In a 2017 study 6 participants were shown a promotional message that reflected a percentage off the price of a product. There were different variations of this message, some that showed the offer was for today only, for one week only, or had no expiration at all. While hooked up to an fMRI scanner, participants pressed a button if they wished to purchase the product they were presented with. Each time they chose to buy a product with one of the limited-time offers, the area in their brain linked to emotion had an increase in activity (i.e. amygdala). The same could not be said when the product offering wasn’t considered scarce. The researchers also found that when someone made the decision to buy the scarce product, information that did not favor their decision to buy was essentially ignored.
What this study tells us is that scarcity may increase your sense of urgency to make a decision, leading to a mentality of “buy it now.” This thought process hinders our cognitive ability to analytically process costs and benefits in a sensible manner. Instead, our cognitive resources become focused on processing why you should buy something and suppresses any other thoughts that may impede the decision to purchase.
This study, which is among the many that have measured brain activity related to scarcity, proves that scarcity isn’t a made-up influence factor—it’s something you can actually see happening in the brain through fMRI scans.
Our brains are hardwired for survival, which is why we often focus on what we don’t have. Scarcity causes our brain to shift its focus onto what it considers urgent. If there is something we really want to buy that’s also hard to get, our brains shift into gear and place mental energy and focus onto rectifying the decision because from our mind’s perspective, this need is now urgent.
For instance, let’s consider the McRib.
Limited Availability As The Greatest Selling Point
The McDonald’s McRib sandwich—that boneless pork patty molded into the shape of ribs, slathered with BBQ sauce, and topped with raw onions and pickles—has achieved cult status, mostly because of its scarcity. The McRib is offered only for a limited time; it is not uncommon to see the telltale signal of scarcity in McDonald’s ads, “While supplies last.”
The iconic sandwich made its debut in the company’s U.S. restaurants in 1981 and ran until about 1985. Sales had dropped for the product, which caused its removal from the permanent menu. In the late 1980s, McDonald’s decided to release the McRib as a limited-time product and have some fun with it. They would release it temporarily in local markets around the United States, and even in some global locations.
In 2005, McDonald’s launched the farewell tour for the McRib, which resulted in tremendous buzz, including a website that was promptly created to save the iconic sandwich. Due to the immense success of the farewell tour, additional farewell tours came out in 2006 and 2007. Then in 2010, the McRib was released yet again emphasizing the legend of the sandwich. Over the years, chasing the McRib has become a phenomenon and has been the focal point of numerous parodies on TV shows, including The Simpsons, How I Met Your Mother, and Rosanne. Even on Full House, Becky says “Joey, what’s going on? I haven’t seen you this excited since they brought back the McRib.”
McDonald’s has approached the concept of scarcity in a unique way, which is what makes the McRib unique and in demand. The McRib appears only periodically on the McDonald’s menu and the geographic locations in which it appears can vary. This has left people wanting and demanding its release. You never know when and where it will show up and its limited availability turned into its greatest selling point. Turns out, we like something more when we can’t take it for granted.
Over time it seems that the unpredictability of the McRibs’ release has resulted in a passion for the limited-time McRib and has also prompted bloggers to write about the sandwich, fans to join social media groups to discuss “McRib sightings” and even people to develop websites solely focused on the popular sandwich. One McRib fan, Alan Klein, built the popular McRib Locator website where fans can locate, report sightings of and talk about the McRib. Numerous Facebook pages exist dedicated to the sandwich with thousands of followers. One fan bragged that he had 27 McRib sandwiches over a 4-week time span. This fan also explained that during McRib season, he thinks about the tangy pork sandwiches throughout the day. It becomes an obsession for many. They hyper-focus on the limited availability of this sandwich.
McDonald’s successfully used the McRib to build brand affinity and long-term loyalty with customers. There continues to be a frenzy among superfans, as they flock to McDonald’s restaurants to buy the sandwiches before they go away. It’s because of these fans, and ultimately McDonald’s brilliance with limited-time offerings, that the McRib has been kept alive for nearly four decades.
The Motivations Behind Scarcity
Marketers use scarcity to influence consumers by appealing to how they aspire to be perceived by other people. If someone wants to be envied or admired by other people, there will be a strong attraction to a product that’s exclusive, in limited supply, or a limited edition.
As humans, we have wants, needs, and desires, all of which are at the core of consumer behavior. The idea that something can be here today and gone tomorrow drives most of us crazy, and it’s what makes scarcity such a powerful influence in how we make decisions. Fear of not having something has existed for time immemorial. While this fear can be associated with essential things such as food, water, and shelter, it is also often tied to nonessential material possessions.
We want what we want when we want it. We don’t want that air fryer to be sold out on Amazon or eBay. We don’t want our time to get that deal or special item to be limited, even when it is. We don’t want other kids to get that new Lego set before our own kids do. When our desires are not met, we feel a sense of loss. Scarcity causes anxiety because we have a fear of missing out (FOMO). This anxiety can lead to a perceived loss of personal control—and we don’t like not having control. When it comes to scarcity, the only way to regain control is to get our hands on the scarce item. When we do, our feeling of control is restored.
Scarcity Is Extremely Fragile
As powerful as scarcity is, it is a force that is extremely fragile. Using scarcity in marketing messages is a risk—one that should be carefully considered and mitigated. Scarcity must be validated by the person on the receiving end of your message through signals that prove there is some type of limited availability. Consider the following:
- There is a limited-time sale with deep discounts, but no expiration date.
- A company claims that an item is nearly sold out, but a consumer does a quick search online and finds the opposite to be true.
- A retail store announces that product quantities are low, but the shelves are fully stocked.
- The exclusive membership club is always crowded.
- A fashion brand advertises that a new jacket is available in limited quantities, but everyone seems to have it.
In all these scenarios, trust gets shattered and the product’s value plummets. Consumers often share information on review sites, discussion forums, and social media platforms. It doesn’t take long for a company’s credibility to falter when they are viewed as being manipulative. When it is obvious that a scarcity claim was made up to only improve sales, it can irreparably harm a business’s reputation.
There is no question that scarcity has a powerful influence over us, more than most of us realize and it can be effectively applied in many ways and in many styles. It is a power that can be used to manipulate and control or in a more positive light, make us smarter about the decisions we make. Once you are aware of the role scarcity plays in your own life, you’ll be able to make better informed and thought-out decisions.
KEY SELLING POINTS
- When a (truthful) scarcity message is added to an advertisement, it encourages us to act (i.e.: make a purchase, donate, etc.)
- Scarcity has become a mainstay approach in marketing and psychology because it tends to improve the effectiveness of advertisements and sales pitches, and changes behaviors and attitudes.
- Scarcity may increase your sense of urgency to make a decision, leading to a mentality of “buy it now.”
- Once you are aware of the role scarcity plays in your own life, you’ll be able to make better informed and thought-out decisions.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Mindy Weinstein, Author of The Power of Scarcity: Leveraging Urgency and Demand to Influence Customer Decisions (McGraw Hill, November 2022).
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