Skip to content

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..."

Share This Post

Snapshot : It’s often tough to work out why customers do what they do. That’s why the use of behavioural science in marketing is growing. It weaves together customer research, data and psychological insights to help you understand how customers make decisions. In this article, learn how to apply these lessons at different stages of the brand choice funnel.

As per our first article on this site, understanding customers is a vital part of marketing. That understanding impacts everything else you do. It impacts your marketing planning and your brand activation. 

A big part of that understanding is to work out how they make decisions. What drives them to notice, consider and of course, buy certain brands? If you know that, you can make it more likely they decide to choose you. 

Behavioural science is an area of psychology and sociology that savvy marketers use to better understand customer decisions. The better you understand what influences how customers behave, the more influential and relevant your marketing activity will be. 

The science in behavioural science

Behavioural science applies scientific methods to look at how we process information to make decisions, and how we interact with others. 

The “science” in behavioural science works like this. You come up with a hypothesis about what people do and why they do it. You then test that with experiments. 

These experiments are usually done with a small control group of customers in a controlled environment. You see how they respond to your idea. And then you learn from that reaction to improve your idea.

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

In Robert Cialdini’s book on behavioural science, Presuasion for example, he shares details of many clinical studies used to test different hypotheses. About half the book is references and academic citations. 

The scope goes way beyond marketing. In Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern for example, the author shares stories of how different UK government departments used behavioural science. 

Examples included how to get people to :-

  • be more honest (on their tax returns for example) 
  • reduce speeding (by rewarding non-speeders with free entry into a lottery),
  • improve job seeker motivation (by focussing on future plans, not previous activities).
An old pocket watch dangling hypnosis style in front of a leather chair with a speech bubble saying "Buy me..."

The E.A.S.T. model

Halpern’s book also shares 4 simple principles you can use as a checklist to think about how to influence behaviour. He calls these the E.A.S.T. model :-

  • 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 appeals to them. Attractive activities get more attention, and leave people feeling more 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. Get people at the right time, establish habits early, and they’re more likely to keep doing the things you want them to do. 

From a marketing point of view, the main uses of behavioural science are to understand :-

  • why people do the things they do.
  • what influence those decisions and behaviours. 

This E.A.S.T. model is a good way to start thinking about how your marketing influences decision-making. 

Marketing activities that are easy, attractive, social and timely are more likely to influence customers. Apply these principles in your marketing plan and customers will be more likely to buy to buy you. That’s assuming of course, that your brand meets their needs. 

Behavioural science in marketing

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

Firstly, 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 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 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. 

For that you need to look at using behavioural science in your marketing. This approach helps you generate and test ideas 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

Marketing is usually about 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 the two we mentioned earlier, Cialdini’s Presuasion and Halpern’s Inside the Nudge Unit.

Every idea you find could be the one that 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 that 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.

In Presuasion for example, Cialdini shares an interesting 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 always “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 was what helped the salesman regularly get more sales. 

You may be thinking, the “trust” level of this tactic is slightly questionable. But, this salesman never got complaints. His product saved lives. If you want to use these sorts of techniques, you need to decide where your ethical priorities lie. Misleading customers is clearly bad. Influencing customers when it’s in their own interests is usually fine.  

Create a good first impression

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

From a marketing point of view, that means you look for where customers first experience your brand. You make sure you come across as a brand customers can trust.

Your website is often an entry point for customers for example. (see our article on design psychology for more on this). 

Think of that first impression. Set up a HTTPs secure connection and use a clear branded URL. Share contact details, examples of your work and your terms and conditions. These all help build a first impression that you can be trusted.

Social proof builds trust

Many business 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 the fact 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. Work on building a connection with them first, before you try to sell to them. 

Doing these things makes 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 need to make your brand stand out. You need to be noticed.

There’s two 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 (more on this in our article on books that stand out). 

It’s based on the observation that people pay more attention to differences than similarities.

Things that 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 a specific element, 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 to be relevant you really need to 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 will find adverts using these themes.

Adverts with sexual themes (e.g. in fashion and cosmetics) encourage you to stand out from the crowd. They tell you 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.

So 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 Valentines Day). But if shown in the wrong context, these types of adverts won’t work. 

So 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 that focusses on being part of a crowd (e.g. the most popular brand of x) works better when people feel under threat. You’d show these types of adverts 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

Consideration is next up after awareness. You need to convince customers to consider your brand. 

Consideration can be complex. It’s often 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’s 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 free gift or sample. When someone gives you something, you feel more connected to them. In behavioural science, it’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.

B2B brands for example offer free downloads to potential customers. They know customers are more likely to consider them when they’ve given them something of value. What you offer customers has to be meaningful, unexpected and customised to their needs. Reciprocity only works if the customers thinks 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 that restaurant meals labelled as “most popular” get chosen 13% to 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 makes the product seem more popular, which 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 to drive 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 that are experts at what they do. It usually comes from the brand’s reason to believe in its positioning statement

This is some sort of 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, which you usually encourage with a strong call to action. Make 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. 

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 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. 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.

One study for example 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

And 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, the use of 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 focusses on understanding what people do, and what drives their decisions. When you use it in marketing, you tap 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 examples of behavioural science in action. Or of course, contact us to learn more about how to use behavioural science in your 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 (edited) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Share this content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest blog posts

Subscribe to get three-brains updates