Three ways Behavioural Science contradicts conventional marketing wisdom

It didn’t take the advertising industry long to co-opt Behavioural Science as a way to sell more stuff. Or, at least, use loosely relevant behavioural concepts and evidence to prop up a strategy or piece of creative work. (And if you’ve worked with me in the past, mea culpa!).

I used the word ‘co-opt’ because we took the upsides of things like heuristics, biases, nudging and decision design but left out the ethical frameworks that a deeper and more academic understanding of Behaviour Science implores.

Ethics matter. It wasn’t so long ago a fast-food company and its agency were awarded the Grand Prix in marketing science for uncovering 90 different ways to sell a one dollar chip special in a country where 25% of children and 67% of adults were overweight or obese.

More effective persuasive tools require more responsible oversight and use. And not just for customer wellbeing. There are clear advantages to delivering a sustainable strategy that avoids short-term behavioural sugar hits and takes a long-term view by minimising harm and building brands and campaigns for long-term success.

As an industry, we need to recognise the odds are stacked against consumers when it comes to making choices aligned to their long-term wellbeing. And it’s only going to get worse as algorithms gets better. As my ethics professor said, “There’s not much Behavioural Science can teach the marketing industry about exploiting Present Bias.”

Marketing, advertising and communications are full of the types of well-known maxims you find in mature industries. Positive framing, hype up your point of difference, be action-focussed and any number of other similar and familiar quips reinforce the way things have always been and should continue to be done.

And these endure because they’ve been successful. But relying on past success won’t guarantee future improvements. And as Behavioural Science continues to evolve at pace, these types of improvements are readily available.


The below points outline areas where Behavioural Science suggest doing the opposite of conventional wisdom might deliver better approaches to achieving improved customer and brand outcomes.

1: Action vs Identity

“What’s the call to action” seems like a reasonable question for marketers reviewing campaign strategy, design and copy. Except there’s good evidence to suggest that asking people to become someone, rather than do something is more effective.

A study showed that asking people to “be a voter” encouraged more people to vote than asking people “to vote”. As long as the called-for identity is aspirational, we’re more inclined to do something we believe aligns to who we want to be rather than doing what we’re told.

The inverse also applies, people try to avoid actions aligning them with identities they perceive as negative.  The NSW government’s anti-littering campaign ‘Don’t be a Tosser’ brilliant utilises this strategy.

2: Big and Emotional vs Small and Rational

As an intangible asset, a brand’s value and premium is linked to the degree of  emotional connection it has with current and potential customers. Marekters trying to grow a brand’s premium will focus on heightening this emotional connection while emphasising the difference the brand has with competitors.

Behavioural Science sees great value in emotional bonds however there is a risk. Marketing based on emotion has a high potential for ambiguity and ambiguity is something we try to avoid.

Equally, highlighting major differences between your band and competitors provides clear distinction but this risks putting of potential new customers by conflicting with our innate status quo bias. This means that any promise of benefit from changing brands pits that change against the ease of not changing at all.

3: Being Positive vs Embracing Loss

One of the more well-known biases in Behavioural Science is Loss Aversion, outlining how the prospect of a loss looms larger in our minds than the prospect of an equivalent gain.
But the old rule of positive framing scares most marketers away from associating their brand, product or service with anything negative, even if it might drive the behaviour they seek.

Government safety messaging tends to be braver in this regard. The aforementioned “Tosser” campaign harkens back to the famous RTA “pinkie” campaign that successfully encouraged young men to comment on their mate’s hoon driving.

And political campaigns are often even keener to embrace negative messaging. So much so, it’s simpler to highlight the few recent Australian campaigns that haven’t focussed on negative messaging than recount all those negatively focussed.

During the recent Voice referendum the Yes campaign failed to adequately respond to negatively framed misinformation because it didn’t want to be pulled into the gutter. It’s messaging remained focussed on positive emotional motivators. We’ve explained why we think a positive only Yes campaign was a mistake here.

Taking time to explore the counterfactual, the opposite and the counter-intuitive . And this holds for how we position brands, how we communicate complex messaging and, most importantly, how we drive behaviour change.

If I was following the old rules, I’d usean action-focussed CTA like ‘learn more about Behavioural Science. Instead I’ll invite you to become a more effective marketer by getting in touch here.

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