Marketing psychology: 7 secret hooks that influence how we buy

Published: Jan 29, 2019

“Marketing made me do it.”

Whilst this isn’t something you’ll ever admit to, it’s undeniable that are buying decisions are influenced by the adverts we watch, read and are exposed to. The very best marketers draw on a wealth of possible tricks, hooks and vulnerabilities uncovered through centuries of studies into human behaviour and repurposed to sell stuff and strengthen our loyalty. We explore some of these below. 

Once you know these things, it’s hard to unsee them.

Random acts of kindness

The promise of a free coffee or cocktail will see many of us stuff our wallet or purse full of half-full loyalty cards. Most of these schemes follow the same fixed reward ratio, offering a freebie on our 10th visit or similar. They do work, but being more flexible with rewards is proven to work better. Variable reinforcement, or random acts of kindness, has a similar effect as rewarding good behaviour from a pet or a random pay out from a one-armed bandit – it’s takes a far stronger hold on us if offered spontaneously and sporadically.

Marketing Phsycology

It works because we recognise a certain activity or event with a positive experience, leaving us to crave it more. It’s called operant conditioning and it is why sandwich chain Pret have made it official policy that staff are empowered to hand out free food and drink to people they like. Both a nice gesture and a smart marketing move.

Availability heuristic

Ever wondered why brand building adverts include an awful lot of repetition? Why you see the same creative multiple times throughout your day, across TV, newspaper ads, poster sites, advertising on your favourite website, and the rest?

Under the availability heuristic (otherwise known as the ‘mere exposure effect’) the greater the frequency of repetition the stronger the mental shortcut our brains take in a given brand’s favour. Studies have long shown that the things that come to mind more easily are considered to be more universal and important, increasing our preference for them versus the alternatives. It’s also why we fear flying more than car journeys, as they’re more frequently reported in the news, despite being less common. Or why we buy lottery tickets if we’ve just read about a winner. 

So, whilst repetitive ads might annoy you, simply being exposed to them nudges towards you towards a purchase, no matter what the product is.

If you can see it, you can be it

Cousin of the Availability Heuristic is the Affect Heuristic. It states that our mood matters most when it comes to achieving outcomes. If we can visualise it and believe it, we can achieve it. And if we’re happy we’re more likely to take affirmative action and spend freely.

Want more members for your gym? Show them pictures of people with six-packs.

Want a family to come to your theme park? Tap into another happy moment in their day.

Need somebody to feel positively about your product? Tell a joke to brighten the mood first.

Whilst both the rationale and emotional sides of our brain have an input into the buying decisions we make, it’s often our automatic and unconscious selves that take over.

Confirmation bias

We humans are creatures of habit and unwavering attitudes. It’s in our nature to seek out, interpret, and recite information that reaffirms our own pre-existing beliefs. We have a tendency to reject other instances and viewpoints that don’t back up our view of ourselves and the world, even when common sense says otherwise.

In a famous experiment, when participants were presented with evidence counter to their political beliefs, areas of their brain associated with physical pain became more active. Not only being wrong a blow to the ego, it actually hurts! 

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Marketing plays on our deep-rooted beliefs by exaggerating product attributes and outcomes, triggering a fight or flight response. On a positive note these instinctive reactions strengthen our feeling of belonging, however they also stifle our ambition. It’s important to maintain a healthy curiosity when it comes to the key issues of our health, finances, media habits and other milestone purchases, and avoid the temptation to be a prisoner of our own insular worlds.

A slippery slope

Denis Diderot’s remarkably titled essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown” claims to have the answer to why we want things we can’t need.

It starts with a seemingly insignificant purchase. In Diderot’s case, a robe. Once in his possession it stood out amongst his other possessions. In his words, there was “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” between his robe and the rest of his items. The philosopher soon felt compelled to buy more new things to match the beauty of his robe. Soon he had furnished his entire home with lavish decorations and ornaments.

These reactive purchases have become known as the Diderot Effect. Look in your own home, in your wardrobe, and we’ve all fallen victim to it to some extent.

Tweaking the font

We all love a bargain. However, what constitutes one can be easily manipulated.

A study reported by Cornell found that diners would be more likely to spend more when the dollar sign was removed from on the menu. Another (by Coulter & Coulter) found that a sale price is viewed more favourably when it’s written in a smaller font. This all has to do with the blurred lines between our interpretation of visual size and numerical size. So the smaller the font, the smaller we see the price.

It also works in reverse for discounts. So if you want your discount to appear more generous, simply write it in a bigger font!

Buyer’s remorse

Last but not least, immediately after a purchase we have a tendency to hunt for reasons to soothe any lingering feelings of anxiety or regret about our decision.

Wanting to justify our purchases is only natural but knowing this there’s lots of ways marketers provide us with the reassurance we need.

Customers are comforted throughout the buying process and beyond with testimonials, case studies, money-back guarantees, onboarding hooks, a cooling off period, and simply involving the purchaser more involved and earlier in the process.

Similarly, if you want people to love your product, you need to involve them in building it. This is known as the “IKEA Effect”, as a study demonstrated people were willing to pay a staggering 63% more for furniture they assembled themselves versus a prefabricated alternative!

This really is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the use of psychology in marketing. If you want to make your product appear like a safer, more popular and cost-effective option, or if you just want to make customers feel good about their purchases, there’s a wealth of shortcuts you can call on. The savvy marketer has all of this in their armory, ready to go to battle with.

Before you go, you might also be interested in the True Power of Instagram Influencers.

Stuart Goulden is the founder of future-led marketing consultancy and startup studio, Like No Other. As marketing, innovation, culture and change specialists, their breakthrough thinking and creative execution empowers companies to be fearless in the face of chaos. He is also behind Surge, a directory of obsessively-reviewed marketing tools.