Marketing Psychology: 5 Little Known Facts About Consumer Behavior in Advertising

What is marketing psychology?

When it comes to digital marketing it’s easy to drown ourselves in endless data analytics, campaign results, and market research. But marketing boils down to one thing only–humans. Marketing psychology is the study of consumer psychology and the reasoning behind why we make decisions.

Who is Richard Shotton?

My guest today is Richard Shotton, the author of The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioral Biases That Influence What We Buy. He’s also the head of behavioral science for Manning Gottlieb OMD, the #1 advertising agency in Europe.

5 Little-Known Facts About Consumer Behavior

  1. Pratfall Effect: If you can admit a weakness or flaw, you become more appealing to your audience.
  2. Confirmation Bias: We’re very good at maintaining our existing point of view.
  3. Our Habits: You can persuade people in the moments when their habits become destabilized.
  4. Brand Purpose: Not every company needs to have have a higher purpose beyond profit.
  5. Personalization: Don’t apply it to such a degree that you lose the essence of your brand.

The Pratfall Effect

The pratfall effect is a counter-intuitive idea that was first discussed by Eliott Aronson, a professor of psychology at Harvard in the 1960s. According to this theory, you become more appealing after you admit a weakness or you exhibit a flaw.

In marketing, this applies because one of the biggest issues we face is that people don’t trust brands. Once you’ve admitted a flaw, you’re demonstrating your honesty and the rest of your claims suddenly become more believable.

Confirmation Bias

Our brain instinctively resist new information due to confirmation bias. As Richard Shotton explains, if you already dislike a brand, your brain will continue to come up with counter arguments to maintain its existing point of view.

You can counteract this in marketing by reaching your audience at moments of distraction, because they’re potentially persuadable at this point. And you can do this by thinking about the body language and the tone of your advertising.

Our Habits

What are the moments when people’s habits become destabilized? According to consumer psychology, we can encourage people to buy our products during major life events. Richard Shotton conducted research where he discovered that people are 2-3 times more likely to try a new brand after undergoing a life event.

These life events can include getting married, divorced, retiring, moving, having your first child, or starting a new job. These are when our habits are in flux and we’re open to buying new products to fit these changes.

Brand Purpose

There’s a current trend in marketing at the moment where companies are trying to find a single way of answering briefs. This can go wrong in a lot ways. Because the problems that your target market will face are varied — and one solution is impossible.

Richard explains brand purpose as an example. In some circumstances, brands should have a higher order beyond profit but it can also lead to the wrong approach if you try to apply purpose to everything. Remember the infamous Pepsi protest campaign? That’s proof on how this tactic can fail.


If you take personalization in marketing too far, there can be huge implications. In this interview, Richard shares a theory from Kevin Simler that explains the value of a brand is in it’s shared cultural meaning.

If you’re targeting your audience with different messages it can be great in the beginning. However, eventually people will overhear those messages and understand that your brand actually stands for nothing.

Listen to this Episode:

Marketing Psychology: 5 Little Known Facts About Consumer Behavior in Advertising

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Full Transcript: 

Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! Welcome to another episode of — the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people all who are just sick of shady aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.In today’s episode, you will learn how findings from psychology can be applied to advertising and how you can become a better marketer thanks to those findings. My guest today is the author of a really good book The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioral Biases That Influence What We Buy. He’s the head of behavioral science for MG OMD (Manning Gottlieb OMD). Which I’m gonna admit, I didn’t know about until I read more about you.

But apparently it’s #1 advertising agency in Europe, so it’s kind of a big deal. But he’s doing it part-time because the rest of the time he’s freelancing — meaning he can say a lot of swear words during the podcast.

I’m super happy to have you on board, Richard Shotton. Let’s hear what you’ve got.

Richard: Very nice to meet you. Looking forward to chatting.

Louis: Let me tell you a little story. When I was 18 or 19, I went to visit my brother in Paris. My brother being older than I am, he was reading a lot of books and one of those books was a French book. I’m gonna say it in French and then I’ll try to translate. Which was called Le petit traité de manipulation à l’usage des honnêtes gens — which basically reads as “The Little Manual of Manipulation for Honest People”. And it’s basically a psychology book. A behavioral science book.

All the principals about foot in the door and all those basic behavioral principles. I fell in love with this book. I also fell in love with marketing, thanks to that read, and so that read led to reading more about marketing and basically led me to where I am today.

I’m quite happy to have a guest who knows all about behavioral science because this is really something I love talking about — and there’s a good reason for that but I’m not gonna say that now. Instead, I want you to say it. Why is it so important for marketers and people who are interested in marketing to understand how people think and how they behave?

Richard: Okay, so I think there’s three big reasons. The first is relevance. Everything we are trying to do on a day-to-day basis as marketers is persuade people. We’re trying to persuade them to buy our product more often, pay a premium, switch from a competitive brand. Frankly, what could be more relevant than the science or the study of why people make decisions?

