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Psychology in the Workplace: How Marketers Can Harness the Power of Psychology

Fundamentally, marketing is about generating attention and communicating ideas. For marketers, understanding how people think, feel, respond to cues and talk about their product or service is essential to success. There are several techniques those working within the industry can adopt from the world of psychology to help inform this and better reach their clients and customers.

Below we explore some of the ways that psychology, and having a better understanding of the human mind, is being used by businesses in their marketing campaigns to get results.



Using cognitive bias to influence consumer behaviour

Knowing how to influence consumer behaviour is a core marketing skill. And one of the strategies that marketing professionals today employ to influence their customers’ behaviour is tapping into cognitive bias; an error in thinking that occurs when people are presented with information and that can affect their decision making.

Some of the marketing techniques that harness the potential of cognitive bias include:

  • The decoy effect: One of the more subtle ways brands influence consumers is by placing ‘decoy’ products next to their more expensive goods. By positioning a cheaper or generic products alongside more expensive options, it subconsciously suggests to customers that the more expensive is of a higher quality, or more appealing, than the alternatives. When presented with two options, the brain is likely to behave rationally (eg we select more cost-efficient choices). However, when presented with three or more options, we’re more likely to make illogical decisions, which don’t account for relative quality, cost or efficiency. A good example of this is how cinemas or coffee shops offer small, medium or large options for food and drinks.

  • Familiar Face Effect: Perhaps one of the more obvious examples of how marketers tap into cognitive bias is through repeated exposure. In a 1968 Oregon State University study, a student was tasked (without informing other students) with coming into class wearing a black bag with only his feet visible. After an initial period of disdain from other students, repeated exposure to the black bag turned into curiosity and eventually into friendship with other students. This extends to the world of commerce and goods; as consumers, we are likely to become more interested in a product the more we are exposed to it. A practical example of how marketers use this effect to their advantage is via the retargeting of people who have visited their websites, engaged with advertising or have brought products before.

  • Scarcity effect: Offering a product or service as part of a limited time offer can result in an influx of consumers looking to secure a ‘good deal’. Marketers often capitalise on this by sending messages that warn people against “missing out” – for instance, we have all, no doubt, received emails telling us “an item left in your cart will soon be sold out”. This prompts the customer to rush the purchase process. An example of this is action is De Beers’ use of the scarcity effect to promote diamond sales. Contrary to popular belief, diamonds are relatively common. However, in the 19th Century De Beers established a monopoly over the diamond distribution channels, using their control to fabricate an artificial scarcity to increase prices and create a perception of diamonds as being a luxurious symbol of wealth and success.

  • The IKEA effect: Four studies following consumers as they assembled IKEA boxes, folded origami and built Lego pieces found that people tend to value a product more if they are involved in its creation. This is termed the ‘IKEA effect’ reflecting the retail giant’s USP of selling ready-to-assemble furniture. Looking beyond DIY, marketing professionals more generally can exploit this effect by involving consumers in the process of building or customising products and giving them a sense of ownership and accomplishment – all with the aim of boosting sales.

We all experience some element of cognitive bias, perhaps even daily. But being able to use it to gain a commercial advantage is a defining trait of many successful businesses’ marketing campaigns.


How marketers use psychology to tap into consumer emotions

Emotions play a critical role in decision making and a good marketing campaign can tap into this. In Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman’s book How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market, he states that 95% of decision making takes place subconsciously. Zaltman explains that when customers choose a brand or service at the point of purchase, subconscious and emotional influences are stronger than more overtly ‘logical’ factors such as price.

For marketers and business leaders, this means that when positioning a product on the market, it is important to understand how consumers frame their experiences of it.

Practical uses of this technique can be subtle. For instance, the “like” button on Facebook and Instagram boosts repeat user engagement. Each time a post receives a lot of likes, brain activity in the nucleus accumbens – the part of the brain responsible for reward – is triggered; users are encouraged to return to the platforms to receive the same “hit”.

Emotional appeal used in adverts can be more obvious. Gatorade’s “The Boy Who Learned To Fly”, an animated short film about Usain Bolt and his mother for the 2016 Olympics, has been well documented for the psychology behind its emotionally driven narrative. Jerome Bruner, one of the most cited psychologists of the 20th century, suggests that we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been presented as part of a narrative, something that advertisers often play to their advantage to ensure their message, or name, is remembered.

Ultimately, advertising research finds that the consumer’s emotional response to an advert has a greater influence on their intent to buy a product than the content itself. Being able to game the interaction between customer emotions and the brand is essential for commercial success. For marketers, implementing some of these basic psychological concepts presents an immense opportunity to establish a relationship with their leads and drive growth.


Making marketing work with psychology

Psychology has a lot to offer marketing professionals and business leaders. Being able to connect with consumers on an emotional level or influence their behaviour can result in an ability to distinguish their brand from competitors and, ultimately, lead to good returns. So, if you’re a marketing professional, having a stronger understanding of psychology - and how our brains tick - might be the distinguishing factor that helps you improve your organisation’s performance and take your own career to the next level.


Broaden Your Mind: Join Our Psychology Masters

If you’re interested in learning more about how the human mind works in order to improve your performance at work, taking our BPS accredited distance learning Psychology MSc (conversion) could be the perfect next step. Open to graduates with a 2:2 in any subject, it will help you to build an understanding of the core psychology behind why we think, act and feel the way we do. Plus, you will have the freedom to study part time, whenever and wherever you want.

Discover more about the course here.

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