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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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Why read this? : Behavioural science gives you insight into why customers do what they do. We share how customer research, data and psychological insights help you understand customer decision-making. Read this to learn how to use behavioural science in marketing at different stages of the brand choice funnel.

Understanding customers is key in marketing. (See also this site’s first article). You can’t plan and activate your brand if you don’t understand customers.

You have to understand how they make decisions. How they decide which brands to look at? Which brands to consider? And of course, which brands to buy? You have more influence over their brand choice if you know how they decide.

Behavioural science helps you understand decision-making. It comes from specific research areas in psychology and sociology. It can help you have more influence over customer decisions.

The science in behavioural science

Behavioural science looks at how we process information to make decisions, and how we’re influenced by others.

The “science” in behavioural science starts with a hypothesis about what people do and why they do it. You then test that with experiments.

These are usually done with a small sample of customers in a controlled environment. You see how they respond to your idea. Learning from their reaction helps you improve your idea.

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

Validated hypotheses should be easy to replicate and not down to random chance. Evidence and proof is key. That’s the scientific approach. 

The best books on behavioural science will share details of the clinical studies used to test different hypotheses. For example, about half of Robert Cialdini’s book, Presuasion is references and academic citations. Richard Shotton’s The Choice Factory is full of studies, examples and specific tests which back up why biases influence decision-making. 

The main goal for behavioural science in marketing is to dig into what drives customer needs, so you have more influence over their behaviours.

Behavioural science in marketing - needs

Before you can influence behaviour, you have to work out what customers need. There are 3 main ways to do this. Ideally, you use a mix of all 3 to get the deepest insights into customer needs.

First, you can ask customers directly what they need with qualitative or quantitative research. This is the most obvious approach. It works best when needs are clear and easy to express. 

But sometimes customers find it hard to say what they need. They may not know. And the way you ask them questions can bias their responses.

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

Research is necessary. But if used on its own, you may not get a 100% accurate view.

So, you can also observe what customers do using secondary research or other marketing data. Growth in marketing technology has made it easier and quicker to gather digital data, for example. You use that data to get a view of the online decisions customers make. There’s less bias than primary research, but it also has limits. You learn what people do, but not why. 

That’s where behavioural science comes into marketing. This approach helps you generate ideas (and test them) on how customers behave when faced with specific situations. This test and learn approach applies across many different types of marketing activities. In marketing innovation, it’s called prototyping. In marketing communications, it’s called concept testing.

You test with customers to help you understand why they make the decisions they do. That helps you make better marketing decisions. Working with real customers informs your decisions, not guesswork. You can be more confident in the outcomes, and avoid obvious mistakes

Goal - Influence customer behaviour

A big part of marketing is influencing customer behaviour. Each step in the brand choice funnel is a change in the customer’s behaviour.

You show your advertising and brand identity to build trust and awareness. They check out your website and your brand story and start to consider you. You run a sales promotion and they decide to try you. Ultimately, all your actions create loyal customers for your brand.

You can use ideas from behavioural science at each of these stages to boost your marketing.

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

A source of ideas to test

We’ll go through some examples of these ideas over the rest of this article. But don’t be afraid to do your own research.

Go online and see what might be relevant to your market. Check out the many books on this topic like those we mentioned earlier, Cialdini’s Presuasion and Shotton’s The Choice Factory 

Every idea you find could be the one which helps you better connect with customers. The one which makes your brand stand out from competitors. You just have to test them to find the ones which work best. 

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

Start with trust

The funnel starts with trust. Customers only buy brands they trust. 

But trust is tricky. It takes time. You can’t just tell people to trust you. You need to show them.

For example, in Presuasion, Cialdini shares an enlightening story of how one salesman influenced customers to associate him with trust. 

This salesman sold fire safety equipment. He made house calls on customers and regularly outsold his colleagues.

Close up of two hands in a handshake

Cialdini noticed when this salesman made house calls, he’d “accidentally” leave the sales brochure in his car. Each time he asked the customer if it was OK to go out and fetch it. Of course, they said yes. But what they were also saying is they trusted him enough to go in and out of their house unaccompanied. 

It made a subtle and subconscious connection that this was someone they could trust. That early trust signal helped the salesman regularly get more sales. 

You may be thinking, the “trust” level of this tactic is questionable. But, this salesman never got complaints. His product saved lives. With these sorts of techniques, you have to consider your ethics. Misleading customers is bad. Influencing customers when it’s in their own interests is more acceptable.  