I think the first big reason is relevance. The second big reason is range or variety. There’s a really worrying trend in marketing at the moment that people are increasingly trying to find a single way of answering briefs.

Now, because the problems that you’re listeners will face or different brand marketers face or owners face. Because those problems are so varied, it’s frankly ridiculous to try and have one solution. What you end up doing is force feeding the problem you have at hand, the tool that you believe in and you end up with the wrong approach.

Louis: Can you give me an example on that before you go to the third one?

Richard: Well, I would say something like brand purpose. Brand purpose, this idea that has been first suggested in that companies should have a higher order, a purpose beyond the profit. That would be one of those theories. That it may be right in certain circumstances but it’s not right all the time. And if you approach every brief with that as your key theory I think you end up going wrong.

Louis: Can you give me an example of a company that went wrong with this purpose or an example of –maybe not a real example — a fictional example of where you probably shouldn’t use a purpose-driven marketing campaign for example.

Richard: There are lots that have gone wrong. I’d argue in the UK, McDonald’s. Where they tried to create an ad all around the death of a boy’s father and try and use, I think it was a Filet-o-Fish as the way they were linked.

There’s obviously the very famous Pepsi example. But my attack on brand purpose would never be on individual case studies because I think there are always hundreds of thousands of brands in the world.

There are always case studies you can find to support or dismiss a theory. What I would look at is more some of these larger broader analyses which try and prove that there is a predictable value of using this and those tend to be overblown.

The contrast of behavioral science is stark. Behavioral science isn’t really one big grand theory. It’s a collection of lots of biases — or occasion seemingly contradictory messy biases — but the brilliance is that whatever brief you have there will be a useful bias but it does put the onus on the marketer.

It’s not a simple tool which you can just apply randomly. You have to use your nous, you have to use your intelligence to pick the right bias for the particular problem you face.

Louis: And then the third element.

Richard: Ah, the third. Good point. I’d forgotten about the third. The third is robustness. So, again another danger in marketing. We’ve all been in these meetings where people defer to the most eloquent person in the room — or normally the most highly paid person in the room. That is not a good basis for making multi-million-pound decisions. Someone’s gut feeling.

What is far better is behavioral science which is based on the peer-reviewed evidence of some of the leading scientist around the world. People like Kahneman and Thaler acting today and BF Skinner and Aronson in the past.

Best of all it’s not a case of we just have to defer to these famous academics. All their research is in the public domain. We can take that research. We can re-run it and make sure it works for our particular band in our particular market.

Louis: I’m gonna ask a very leading question.

Richard: Okay.

Louis: I’m sure as a behavioral scientist you’ll appreciate it.

Richard: I like leading questions.

Louis: Do you think behavioral science would make marketers better? Or at least practice what I would call the good marketing. Not the aggressive, shady type.

Richard: Yes, absolutely. Two reasons. Firstly, you’ve got that science behind it. That robustness. But secondly, I think the strength of that is I’ve talked about there’s this range that is relevant to all the different problems you face. It’s not taking a bias or psychological quirk from behavioral science will solve all your problems but it will often give you a different angle to solving a problem.

It gives you a different place to start. And I think the second part is often those approaches can be really counter-intuitive. They can allow you the luxury of considering things that I think just logical rational thought alone might cause you to reject.

Louis: You and I had a brief chat before going into this interview. I’ve asked you to basically pick out of the 25 behavioral facts from your book to pick your favorite, your three favorites and to drill down.

I’m very happy because the first one, I never heard of it. I feel ashamed but I feel super interested as well. I’m literally a beginner for this one, but I have a few examples by the way that I read. But anyway, what we’re gonna do together for this episode we’re gonna run through those three behavioral biases.

And we’re gonna try to not only look at the theory but also the practice. How can you actually use this bias at your advantage as a good marketer and how can you be aware of it in the future?

Richard: Excellent.

Louis: So without further adieu. What is the first of the three you’d like to talk about first?

Richard: Well, one I think that you mentioned is less well known is the pratfall effect which is a fascinating one. The pratfall effect was an idea that was first discussed by Eliott Aronson, a professor of psychology at Harvard in the 60s.

It’s the idea that if you admit a weakness or you exhibit a flaw you become more appealing. So, it’s quite a counter-intuitive one. What Aronson did in 1966 with his colleague — I think it was Floyd and Willowman his colleagues.

He recruited someone to take part in a quiz. He gave that contestant the answers to the quiz. The guy does amazingly well, gets 92% of the questions right and wins the quiz by miles. But then as the contestant is finishing he makes what Americans will call a pratfall, a small blunder.

He stands up and he spills a cup of coffee down himself. So, Arronson takes that recording and he plays it to participants in his experiment in one of two ways.

