat, such as in the middle of violent movies.

So, if your product is in a category that makes people feel threatened, focus on popularity based messages. If your product is in a category that makes people feel amorous, distinctiveness advertising works better.

Behavioural science in marketing to build consideration

Once you’ve got awareness though, you still need to convince customers you’re a good choice for them. 

You can build this though a logical sharing of features and benefits. But, it’s often emotional connections that drive the most consideration. Customers don’t always thoroughly analyse every product, often they pick the brand that just feels right. 

Reciprocity drives consideration

You can influence how customers feel about your brand, by looking to build a connection or relationship with them. A common way to start this connection is to offer some sort of free gift or sample.

Though business who do this always claim there’s no obligation to return the favour, they know in reality they’re using the the behavioural science concept of reciprocity. 

This goes back to deep rooted cultural beliefs that you “owe” someone who do something for you. If someone gives you something, you feel obliged to respond in kind. No-one likes feeling in debt to other people. 

So, B2B brands for example offer free guides and downloads to prospective customers. When they contact a customer, they know that customer will feel obliged to give up something (usually their time) in return. 

However, it’s worth pointing out this is a well-known tactic, and the more well-known it is, the less effective it becomes. Customers are more wise to this approach. Make sure what you offer to drive reciprocity is meaningful, unexpected and customised to their needs. (more on this later). 

Social proof drives consideration

Social proof also helps drive consideration. Similarly to how it’s used for awareness (with reviews, recommendations and referrals), this is a way to show that a product is popular. People like to buy popular products. 

For example, studies have shown that labelling products on a restaurant menu as “most popular” increased their popularity by 13 to 20%. 

That’s why on many  e-Commerce sites, you see  social proof messages like “Customers who bought this item … also bought …”. These drive consideration because the customer thinks others have bought this, so it must be good.

Another example of social proof to drive consideration are studies that show how to get the best prices when selling through E-Bay. 

Rather than start with a high price, start with a low initial price. This brings in more bidders. The more bidders, the more the perception that the product is popular. And if it’s assumed to be popular, people will perceive it to be more valuable and prepared to pay a higher price.

The Foot in the Door approach to drive consideration

Another common behavioural science technique used in marketing to drive consideration is the Foot in the Door approach. 

It comes from an old selling technique, where you start by asking someone to agree with a small easy statement or question. “Isn’t it funny how many people struggle to find the right car / insurance policy / holiday?” for example. 

With that initial agreement, you follow that up with increasingly larger statements or questions that involve more commitment. Once a customer says that first “yes”, they often feel the need to stay consistent, and it makes it harder (though not impossible) for them to suddenly disagree with you.

Of course, you should only use this technique when the “yes” answers benefit the customer. You can’t use it to force a customer to say yes to something they don’t need or want. It’s a way of taking them on a journey that they will get value out of going on.

Authority drives consideration

Customers want to make wise decisions. You can help them make wiser decision by applying the behavioural science principle of authority. Customers are more likely to consider a brand they believe is an authority on its category. 

Use your brands authority, its expertise and its credentials to help customers make wise decisions.

That authority is usually based on the brands’ reason to believe from its positioning statement

This is some sort of proof or evidence that the brand will deliver the benefit it says it will.

It can be peer or expert endorsement for example. It helps the customer believe the brand will meet their needs and be worthy of consideration. 

Reason Why and Reason to believe ways to define

Behavioural science in marketing to drive trial

You normally encourage trial by having a strong call to action. Make it clear what the customer needs to do, and why they need to do it. 

Scarcity drives trial

An example of where you can use behavioural science in marketing to boost your call to action is the principle of scarcity. 

Look at what happened with toilet paper when Covid lockdowns first happened. People believed that the product would be in short supply (scarcity), so they rushed out to buy more. 

Look at holiday or flight booking sites from the travel industry. (not that you can go anywhere if you are in the middle of a lockdown like we are like now).

Covid 19 empty shelves

Notice how often they’ll use messages like “only 2 rooms left at this rate” or “this flight offer expires in 2 hours” to get people to buy. That’s scarcity in action to drive a call to action. 

When people think they’re missing out on something (often called FOMO – Fear of Missing Out) they’re more likely to act so they don’t miss out. 

Similarly, if people fear like they might lose something they believe is or should be theirs, they’re more likely to act. Cialdini quotes a study that looked at millionaire investors who were called up with two different messages :-

  1. act now and you’ll gain $20k
  2. don’t act now and you’ll lose $20k

The “lose” message drove far more action, and it’s an interesting wording to test with customers when trying to get them to try your product.

Behavioural science in marketing to drive loyalty

We covered brand loyalty in depth in a recent article, so won’t spend too much time on it here. But there are lessons we can take from behavioural science in marketing and apply them to loyalty. 

One example we liked looked at waiters and how they might use reciprocity (which we covered earlier)  to generate more tips.

It found that offering a chocolate with the bill increased the average tip by 3%. But when the waiter offered two chocolates (more meaningful), tips increased by 14%. 

Group of game pieces following one game piece with added caption - we love you

And even more surprisingly, if the waiter initially offered one chocolate, but then started to walk away, but then came back with more chocolates, tip size increased by 21%. (an unexpected and personal surprise)

Now, we’re not saying all businesses should offer their customers chocolates. (although our favourite Chinese restaurant does this exact thing, and we tip heavily every time). 

But from a building customer loyalty point of view, this does spark ideas about how you could test different loyalty offers with customers. How do you make these offers meaningful, unexpected and personal?

Behavioural science in marketing as a competitive advantage

It’s worth noting that behavioural science in marketing is still a relatively new and not widely used approach. This is good news for you if you decide to learn more about it. 

Marketers who understand the benefits of behavioural science have a real competitive advantage over those who don’t. But you won’t find that many marketers talking about behavioural science.

At a push, some market research companies will have access to behavioural science expertise. But they can struggle to apply that expertise to create actual actions that sit in marketing plans.

You might find some behavioural science expertise in marketing agency strategy teams, but their focus is on communications. You won’t get the benefits of applying the insights across your whole marketing mix.

So do look around at what behavioural science can offer in marketing. There’s plenty of ideas you can test with customers, that’ll give your brand a clear competitive advantage. 

Conclusion – Behavioural science in marketing

Behavioural science is a way to get deeper understanding of what drives people’s behaviour. All good marketers want to understand people’s behaviour to improve how they do marketing. 

Shown to work at a broad society level with the idea of nudges of behaviours, behavioural science in a marketing context helps you better understand what makes people do the things they do. You can use this to generate and test ideas based on sound psychological influence principles at all parts of the brand choice funnel. 

Across the five stages of this funnel, you can use many approaches and learnings from behavioural science. From using social proof to build trust, to using scarcity to drive trial and rewarding loyal customers with reciprocity, behavioural science is a rich source of marketing ideas that’ll help you shape customer behaviour in the way you want. 

Check out our market research guides for other ways to understand customers needs and behaviours. Or of course, contact us if you’d like to learn more about to use behavioural science in your marketing plans. 

Photo credits

Hypnosis Pocket Watch : Photo by MK Hamilton on Unsplash

Idea Bulb Post it : Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Handshake : Cytonn Photography on Pexels

Thumbs up (adapted) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Empty Shelves : Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Game pieces (edited) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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