Create a good first impression

The clear lesson here is that first impressions influence trust. Behavioural science shows first impressions “stick”. They influence everything which follows. If you act trustworthy at the start, customers are more likely to believe what you say afterwards. 

Marketers should look at where customers first experience the brand. You make sure you come across as a brand customers can trust.

For example, your website is often an entry point for customers. (See our design psychology article for more on this). Think of the first impression it makes. Set up an HTTPs secure connection, and use a clear branded URL. Share contact details, examples of what you do and your terms and conditions. These all help build a first impression of trustworthiness.

Social proof builds trust

Many businesses also build trust by sharing customer reviews. This is known as social proof

Most customers don’t like being the first to try something new. It feels risky. It’s safer if someone else has tried it first. You tend to trust that they say they tried it and it was good. If it was bad, they’d leave a bad review. Word-of-mouth reviews from real people feel more honest and trustworthy.

The bigger the risk, the greater the value of a positive review. That’s why you see it so much in B2B marketing, for example. 

Close up of a hand with thumb up

Likeability builds trust

Being likeable also helps build trust. If customers like what you say and do, they’re more likely to trust you. 

So, be likeable. Listen to the customer. Ask them questions about what they need. Compliment them on their choices. Build a connection with them first, before you try to sell to them. 

These all make you more likeable. That builds trust and puts you in a stronger position when they make choices further down the funnel. 

Build awareness

Trust is a good start, but many brands are trusted. Trust isn’t enough. You also have to make your brand stand out. You need to be noticed.

There are 2 main ideas from behavioural science you can use to get your marketing more noticed. These are being different and being relevant. 

Be different

One way to be different in marketing is what behavioural science calls the Von Restorff effect(See also our books that stand out and branding lessons articles for more on this). 

It’s based on the observation people pay more attention to differences than similarities. Things which are different stand out more. 

For example, use differences in colour, size or layout to make your designs stand out. If you want to draw attention to something, make it look different from what’s around it. Being different gets you noticed. And being noticed builds awareness.

Three columns with twelve rows of the three-brains logo - one logo has had the colour altered so it stands out from the other 35 logos

Be relevant

Being relevant also helps build awareness. But for this, you must understand the context. Where, when and how customers will see your marketing activity. Customer moods and emotions affect how relevant they find marketing activities. 

Stand out or be part of a crowd?

For example, Cialdini discusses the use of sex and violence in and around advertising. He shows how the context of the advertising influences how relevant customers find adverts with these themes.

Adverts with sexual themes (e.g. in fashion and cosmetics) encourage you to stand out from the crowd. They tell you that being distinctive makes you more attractive than other people. But, that’s only relevant in contexts where you want to stand out and appear attractive.

These adverts work best when there’s a romantic context. He gives examples where they work well in certain media placements (e.g. in romantic movies) or at certain times (e.g. the run-up to Valentine’s Day). But if shown in the wrong context, these types of adverts won’t work. 

For example, if there’s a more threatening context like watching a violent movie. When threatened, people don’t want to stand out. They want to feel part of a crowd because that feels safer. He argues advertising which focuses on being part of a crowd (e.g. the most popular brand of x) works better when people feel under threat. These types of adverts work well in the middle of violent movies.

The relevance comes from the advertising message and where and when the media plan puts it in front of the customer. 

Drive consideration

Next up, consideration. You have to convince customers to consider your brand. 

Consideration can be complex. It’s partly based on a logical view of features and benefits. But, it also often pulls in emotional feelings about brands. Often, customers can’t articulate why they consider certain brands, just that they just feel right. That can be a tough marketing challenge. But there are a few ideas in behavioural science you can use to get more consideration.

Reciprocity drives consideration

One way to build this “just feels right” consideration is to offer a gift or sample. When someone gives you something, you feel more connected to them. In behavioural science, that’s called reciprocity. 

Reciprocity comes from deep-rooted cultural beliefs that you “owe” someone who does something for you. It’s uncomfortable to feel indebted to someone. So, you pay off that “debt” by giving them something in return. You give them your consideration.

For example, B2B brands offer free downloads to potential customers. They know customers are more likely to consider them when they’ve given them something. What you offer customers has to be meaningful, unexpected and customised to their needs. Reciprocity only works if the customers think what you give them is valuable. 

Social proof drives consideration

Social proof also helps drive consideration. Similar to its use with awareness (with reviews for example), it shows a product is popular. People like to buy popular products. 