Either they hear the entire episode or they just hear the great quiz performance and then Aronson asks everyone, “How appealing do you find this guy?” And people find the contestant when they’ve heard the mistake significantly more appealing. As I said, Aronson calls this the Pratfall effect and argues that people and products who exhibit a flaw become more appealing.

Louis: This is fascinating on so many levels. I don’t even know where to start.

Richard: Yeah.

Louis: There are a few things. First, I work for a company called Hotjar and one of the core things that we are very proud of is transparency. What we would do from time to time is publish a blog post with all the mistakes we’ve made in the last 12 months about a certain topic and what we’ve learnt from them.

Or our CEO will go speak at conferences, admit mistakes, and being very transparent about it. That alone brought us a lot of brand equity. People really appreciated the fact that we shared stuff that people wouldn’t share and that I felt very strongly that falls really into this effect, right?

Richard: Absolutely, absolutely. And just as a small side relevant tangent. If you like that approach I would recommend there’s a paper by Paul Feldwick about Barclay card. A hugely successful ad campaign in the 1980s. What he says is, “I hate all these award entries. They’re a post-rationalized version of the truth. Here’s what actually happened.”

He mentions all the luck, the mistakes, and the serendipity. And the other blog that regularly does that is a wonderful one called “Stuff From The Loft” by Dave Dye. I think in marketing, they’re the two ones that I think exhibit that brilliantly.

I think they work really well for a couple of reasons. I think if you exhibit … if you admit a flaw … so let’s say as a brand it’s VW. They went out and said, “Ugly is skin deep.” So, admit they’re ugly. Listerine, the taste you hate twice a day. They admitted they taste awful. Guinness, good things come to those who wait. They admitted they were slow.

Once you’ve admitted a flaw it’s a tangible demonstration of your honesty and all your other claims become that much more believable. Now considering one of the biggest issues we face as brands is that people, probably quite rightly, don’t trust brands. That alone gets you I think a helluva lot of benefits.

Louis: Let’s say someone listening right now wondering, “How can I apply that to my daily job?” They might not manage brands that are massive. Some of them do but some of them don’t. What can they start right now today to use this effect to their advantage and potentially bring more people to them?

Richard: You don’t have to be a massive brand. One of the very well studied areas by Northwestern University was about applying this tactic on your reviews. Northwestern University did a study in 2015, they scraped a 111,000 product reviews and they graphed them up showing the number of the review.

The kind of rating on the review from one to five. Five being brilliant, one being awful and then the likelihood to purchase and what they found was that for every one of the 22 categories they looked at:

As the product review gets better, likelihood to purchase increases until it hits a tipping point. So ,somewhere between 4.2 and 4.4 out of five. And then after that point, if the review gets any better then likelihood to purchase declines.

So they argued perfection was not trusted. It was seen as too good to be true. Consumers didn’t trust perfection. If you are running a brand, whatever size. If you have negative reviews don’t be ashamed of them. Don’t be one of these websites that just put up the perfect reviews. Put some of the poor ones up and explain, answer them. Explain why maybe they had a poor service in that very rare individual case.

Louis: It also reminds me of a book about leadership. I think “The 22 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” maybe I’m mixing it up but I remember reading about this concept in leadership that if you wanna be a good leader you also need to be showing your weaknesses, and be able to admit them right?

Richard: Yes. Because paradoxically you don’t come across as weak. You come across as strong. There’s a lovely study, I don’t mention this in the book I think I might’ve read it afterward, called the Red Sneaker Effect. And it’s by, I think it’s either Francesca or Francesco Dino, and what the psychologist did was go to academic conferences in the early 2000s. When there was a very strong norm for wearing formal clothes. Most people would wear suit and shirt.

What Dino did was categorize how well-dressed they were from formal to informal. Once he’d done that — categorized individuals — he would go and ask them how many citations they had. Citations are a good quantitative measure of how successful you are as an academic.

And what he found is there was an inverse correlation between formality of dress and number of citations. What he then argued is this idea called the Red Sneaker Effect. Which is, essentially, it is only people who have high status or are confident in their abilities that can break a norm and one of the biggest norms you can have is pretending to be perfect.

The argument from that would be don’t try and hide your flaws. If you tell people about them, if you admit a weakness, people will find you more appealing and a higher status probably.

Louis: One thing that I do, obviously I don’t have a choice. My accent is my accent right?

Richard: Yeah.

Louis: One thing that I play on now is I have decided a few years ago I’m not gonna try to remove it. I’m just gonna try to make sure that people understand me. A bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger. he’s been living in the U.S. for 40, 50 years at this stage. I understood now in admitting, “Yeah, I do have French accent and I’m not gonna remove it.”

Actually is something that is kind of a sort of a weakness because yeah, I could be a podcaster with the perfect American accent like everyone else, but I’m more than happy with my French one.

