Behavioural science terms used in everyday marketing contexts

We see it every day - brands seeking influencers to help promote their products, customers acting irrationally and ads working subliminally to shape behaviour. However, we rarely take a step back and look at the underlying mechanisms that make creative work actually work. Though it might not be your first instinct to put clunky sounding psych principles like “cognitive dissonance” into a document, incorporating these concepts into your marketing toolbox could help with the challenge of influencing your customers.

Behavioural Science investigates the drivers of human behaviour and processes involved in decision-making. Here are 3 terms you may have heard mentioned recently:

  1. Cognitive Dissonance
    This phenomenon partially explains why the tobacco industry is still alive and, relatively, well. Despite the stark health warnings on packets of cigarettes, people still smoke. ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ refers to our tendency to strive for consistency between our behaviours and attitudes. When confronted with information that doesn’t align with our behaviours, we experience unease and are motivated to engage in certain activities to restore ‘consonance’. For example, when a chain-smoker sees an anti-smoking ad, they acknowledge the potentially fatal effects of their behaviour and recognise the need to quit. However, if they are addicted, changing this deep-rooted behaviour requires immense effort and discomfort. Therefore, they would internally rationalise their smoking by asserting, “smoking is unlikely to kill me because I know plenty of elderly smokers”. Customers are most likely to encounter cognitive dissonance when making high-stakes purchases, such as cars, homes or holidays. In order to ease feelings of anxiety and regret, we can use customer testimonials to affirm and justify a purchase decision.
  2. Heuristics
    Heuristics are the mental short-cuts that facilitate simple decision-making. During the purchase process, heuristics reduce a customer’s ‘cognitive load’ (see below) by reverting to a familiar brand or product preference.
  3. Cognitive Load
    Do you make smart purchasing decisions when you’re stressed out or distracted? No, me neither. Studies have shown that a customer’s cognitive load, or the amount mental effort being used by the cognitive processing, impacts how information is evaluated (Dewitte et al., 2005). Those with heavy cognitive loads (e.g. a new mother shopping with a screaming baby), process information in a very shallow way. They are more likely to revert to quick choices or heuristics that require little cognitive effort. However, when customer is in a state of cognitive ease, they are more likely to consciously mull over product information and pay attention to rational marketing messages.

Colin Gray | Head of Marketing Strategy and Behavioural Economics


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