Scarcity is the secret sauce behind everything from Wordle to the McRib

Like many products before it, Wordle has driven desire by limiting its volume – something all marketers should feel confident to try out.

Wordle is the latest internet craze. It’s a simple word game in which you have six attempts to guess a five-letter word (a bit like the 1980s board game Mastermind). Unless you have been hibernating, your social media timelines are probably dotted with its trademark yellow and green squares.

But it hasn’t always been so successful. The prototype, created by British software engineer Josh Wardle, was launched among his friends in 2013. However, they were so apathetic he scrapped the project.

But a few years later, during lockdown, Wardle became hooked on the New York Times cryptic crossword. He wondered if his fascination was due to the fact that only one puzzle a day was released. He was always left wanting more.

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Taking the crossword as inspiration, he rejigged the prototype: now players were limited to a single puzzle a day. According to Wardle, he wanted the game to be like a croissant, a delightful snack that is sampled occasionally.

It was a small but powerful tweak. The game now has more than 300,000 daily users and Wardle attributes the success to that simple restriction.

But is Wardle correct? Was scarcity really the secret sauce that drove the game’s success? Well, there’s certainly supporting evidence from behavioural science. Psychologists have long argued that we value things more when they’re scarce.

The academic evidence

The most famous experiment in this area was conducted by Stephen Worchel, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. In 1975 he recruited 134 undergraduates and asked them to rate the quality of a batch of cookies. The participants tasted the cookies from a glass jar containing either two or 10 biscuits.

When the cookies were in scarce supply, they were rated as significantly more attractive and likeable. Furthermore, participants were willing to pay 25% more for them.

That experiment isn’t a one-off. In 2012, Seung Yun Lee from Hanyang University and Russell Seidle from McGill University ran a study that’s even more relevant to marketers. They showed 72 participants one of two ads for a wristwatch.

Some used scarcity messaging (“Exclusive limited edition. Hurry, limited stocks”), while others emphasised the large volume of items that were available (“New edition. Many items in stock”).

Participants who read the scarcity messaging rated their purchase intent on a nine-point scale at 4.62. That’s 37% higher than those in the control group who rated it at just 3.37.

More than just a one off

If you look, you’ll see examples of brands successfully harnessing scarcity in most categories.

In the world of confectionery, consider Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, which are only sold from 1 January to Easter Day. It’s the restriction that boosts their appeal.

In the 1980s, Cadbury forgot this and allowed them to be sold all year round. Just as the principle of scarcity suggests, sales dropped. It wasn’t long before Cadbury rectified its error and restricted availability.

Or consider tech. When Gmail launched in April 2004, it offered 1GB of space, far more than other email providers. But at the time, Google lacked the capacity to offer millions of users that much storage, so it initially limited invites.

That unintentional scarcity boosted demand. According to Georges Harik, who was involved in many of Google’s launches at the time: “[Gmail’s scarcity] had a side effect… Everyone wanted it even more. It was hailed as one of the best marketing decisions in tech history, but it was a little bit unintentional.”

The launch was almost two decades ago so it’s hard to remember just how desirable Gmail was at the time. But in the summer of 2004 invites were selling for as much as $150 on eBay. Having a Hotmail or a Yahoo email was ordinary. But having a Gmail account meant that you were part of an exclusive club.

Gmail isn’t an outlier. Scarcity is a regular launch feature for tech products: Facebook, Clubhouse and Spotify all initially either limited their access or were invite-only.

Finally, consider the world of fast food. McDonald’s introduced the McRib 1981 and, while there was some initial interest, it wasn’t enough to make the sandwich a permanent menu item. However, once McDonald’s removed the McRib from the menu, it found that some customers missed the item.

In response, it has reintroduced the sandwich on random occasions – always for a limited time – over the past three decades. The scarcity of the sandwich led to a cult following; there is even a McRib locator where people can check where the item is available.

As the author GK Chesterton said: “The way to love anything is to realise that it may be lost.”

Over to you

The mix of psychology experiments and practical examples should give you the confidence to test the principle of scarcity on your brand. Whether it’s creating exclusive editions, limiting the volume or even the time that your product is available, there are plenty of ways to harness this idea.

Or in Josh Wardle’s wonderful turn of phrase, take inspiration from the croissant. Sometimes it’s better to be an occasional treat that leaves people wanting more.

Richard Shotton is founder of the consultancy Astroten and author of The Choice Factorya book about applying behavioural science to advertising. He tweets at @rshotton.

Will Hanmer-Lloyd is head of strategy at Total Media.