Richard: And the other bit there because you know, debatable. I would not argue a French accent was a weakness, but what it probably is is distinctive and that’s the other massive benefit of the Pratfall Effect. That all your competition will be going out and bragging.

The great thing is, if you go out and admit a flaw you become distinctive, and if there’s one thing we know about advertising it’s that what is distinctive is memorable. I saw a great example in the pub a few days ago. I went to The Brew Dock pub and on the back of their t-shirts, they have comments from customers who came in and thought — overpriced tosh or tasted awful.

They’ve got comments from people who hated their products and to me that shows an amazing confidence in what you have. You’re not trying to appeal to everyone and the other bit is, could you ever imagine and industrialized lager like Molson Coors or Foster’s or whoever making that same call? It’s amazing.

Louis: Yeah, it’s really amazing to see that it also connects very well with the fact that when you take risks,  when you show who you are, you said very well that you don’t appeal to anyone anymore. And I think one of the key reasons for marketing to be successful if to make sure that you don’t appeal to everyone because then you appeal to no one.

So, admitting your flaws and also they will probably some people that won’t like that. But the ones who will probably love it more and therefore be a promote of your business and be more willing to buy from you.

Richard: Absolutely. I think that’s it’s a potentially great advantage. There’s some lovely ones. I saw an American ski resort where they had taken a bad customer review and put it on their double page and it was something along the lines of, I think it was called Snowbird.

Greg from California and what he’d written was, “These slopes are frankly dangerous. People should not be allowed on them.” They ran that and said, “Look, it’s not for everyone. This is for the hardcore skier.”

Louis: I could talk about the Pratfall Effect for ages with you but we have two other biases to go through and I’m mindful of your time as well. I know the listeners are eager to know the two others. I think we’ve cornered this one pretty well.

I think people are quite convinced now that they should probably try it out about more, admitting their mistakes a bit more and that’s very beneficial. So now what’s the second bias you’d like to go through.

Richard: The second bias is confirmation bias. It’s the idea that people are very good at maintaining their existing point of view. For example, if you dislike a brand and you hear a message from them. Your brain can generate counter argument after counter argument which maintains it’s existing point of view. It just doesn’t agree with the new information.

Now, what’s interesting here is that behavioral science just doesn’t identify a problem. It also identifies the solution. There’s a wonderful Stanford psychologist called Festinger. What Festinger did was look at moments when people were more open to persuasion, more open to changing their point of view about a deeply held belief.

What he does, in 1964 he recruits people who are members of college fraternities and he plays them an audio argument. An audio argument on why college fraternities are morally wrong. Now, half of them just listened to the audio argument. The other half also had to watch a silent film.

Then after they’ve done this they answer questions about how much their beliefs have changed, and what Festinger found was that if people were also watching the silent film they were more likely to have changed their views.

This, I think, a fascinating experiment because the argument would be: Look if you want to persuade someone who dislikes your brand, that it’s actually decent. What you shouldn’t do is the strategy that 99.9% of media planners would advise you to do which is put your ad in a high attention environment. They’re things like though cinema or point if view programming.

What Festinger argues is if you do that you’re just drawing, the brain will just create these counter arguments and nothing will change. What you should do is reach people at moments of distraction because at least they’re potentially persuadable. So, it might be you run on an auxiliary medium that people are doing something else while they’re listening to you. Like radio.

Or you forget about the media argument and you take this as a creative suggestion. Therefore, for creative, what you should consider is not making just factual arguments. Don’t just list a long group of reason about why your brand’s great.

What you need to do is think about the body language and the tone of your ads. Perhaps the best example of this is back in the late-80s British Airways were struggling with perceptions of quality.

What they didn’t just do is talk about how they had amazing stewards and stewardesses, great big seats. What they did was always accompany their ads with this wonderfully evocative piece of classical music. Now there is no logical argument about quality. Therefore the brain doesn’t come up with a list of counter-arguments. I think that’s an interesting one.

Louis: I wanted to talk about that because as soon as you mentioned this I thought of Facebook and their recent shit show of an event. It’s insane to me that these multi-billion companies have failed so badly about communicating about their flaws. Failed so badly at the exact principle you just mentioned.

I’m talking about the privacy issues, the fact that they had so many security breaches, and the way they communicated that it was not in a moment of distraction whatsoever. I feel they’ve just blasted their message of saying, “We’re sorry. We fucked up but we didn’t really fuck up.” Everywhere they could, right?

How would you have approached this strategy? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they did it well.

Richard: Well, here are two things there. There is the first point which I think is fascinating about the first scandal with Facebook was around the Russian advertising the American elections. I would actually hold a slightly different viewpoint about that. Unfortunately, whichever way you argue it, I think from that the biggest beneficiary will actually be Facebook.

There’s a lovely analogy back in the, I say 1920s, but I might be getting my decades wrong. Of they’re in this story about Orson Welles and war of the worlds. He did a program about HG Welles’s novel “War of The Worlds” and he made it look like it was a news program.