For example, studies have shown restaurant meals labelled as “most popular” get chosen 13%-20% more often than meals without a label.

Similarly, on many e-Commerce sites, you see social proof messages like “Customers who bought this item … also bought …”. These imply the product is popular.

The more popular a product appears the more likely customers will consider it.

For example, it’s recommended on e-Bay to start with low initial prices to bring more bidders in.

More bidders make the product seem more popular. This makes it seem more valuable.

This perception of increased value due to popularity usually results in a higher final price than starting with a high price. 

Ebay home page - headline says Ebay Plus - start a 30 day free trial

The Foot in the Door approach

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. 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 “yes”, you follow up with increasingly larger statements or questions. Once a customer says that first “yes”, they feel the need to stay consistent and keep saying “yes”. It draws them in and makes it harder (though not impossible) for them to suddenly disagree with you. Customers don’t want to come across as inconsistent.

Of course, this only really works if there’s a benefit to the “yes” answers for the customer. You can’t use it to force a customer to say yes to something they don’t need or want. But a small initial reasonable “yes” from the customer can be a good place to start with consideration. 

Authority drives consideration

You can also drive consideration with the behavioural science principle of authority. Customers are more likely to consider a brand they believe is an authority in its category

Authority is based on your brand’s expertise and credentials. You consider brands which are experts at what they do. It usually comes from the brand’s reason to believe in its positioning statement

This is proof the brand will deliver the benefit it says it will. This proof could be clinical studies, expert endorsements, or that the brand has been doing something for a long time.

Reason Why and Reason to believe ways to define

Encourage trial

The next challenge is trial. You encourage this with a strong call to action, making it clear what the customer needs to do and why they need to do it. 

Scarcity drives trial

One way to encourage trial is to limit how much of a product is available or how long it’s available for. This is the behavioural science principle of scarcity. 

Look at the toilet paper situation when Covid lockdowns first happened. People believed it’d be in short supply, so they rushed to buy more. 

Scarcity is used a lot in the travel industry. Notice how often you see messages like “only 2 rooms left at this rate” or “this flight offer expires in 2 hours” to get people to buy. 

Screengrab from showing The Ultimo hotel with promo offer - only 5 left at this price on our site

That’s scarcity in action. It encourages trial. When people think they’re missing out (often called FOMO – Fear of Missing Out), they’re more likely to act. Customers don’t like to miss out. (See our advanced e-Commerce techniques article for more on this).

Similarly, when people fear they’ll lose something they believe is or should be theirs, they’re more likely to act. Cialdini quotes a study which looked at millionaire investors  called up with 2 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. They didn’t want to lose out. It’s interesting wording to test with customers when you want them to try your product.

Win loyalty

Customer loyalty has its own set of challenges.

But again, there are ideas from behavioural science you can apply in marketing to win more loyalty.

For example, one study looked at waiters and how they might use reciprocity (which we covered earlier) to get more tips from customers.

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

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

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

Of course, not all businesses can offer their customers chocolates. But you should think about what would be your brand’s equivalent of the chocolate. 

What can you give loyal customers that’d be meaningful, unexpected and personal? As we said before, reciprocity is a powerful way to build relationships. And you need a relationship to win loyalty. 

Behavioural science in marketing as a competitive advantage

Compared to market research and digital data, using behavioural science in marketing is still relatively new. Being an early adopter in this area gives you a competitive advantage. Very few brands currently understand how to use behavioural science in their marketing.

At a push, some market research companies will talk about it. But they often struggle to turn that talk into meaningful actions that’ll go into your marketing plan.

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

Use the ideas you learn from behavioural science in your marketing and get ahead of your competitors. It’s a small change to use behavioural science in marketing that’ll lead to a big change in how you influence customer behaviour. 

Conclusion - Behavioural science in marketing

Behavioural science focuses on understanding what people do, and what drives their decisions. Used in marketing, it taps into a pool of ideas about how to influence customers to do what you want them to do. 

You can apply different behavioural science ideas at each stage of the brand choice funnel in marketing. Test these ideas with customers to improve the way you influence behaviour.

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. Use them to drive the behaviour you want from your customers. 

Check out our advanced e-Commerce techniques for more on this. Or, get in touch if you need help using behavioural science in your own marketing. 

Photo credits

Hypnosis Pocket Watch : Photo by MK Hamilton on Unsplash

Glasses : Photo by Josh Calabrese 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

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

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