Think laterally to get the most out of behavioural science

Subtle signals can create positive perceptions of your products, without needing to hammer home their benefits in less trusted advertising messages.

Adding green to to number plates creates social proof for electric vehicles

Have you noticed more electric cars on the road recently?

Part of that is due to a clever government initiative. In December 2020, the Department for Transport copied their counterparts in Norway and introduced distinctive green number plates for electric cars.

Prior to this intervention, electric cars were indistinguishable from their petrol or diesel equivalents. Unless you were a petrolhead, attuned to the slightest differences in design, you would have struggled to spot them. That invisibility meant that many people underestimated their prevalence.

For product claims, three is the magic number

Now that the government has made electric cars easier to spot, they look more commonplace. That’s an important development. One of the biggest drivers of behaviour is social proof. That’s the idea that people aren’t independent decision-makers but, instead, they are often attracted to behaviours that appear commonplace. We’re more likely to pick electric if it feels popular.

That’s not speculation. There’s a wealth of experiments that demonstrate that we’re a herd species. One of the most innovative in this area comes from Kees Keizer of the University of Groningen.

In 2008 he ran a study in an alleyway that had two crucial characteristics: lots of parked bikes and no bin. Keizer attached flyers to the handlebars of all the bikes and then surreptitiously monitored how the owners behaved when they returned.

The twist in the experiment was that sometimes Keizer had already scattered a few flyers across the ground, thereby making littering appear to be the typical behaviour. On other occasions he cleaned up the alleyway, so that disposing of rubbish looked like the norm.

The results were clear. When cyclists returned to a clean alleyway only 33% chucked the bumf on the floor. However, that figure more than doubled to 69% when the alleyway was already litter-strewn.

Whether people knew it or not, their behaviour was shaped by subtle signals about the norms of behaviour.

The power of lateral thinking

Social proof is regularly exploited by brands. But most marketers use it in a literal manner. That is, they make direct claims about popularity. Think of all those ads saying things like “we sell 10,000 chocolate bars a week” or “9 out of 10 people recommend us”.

That’s all well and good, but trust in advertising claims is low. So, these direct claims risk arousing people’s suspicions. In contrast, the number plate initiative doesn’t make any direct claims; it relies on people gradually noticing more flashes of green and coming to their own conclusions about popularity. That approach tends to be more effective, as we trust our own opinions more than anyone else’s.

Whether people knew it or not, their behaviour was shaped by subtle signals about the norms of behaviour.

It’s not just the government who have applied the bias of social proof laterally. Think about Maximuscle, which provides protein powders for gym bunnies keen to pump up their biceps.

Most of Maximiuscle’s competitors have allowed their success to be invisible. Once people have mixed up their protein shakes it’s hard to know what brand is being used. After all the branding is on the tub of powder, not the glass they’re drinking from.

Maximuscle is different. It had the brainwave of distributing heavily branded protein shakers. So, once people had made their concoction and decanted it into the shaker, it was obvious which brand was being consumed. They made a behaviour that was previously invisible visible. Keizer’s experiment suggests the brand will reap the benefits.

Beyond distinctiveness

It’s not just Maximuscle and the Department for Transport that are applying social proof laterally. Some forward-thinking ecommerce brands are harnessing social proof through their subtle choice of language to minimise irritation when their products are unavailable.

While the typical way of describing a missing item is to say it’s ‘out of stock’ or ‘unavailable’, some psychologically astute brands use ‘sold out’. Think about the different connotations. ‘Unavailable’ hints at logistical ineptitude, whereas ‘sold out’ emphasises the surprising popularity of the product.

Once again, that’s not just opinion. In a 2019 study, Robert Peterson from the University of Texas showed 1,117 participants an ecommerce site with a missing item that was either labelled ‘unavailable’ or sold out’.

When respondents later quantified their attitudes to the site, they felt 15% less disappointed if they saw the phrase ‘sold out’, compared to when they saw the term ‘unavailable’.

Over to you

The examples of number plates, protein shakers and smartly chosen words are interesting because they suggest a new way of harnessing behavioural science. They show that the biggest opportunity comes when experiments are just seen as the starting place. It’s when hypotheses from behavioural science are combined with the creative thinking marketers excel at, that the full potential is utilised.

Think lateral, not just literal.

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.