So, supposedly all the newspapers said that supposedly there had been riots. That people got so scared about this story of alien invasion that was said to be a news story that they panicked in the streets. Have you heard of that one?

Louis: Now I remember.

Richard: What’s interesting is that when people have looked into this since. There was no panic. There’s no evidence of any of these panics. It was a story concocted by the newspapers of the day to try and crush and embryonic medium. I actually think what’s happened with the Russian elections story is the same thing has happened.

You see traditional news organizations repeatedly talking about how Facebook swung the U.S. election. Now, I have no idea about the rights and the wrongs about this, but what it certainly seems is that many of those news organizations are jumping on this chance to tarnish Facebook. What’s fascinating though is if you go back to the 1920s what happened with radio and Orson Welles.

Those newspapers tried to make a scandalous event. It caused a massive hoo-ha for a few months but after those few months died down, after the news story died down. What advertisers were left with was the memory that radio was an amazingly powerful medium. That it had the ability to cause panic in the streets and therefore it could probably sell their dishwasher powder.

I think exactly the same mistake is being made by news brands on Facebook. They’ve gone out and told everyone that it’s this amazingly powerful medium that is swinging elections. Once the hoo-ha has died down what advertisers will remember is that it can swing elections and therefore it will shift their yogurts and soap powders. Unfortunately, it depends which side you wanna go for but for newspapers, I think they are digging their own graves by following that tactic.

Louis: Yeah, you just showed with your argument that you are much smarter than me. I shouldn’t attempt to talk about behavioral science too much.

Richard: Well, I’m not sure if that anything to do with behavioral science but I just love the Orson Welles story. It’s one of my favorites.

Louis: I interviewed Mark Ritson a few months ago about branding, and he was dismissing this bursting dismiss about the fact that, “Oh, your reputation as a brand can be destroyed in one second. It takes only one thing.”

Richard: Oh, yes!

Louis: He was making the point that that’s complete bullshit. Giving the example of Volkswagen. For example, who had a massive scandal and yet they are still selling and are still going well. I think that connects with your point, right?

Richard: I love listening to Mark Ritson, I think he’s brilliant to listen to and the data back his point up exactly. That U-GOV do a brand index, a poll of various different branding measures after the omissions scandal VWs scores plummet. Within a few weeks, they’re gradually building back up again.

Now, I don’t think they’ve quite hit the same branding scores as they were at but it’s marginal now. Even in that huge scandal probably because they’d had 50 years of amazing advertising. I think they were given a second chance. Because they had a really strong brand.

In other instances where people haven’t had such a strong brand it’s been a bit more commonitized they’re traded on price. Things like Ratners, I mean Ratners literally did destroy itself almost overnight.

Louis: What happened?

Richard: It was a family jewelry it started off as a family jewelry that grew to be a really big chain of jewelers in the UK and Gerald Ratner I think his name was who was their founder, owner. At like a fancy bigwigs dinner said his products were crap basically. Said it was cheap crap. They had a massive margin, and from the journalists at the back couldn’t believe that this guy was saying it.

The next day, they printed this in full and he destroyed his family brand very, very quickly. But I still don’t think that necessarily contradicts Mark Ritson’s point. I don’t think Ratners hadn’t had that great investment in advertising, in building any sort of brand warmth. Therefore, when that problem came along they saw horrendous difficulties form it.

Interestingly people sometimes say, “Isn’t that a contradiction to what you just said about the pratfall effect?” But with all these biases there’s lots of nuances and there’s a couple which are relevant there which is the pratfall effect, some of Aranson’s work, showed that it only works if you’ve already got a degree of competency.

If you admit a flaw and you’re already seen as a bit shoddy it makes it worse. And then secondly don’t just pick a weakness randomly. The quality of your product is your core competence. The best brands don’t admit a weakness around their core competence. They admit something not only that isn’t core but also has a positive mirror image.

Think of Guinness. They don’t say their beer tastes awful. They say it’s slow, and what people know through a bit of experience is if it takes time to make it’s probably a higher quality. That’s a weakness that has a mirror strength.

Louis: I would say the third point is actually if you have to admit a mistake after someone else proved that it was a mistake then that doesn’t work right? You can’t as Facebook or Volkswagen you can’t say after the fact, “Well, yeah. We fucked up.” But it’s much better if you say that you fucked up from the start right?

Richard: Absolutely. I’m certainly sure if it’s the Pratfall Effect if you are caught out. When I think you’re absolutely right. Ratner was caught slagging off his customers. One of the recent instances I’ve seen brilliantly of dealing with a problem is probably things like KFC. Where you don’t hide in weaselly language. You make a mistake and I think you are completely forthright about it. They turned KFC into FCK and I think that was a very smart move.

Louis: I just got it. I just understood.

Richard: Oh sorry.

