We are delighted to welcome Richard Shotton as our guest author. Richard has worked in advertising for over 20 years, first in planning and later moving into research. Richard is specifically interested in the practical application of behavioural science and his first book (The Choice Factory: 25 behavioural biases that influence what we buy) was published earlier this year - which is why his views on why marketers need to embrace behavioural science are particularly relevant.

Behavioural science is currently one of the hottest topics in marketing. This attention isn’t undeserved; if anything, we should devote more of our time and energy to the subject. After all, it’s the study of why people make decisions. Not the study of how people make decisions in theory. No. It’s the study of how people make decisions in reality, with all the wonderful, messy and surprising detail that involves. Since marketers are interested in decision making in commercial situations, it’s hard to think of any more relevant topic.

A robust approach to marketing decisions

Relevance isn’t the only strength though, it’s also highly robust. It’s based on the peer-reviewed experiments of some of the world’s leading scientists. Academics stretching from contemporary Nobel Laureates, like Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler, to historic figures, like B. F. Skinner and Elliot Aronson.

Even though the discipline has academic roots, it is immensely practical. Consider a bias like price relativity. This is the idea that consumers have no fixed conception of what is good value. Instead, they work out whether an item is a fair price by considering what they have previously paid for something similar.

At first it sounds like a dusty academic finding. But it should interest marketers as it means they can boost their consumer’s willingness to pay by orders of magnitude if they can change their comparison set.

Brands have done this many times – from Red Bull to craft beer. But the best example is Nespresso. If it had been devised by a lesser team than Nestle they may have launched it in half kilo bags in Sainsbury’s.

Had they done so, and charged the same per gram price they do now, those bags would cost £35. There is no way on earth anyone would spend that much on a bag of coffee. It would feel like a barely legal rip-off.

But of course, that’s not what Nestle did. They sold Nespresso in pods, and since each pod gives you a cup serving the comparison set changes to Costa or Caffe Nero. Suddenly, 47p for a pod of Lungo feels remarkably good value compared to £3 for a flat white. But 47p for a pod or £35 for a half kilo bag are the same per gram price. One seems remarkably good value, while one feels exorbitant.

Nestle have made billions from applying a well-known bias from behavioural science to their marketing.

An insight for every occasion

The robustness and relevance of the discipline should be enough reason to apply behavioural science. But there is another, underappreciated strength: its remarkable range.  Behavioural science is not a single, grand theory but rather a collection of insights and ideas exploring the human condition.

The variety means that whatever problem you are facing, there will be an experiment to draw on.

These insights stretch from those with a strategic application, to ones with a media planning application (such as avoiding confirmation bias, discussed here) even to matters around pricing or media placement.

Of course, this diversity can be confusing but there are many frameworks that help to navigate the complexity and steer you towards the right bias. Perhaps the most useful is the EAST framework which was designed by the Government’s Behavioural Insight Team and which you can access for free here.

Hopefully, the three strengths of behavioural science (relevance, range and robustness) are enough to convince you of the discipline’s importance.

But perhaps the final word should go to Kevin Chesters, the ex-CSO at Ogilvy:

If you’re a planner and you don’t employ behavioural science in your day job, then you’re a bloody idiot. It would be like being a pilot and forgetting to use your eyes.

At The Behaviours Agency we have been shaping behaviour for our clients since 2006 and we are increasingly convinced that applying an understanding of behavioural economics is the route to the most effective, engaging, and compelling content for brands. To understand how we do this visit our BE section 

By Richard Shotton

Author of The Choice Factory