Solving Brand Problems With Behavioral Science

Richard ShottonSeptember 10, 20185 min

One of the appealing aspects of behavioral science is that rather than being a single, over-arching theory, it’s a broad collection of biases. That means it’s flexible enough to be applied to the variety of problems we’re trying to solve for brands.

Despite this, the commentary in advertising has focused on the same handful of biases: social proof, loss aversion, framing and the like.

With that in mind I wanted to discuss briefly three underused biases. I’ve chosen a range that reflects the different facets of advertising. One affects creative messaging, another channel selection and the final one media implementation.

1. The Pratfall Effect

A bias that should be considered more often is the pratfall effect. This is the idea that admitting a weakness makes a person, or a brand, more appealing. Elliot Aronson, from Harvard university, was the first academic to investigate this.

He recorded an actor answering a series of quiz questions. The actor – armed with the right responses – answers 92% of the questions correctly. After the quiz, the actor then pretends to spill a cup of coffee over themselves (a small blunder, or pratfall).

The recording was played to a large sample of students, who were then asked how likeable the contestant was. However, Aronson split the students into cells and played them different versions: one with the spillage included and one without. The students found the clumsy contestant significantly more likeable.

The Implications For Marketing

So why do imperfections make people and products more attractive?

Everyone assumes that brands are fallible, so if a brand is open about its failings, it can persuade consumers that its weaknesses lie in inconsequential areas. Rory Sutherland has argued that this theory partly explains the success of budget airlines. At launch they openly admitted that the trade-off for cheap prices was a compromised service: no reservations and a small luggage allowance. If they hadn’t admitted as much, consumers may have assumed the cost-cutting had come at the expense of safety.

Admitting a weakness is also a tangible demonstration of honesty and, therefore, makes other claims more believable. Three of the most successful UK ad campaigns ever: “Good things come to those who wait” (Guinness), “Reassuringly expensive” (Stella Artois) and “Naughty but nice” (Lyons cream cakes) all made their core claim more believable by admitting a weakness. Sure, these cream cakes are full of sugar and won’t be good for your figure, but they’re worth it because they taste so good.

The Principal-Agent Problem

If admitting flaws is an impactful tactic, why do few brands apply it?

The rarity is explained by the principal-agent problem: what is in the interest of the brand – the principal – is not in the interest of the marketing manager – the agent. If the campaign flops it might be the end of the brand manager’s career. Imagine explaining to the CEO as sales dive that the key message of your campaign was that the brand was expensive. Even referencing Aronson might not save you.

For safe career progression then, this tactic is questionable. However, if you want the best chance of growing your brand, consider reveling in your flaws. It will always be a distinctive approach.

2. Overcoming The Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the idea that we interpret information through a lens of our feelings for the communicator. This makes it hard to change peoples’ minds. As the legendary stock market investor, Charlie Munger says:

The human mind is a lot like the human egg, in that the human egg has a shut-off device. One sperm gets in, and it shuts down so that the next one can’t get in. The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort.

That’s a problem for brands trying to convert rejecters. However, research by Leon Festinger, a social psychologist at Stanford University, shows that there are moments when it is easier to overcome confirmation bias.

He ran a study with Nathan Macoby, from Harvard University, in which members of a college fraternity were played a recorded argument about the evils of fraternities in an attempt to turn them against the tradition. The students were split into two groups and either listened to the recording with no distractions or while being played an entertaining silent film.

Interestingly, students were more likely to shift their views when they were partially distracted. Festinger’s hypothesis was that the mind is normally adept at coming up with counter-arguments to any persuasive communications. However, distraction reduces the mind’s ability to generate these counter-arguments.

These findings are interesting as they suggest a counter-intuitive approach for targeting rejecters. Rather than seeking out high-attention environments brands should prioritize moments when the audience is slightly distracted.

It seems that one of the most cherished beliefs of media planners, that attention is key, may not be right in all circumstances.

For another angle on this topic read Seducing the Subconscious. Robert Heath’s book outlines how advertisers can avoid activating the brain’s capacity for confirmation bias by not engaging it in logical arguments.

Alternatively, there’s an argument that if it’s so hard to win over rejecters then ignore them and focus elsewhere.

3. Social Proof And TV Program Selection

Most people assume that the funniness of an ad is determined solely by the content, but psychologists Yong Zhang and George Zinkhan have shown that the social context is important too.

The two University of Houston psychologists recruited 216 people to watch soft drink commercials, either on their own or in groups. They found that ads watched in company were rated as 20% funnier than those viewed alone.

The impact of large groups might be due to social proof – this is the idea that people are consciously, or subconsciously, influenced by what others are doing around them. So one person in the group laughing encourages others to laugh.

So, what can brands learn from the social nature of humor? The main point is that the funniness of an ad is not just a creative issue but also one of media placement. Picking the right moment can increase the impact. One implementational tactic is therefore to run copy in programs or genres which tend to be watched in groups. For example, films, documentaries and news are all around twice as likely to be watched in groups according to Infosys data.

These are just three underused biases. There are plenty of others that I will cover in future thought pieces on Branding Strategy Insider. Whatever your brief there will be a finding from behavioral science that will help you solve it.

You can find more ideas like this in my new book The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioral Biases That Influence What We Buy  (Recently named the #1 book ever written on Advertising by BBH)

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