Louis: For listeners the FCK. You had the U between the F and the C and there you go.

Richard: I think British customers will get there very quickly because French Connection for a while was FCUK.

Louis: That’s true. How can people apply this confirmation bias in their day-to-day? Like in practical terms. What would you advise people to do?

Richard: There are always three things, but to touch two of them, which is maybe targeting moments of distraction in your creative thinking about associations rather than direct arguments. I’m interested in the third point though which is it might lead you to a targeting approach and the targeting approach might be this one of triage.

So, break a potential target audience into three. You’ve got detractors — dislikes the brand — broadly ambivalent, and loyal. I don’t know, fans is a bit extreme, but you know where I’m going with that but this argument around confirmation bias would say you should focus resolutely on the middle group. You should say, “Look confirmation bias exists. It’s hard to get around.”

There are tactics we’ve talked about but, frankly, ignore the detractors ’cause it’s a hard thing to do. And you’ll probably spend a lot of money and make little difference.

Similarly, I think there’s also an argument that you should ignore the people who really like your brand because if they’re regular buyers there isn’t much headroom. Most of the information or feelings they’ll get about your brand will come from product usage and experience. Therefore target people who are either lapsed, light or ambivalent towards your brand.

I think there’s a targeting angle that comes from confirmation bias as well and I kind of enjoy it as well because it’s an admission of the weak power of advertising. On an individual basis, advertising has quite a weak effect.

Yes, because it goes out to millions of people it aggregates up to a big effect but maybe sometimes we should have less grandiose objectives. Ignore and sod brand love. I think it’s far more realistic to get people to buy a little bit more often or return to a brand a little bit quicker than they may have done.

Louis: Can you talk just a bit more in details about what you just briefly mentioned? I think it’s very powerful. Instead of going heads on in an argument, like using the association. What do you mean exactly here?

Richard: Oh, sorry. Robert Heath talks about this brilliantly in seducing the sub-conscious and that’s where I got this argument from. Festinger’s central idea is, “Look, the brain is brilliant at coming up with counter-arguments if you approach it directly. If you make a logical assault on its existing beliefs.”

So, instead of giving logical, rational reasons why someone should change their behavior, what you do is surround yourself with association. You make an oblique approach and in the case of BA, the oblique approach was by always using classical music.

There are very strong associations with quality in classical music. Therefore it conveyed you are a high quality, a premium brand, a luxurious brand. Because you never state it, you don’t generate all these counter-arguments.

Louis: How can you find those associations? Classical music, that’s gives this feeling of excellence and all of that. That obvious now that you say it but in hindsight, I would never have thought of that so how do you find those associations? What typical methods would you use?

Richard: Costly signaling could be one other argument around this area. The value of a massive sponsorship, a 90-second T.V. ad, or a seemingly frivolous double page spread. You could argue the associations there are very much around a perceived expense of the advertising.

There’s a number of academics economists — John Kay and Even Davis, I think, have argued that advertising works because of it’s perceived expense. People think when they see an expensive ad or advertising.

In general, they think only a brand who had confidence in their product would bother to advertise for the long term. Because they won’t recoup the benefit quickly. It will take a long time and that is particularly extreme with high expense advertising.

One way to convey quality, genuine belief in your brand is to invest in those approaches that are perceived to be extravagant. Because it’s the–

Louis: In the long-term as well right?

Richard: Yes, it’s a screening mechanism. Only someone with genuine, strong faith in the long-term robustness of their brand. That people are gonna come back again and again and again — would advertise interesting that way. And because it acts as screening mechanisms. the only types of brands that do those things exhibit those characteristics.

Louis: Let’s go through the last biases of the day because I’m mindful that I like to go into it in detail as well. What is the third one?

Richard: The third one is habit. More specifically, what are the moments when people’s habits become destabilized? And therefore as an advertiser you can persuade them. ‘Cause there’s an argument that’s there’s a huge amount of complexity in life.

One of the ways that consumers get around that is just to buy the last thing they bought. That’s one tactic. Now that’s a problem for lost of brands, because how do you persuade someone to buy your products or encourage them to buy your products? Persuade is a bit too strong maybe when they’re not even considering it.

Now one of the tactics that I’ve investigated with a colleague called Laura Weston is how people’s habits become destabilized just after they undergo a life event. So what I mean by that — a life event is getting married, divorced, retired, moving house.

The research we did was, we got 2370 people and we asked the two questions. First one was which of these life events have you undergone in the last six months, 12 months? Tick the ones that apply. And then the second question was, well actually we asked some filler questions in between to throw people off the scent. Then the final question was and in which of these categories have you tried a new brand? Tick the ones that apply.

We did it a few different ways. We also asked the kind of favorite brand and where have you changed … you tried a new brand or got a new favorite brand. And what we found was that on pretty much every life event and every product we looked at people between two and three times more likely to try a new brand in that short window after they had undergone a life event.

