Agencies are turning to psychologists to harness the power of consumers’ minds
Many of us assume that humans think and act rationally, so when it comes to buying behaviour, we believe that people will buy the best things that they can for the lowest price. But research is revealing aspects of human behaviour that are surprising, suggesting that many consumers are far less calculative. Brands and ad professionals need to take note, because successful messaging doesn’t always involve telling people that something is the best, the cheapest or the right thing to do. In fact, such messaging can often appear counter-intuitive.
Richard Shotton is head of insight at Zenith Optimedia. He spends much of his time poring through psychology textbooks, looking for theories that can be applied to ad campaigns. He says there are a growing number of instances where psychology has been used to create counter-intuitive messages, for example the budget airlines that played a masterstroke by admitting their customer service was poor.
“Everyone believes that there’s a tradeoff when you buy something cheap and there was a concern that people would think that budget airlines were cheap because they weren’t safe,” he says. “So the companies said: ‘Yes, our customer service is bad; what do you expect for £50?’ Bad customer service made sense and was better than [lacking in] a really important area such as safety. It may sound like a strange way to promote your brand, but highlighting weaknesses and imperfections can make you appear more human and honest.
Behavioural psychologists also say that people can often exhibit a strong inclination to conform to social norms. Essentially, we often do things because our peers do, as they provide us with social proof. Shotton conducted an experiment using this theory with the independent brewer Canopy Beer Co. He persuaded the brewer to add a sign to one of its beer taps, saying: “This week’s best seller” to see if it influenced sales. “The volume of sales went up two-and-a-half-fold,” says Shotton. “Everyone likes to think they are an independent thinker, but we are often influenced by the decisions of others.”
Research says that we tend to think we are more moral than we are and inhabit what some call an “ethical mirage”, which can mean there’s a discrepancy between how we describe our decisions and how we actually behave. A focus group might say that an ad is appealing, when in fact it will have little impact on consumers. But agencies such as Belfast-based LyleBailie avoid this problem by testing the reactions of consumers to campaigns in its AdLab.
“We use finger tip sensors that measure electrical conductivity on the skin, which fluctuates according to how much you sweat. It’s a physiological response to an emotional reaction,” says Bronagh Smyth, LyleBailie’s in-house psychologist.
The agency has worked on some impactful road safety campaigns that have helped take Northern Ireland from having one of the worst road safety records in the EU in the 1990s, to the second best in Europe today. According to Smyth, the physiological data is more useful than simply asking people to describe how an ad made them feel.
“Someone can say that makes them happy or sad, but they need to reach a certain level of emotion before the ad creates a memory,” she says. “Also, you need to interpret what’s happening. You have to talk to them, look at their body language and see how all these things come together – and that’s why having a psychologist is important.”
Bugged by ads?
Just how far a cleverly constructed campaign can influence buying behaviour is being tested by media buying agency Kinetic UK. Its client, the food company Grub, wants to sell insects to the British public as a sustainable source of protein. The agency hired behavioural specialist Ogilvy Change to test the effectiveness of messages in a Leeds shopping centre where a stall was erected and the public were offered insects to eat for free.
Researchers tested the effectiveness of three different messages on the stall over two-hour periods. The control message (where no message was displayed) set a baseline of 34 people willing to eat the insects. On the next series, rational reasons for eating bugs were displayed, such as their nutritional value and sustainability. This increased the count to 67. A message that “normalised” the idea (describing Grub as a superfood to be enjoyed at home) was then tried – and 126 people ate bugs. However, the most effective was content that said: “Don’t Miss Your Chance” to try bugs. Focusing on scarcity and loss aversion, this message drew in 154 people.
“Fear of losing something is a powerful force and explains why sales are so effective,” says Jennie Sallows, head of insight at Kinetic UK. “We’ve managed to get people to try them for free, but the next stage is finding a way for a critical mass of people to start buying them. I think in 10 years time it will be a bit like sushi. We won’t have stopped eating meat, but it will be an alternative.”
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