Louis: One thing in thinking about straight away, sorry to cut you there. Is when I go on holidays or when I go away to France. I know that I’m very susceptible to change ’cause I know when I come back my habits are distorted and I will have more tendency to buy new stuff.

Richard: Yeah, do you know what? That is a brilliant one, I’ve never researched that but it would … the great thing about doing life events is we’ve got this proof that people’s habits destabilize. They become more open to stuff but some of those life events are pretty rare. It’s practical to target them. Lots of digital data providers have that data. Facebook tracks your relationship status but the interesting thing I think about a holiday is that its a far more regular thing. So yeah, that would be fascinating on to research.

There you go. Let’s do it together.

That will be in the second book.

Louis: There you go. The 25 other biases you should know about.

Richard: Yeah, the 25 biases that didn’t make it in the first book will be the subtitle.

Louis: And admitting that you fucked up. You should’ve added those 25 in the first book.

Richard: Yeah.

Louis: So apart from those examples, can you show what are some practical ways one can use this? So you mentioned something briefly on Facebook you can know whether someone has become single and stuff. It’s nice from an advertiser point of view, from a personal point of view I feel it’s a bit shady.

Louis: I’m not a big fan of those types of targeting. I think it’s very … a bit gray hat. Let’s try to find an example that is less gray hat, right? A bit more white hat, a bit more good marketing style. How else could you take advantage of this?

Richard: I think there are probably three applications of this. The central idea is changing people’s behavior is very hard. You want to pinpoint these moments of flux. Not that could be these life events. The second one could be doing it before habits harden.

There’s some lovely experiments by a guy called I think it’s David Olds and he analyzed some governmental communications and what he investigates was then called the nurse-family partnership where they identified families who were perceived to be at risk or the children perceived to be at risk and they spent a lot of money trying to make an intervention.

So, they would get nurses to go around very regularly and it was one of the famous public health campaigns that had a huge positive return. But when they analyze the data they found that all the effect was people having their first child. There was a massive effect amongst people who had their first child. When they were having their second or third child it had no impact at all. So people were, again, they felt they knew what to do and therefore were impervious to messages.

Richard: So the second bit there would be about putting a disproportionate influence on people when they are entering your category. When they have limited experience of I don’t know buying holidays, getting bank accounts. That is the moment or eating healthily. When you’re starting to make food decisions, cooking for your first time for yourself.

Louis: I’m thinking about, sorry to cut you again, but the other one that I’m thinking about is the changing job.

Richard: Yes.

Louis: That could be very powerful as well.

Richard: Oh, sorry. Yeah, if you go back to the life events. Yeah, not just relationship status. Changing jobs is a hugely important one. Moving house, starting university. These are all moments … retiring. When habits are in flux. I think you’ll remember they didn’t stand on a caution. On one hand, these are very tailored moments to get someone actually to the point of action but with all these things. If you take them too far there are huge implications.

There’s a wonderful argument from a guy called Kevin Simler about the dangers of personalized and targeted advertising. Simler argues and he uses this wonderful analogy of beer. He says the value of a brand is in it’s shared cultural meaning.

He takes an example. I think he might use Red Stripe. He says: Look, Red Stripe has a value because if I go to a party and I wanna suggest I’m laid back, I bring Red Stripe. We all know what it means and it helps in me projecting my identity. However it that beer brands gets greedy and tells me that it’s laid back. You that’s it’s all about its high-quality provenance.

Someone else that it’s a beer that sponsors comedy. If it tries to target different messages to different people. To begin with, that will look amazing. It will have a great effect but sooner or later we ill overhear those messages and therefore we’ll know that it stands for nothing or that it can stand for many different things. So it’s value is a signal to other people about what we believe in no longer stands.

Louis: This is very tricky, right? It makes me think already in times of, you know that personalization software allowing you to change your landing pages based on behavior. Yes, it all makes sense in the short-term but when we think of the long-term brand building exercise. That makes complete sense.

Actually, we have a lot of back and forth with my CEO of Hotjar when we talk about the brand and he makes always a good point about, “No, we know who our ideal customers are. Let’s build the right product for them but let’s not antagonize the others too much or tailor something different to others.”

Because exactly of this reason. He’s not mentioning all of the data and the facts of the science behind it but in terms of the thinking, I think this is what he has in mind always. It’s making sure that you don’t dilute your message, your core value proposition. So that’s tricky right?

Richard: I suppose that is the art. I think it’s got to accept that if you just look at things in the short-term you will optimize to a sub-optimal positive. You will, as you say, optimize the short-term but then over time, you will be creating problems.

So, yes apply some of these moments of personalization but don’t do it to such a degree that you lose what the essence of your brand is because then that’s a serious problem coming over the horizon.

Louis: Richard, you’ve been an absolute pleasure. Thanks so much for–

Richard: Oh, cheers sir.

Louis: –Going through all of those biases with me. I have three other questions I always ask at the end of the podcast that I like you to answer. The first one being, what do you think marketers should learn today? And I think I know the answer? What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next five, 10, 50 years?

Richard: I love that question. I am a big advocate for the idea that people don’t essentially change, and there’s this wonderful Burnback quote. I’m not sure about his historical knowledge but the guy was a creative genius.

But essentially he says, “It’s taken millions of years for human nature to evolve. It will take millions of years before it even varies. It’s fashionable for communicators to talk about the changing man, sorry. It’s fashionable to talk about the changing man but we should be concerned as communicators about the unchanging man.”

My strong belief is we should be focusing more on the fundamentals of marketing. We should be focusing on how people make decisions and that’s learning some psychology and behavioral science. Not on the flavor of the month that seems to take up far too much of people’s time and effort.

Louis: I’m so happy you answered that because I’ve been following you on Linkedin since we got in touch and you’re sharing a lot of facts like this. I’ve been sharing a few actually and people like that. And that this is something that I try to repeat over and over on this podcast is that, as you said and I don’t wanna just repeat what you said but basically yes, people don’t change. Technology does change but we don’t change.

Richard: Yes.

Louis: We adapt to certain new circumstances but the way we think, the way it’s ingrained in our DNA is not gonna change. So this is why growth hacking, I don’t know if you heard that, like growth hacking and also short-term thinking, flavor of the month marketing. I just can’t stick it because it just makes you think that there is something new under the sun every day. It’s not the case.

Richard: Yeah, absolutely. And I wonder there, maybe it’s an ego thing. There’s a lovely argument from “Anatomy of Humbug” by Paul [Feldwick]. I think he says, “Look, we all want to think that we are at the hardest time for marketers because it makes us feel important but frankly it’s always been tough.” And the reason I love the focus on the psychology is if you learn this stuff.

When you retire, on the day you retire, it will be just as relevant. If you learn about some fad that’s fleetingly of interest well you’ve got to relearn a whole new load of stuff in five years time. There’s great rewards I think to learn about psychology and behavioral science.

Louis: What are the top three resources you would recommend our listeners? Could be a book, could be a podcast, could be an event. Anything.

Richard: In terms of books, I am a big fan of “Decoded” by Phil Barden which is another book about behavioral science and he’s very good at making leaps about how marketers apply it. I’m a big fan of anything Rory Sutherland does.

Whether it’s his book “The Wiki-Man” it’s his spectator columns, it’s his Ted Talks. Because he is frankly a genius. He has a wonderful left-field imagination. He’ll take the same biases, same psychological insights that we can all read about–but his mind is so fertile he’ll leap off in completely different directions.

And then the third one, another book that I’ve read quite reasonably recently is “Everybody Lies” by Seth Stevens-Davidowitz. He’s an ex-Google data scientist and it’s a wonderful argument with some brilliant, brilliant examples.

About how if you ask people why they behave the way they do they will give you misleading answers and he is a huge advocate for looking at the terms they use when they’re searching. He compares Google to a 21-century confessional that you can see what people think when they think no one watching.

Louis: You’ve been too nice not to mention your book. So the choice–

Richard: Or a bad salesman. Which should make you question anything I, therefore, say about sales.

Louis: But the fact that you admit that you’re being a bad salesman makes you feel even better. So “The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioral Biases that Influence What We Buy.” I haven’t bought it yet, I will. I promise.

Richard: Excellent. Public commitment.

Louis: Absolutely, public commitment. There you go, so I have to do it now. I absolutely recommend every listener to buy it as well based on the small conversation we had together at this interview. I know that people will get a lot of value from it and I’m super impressed by the number of followers you have on Linkedin. I don’t give a shit about numbers normally but that just threw me off. Like 200,000 people. How did that happen?

Richard: It’s quite weird as well because I absolutely love Twitter and use it loads. Don’t use Linkedin as much.

Louis: But nobody follows you on Twitter.

Richard: Not compared to that now.

Louis: So switch to Linkedin.

Richard: I normally just tend to post articles I’ve written. Then what I’ve started doing recently is if I see something interesting in a book I will take a photo of it and post it on Linkedin and when I say a book. Not a novel, not a crime fiction book. Act around psychology or advertising.

Louis: Yeah, I think people have guessed that.

Richard: Last time I read a novel was about three years ago.

Louis: Apart from Linkedin and Twitter, where can listeners connect with you?

Richard: Those are probably the best two places or they can always send me an email. [email protected] But actually, Twitter’s probably the best place. I leave my messages on so people can DM me.

Louis: So, what’s your Twitter handle?

Richard: Sorry, @Rshotton. S-H-O-T-T-O-N.

Louis: Brilliant. Well, Richard once again you’ve been an absolute pleasure.

Louis: Fantastic. Thank you very much.

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