5 Questions with Richard Shotton on Behavioural Science

5 Questions with Richard Shotton on Behavioural Science

If you’re interested in behavioural science and how it can be used to turbocharge your marketing campaigns, then Richard Shotton is someone you need to know about.

He’s the best-selling author of The Choice Factory, which won BBH’s ‘World Cup of Advertising Books’ – a poll of nearly 5,000 marketers asked to find the best book ever written on advertising.

His follow-up book, The Illusion of Choice: 16½ psychological biases that influence what we buy is also a must-read.

He’s also the founder of Astroten, a consultancy that uses insights from behavioural science to help brands solve their communication challenges.

He’s amassed over 40,000 followers on Twitter/X and shares the latest social psychology findings from the handle @rshotton

We collaborated with Richard to bring you our course ‘Behavioural Science for Brands’, and here we ask him some questions on the topic.

1. Why should everyone in the marketing and advertising industry learn about behavioural science?

There are three big reasons why marketers should care about behavioural science.

First, it’s the study of decision-making. Pretty relevant to marketing. After all, changing consumer decisions is at the heart of what you do, whether that’s persuading shoppers to switch to your brand, buy it more often, or pay a premium for it. All of it involves changing decisions.

Second, behavioural science is more than relevant; it’s also robust. It’s based on the experiments of leading scientists, such as the Nobel Laureates Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Herbert Simon.

It's better to base marketing decisions on their experiments than the opinion of the most eloquent person in the boardroom.

Third, behavioural science has identified such a breadth of biases that whatever your client’s communication challenge, there’s a relevant bias to solve it. 

2. What is your favourite example of behavioural science applied to advertising and why?

My favourite example is arguably the most successful ad campaign of all time: De Beers diamonds.

When De Beers began advertising heavily in the 1930s, there was no heritage of buying diamond engagement rings: sapphires and rubies were just as popular.

But De Beers changed that. They forged a link between a diamond’s durability and the enduring nature of true love, as captured by Frances Gerety’s strapline, “A diamond is forever”.

However, once De Beers had persuaded romantics that a diamond was the ideal token of love, they still had to convince them to part with a small fortune. To do this, they embedded the idea that nothing less than a month’s salary would do.

Surely, this is a laughable ploy. Why listen to someone with a vested interest in you spending heavily? But the tactic worked, not just because of clever copywriting but because of a psychological principle called anchoring.

Anchoring is the idea that if you communicate a number, it influences the listener. The psychologists Kahneman and Tversky, who discovered the bias, believed that anchoring works because listeners inadvertently use any arbitrary number as a starting point for their deliberations. And in situations of uncertainty, the listener doesn’t adjust enough away from the anchor.

So, ring buyers recognised that a month’s salary was too much, but it served as a starting point for their deliberations, and they didn’t adjust down enough.

The results were staggering. De Beers US diamond sales rose from $23m in 1939 to $2.1bn in 1979. Even accounting for inflation, that’s a nineteen-fold increase.

The approach was so successful that in the 1980s, De Beers updated their advice, suggesting that people should pay two months’ salary for a ring. Again, people recognised that the sum was a little bit much, but the number acted as their anchor, and they spent more.

Then, in the 1980s, De Beers launched in Japan, where there was no heritage of diamond ring buying. They suggested that spending anything less than three months’ salary was stingy!

3. One of the advantages of understanding behavioural science is that it allows you to identify small changes which can have disproportionally big impacts. What's the best example you've come across? 

Small tweaks can have a huge effect. Consider a bias like price relativity. This is the idea that consumers have no fixed conception of what is good value.

Instead, they determine 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. However, it should interest marketers as it means they can boost their consumers' willingness to pay by orders of magnitude if they change their comparison set.

Brands have done this many times - from Red Bull to craft beer. But the best example is Nespresso. If a lesser team had devised it 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 have cost £50. There is no way on earth anyone would spend that much on a bag of coffee!

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 Lungo pod feels remarkably good compared to £3 for a flat white. But 47p for a pod or £50 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 tiny tweak to their design.

4. Aside from your own book, ‘The Choice Factory’, are there any others you'd recommend to those wanting to learn more about this fascinating topic? 

There are three I can think of that are particularly valuable…

1. Alchemy by Rory Sutherland (2019)

Many of the advertising applications for behavioural science are pretty straightforward. The brilliance of this book is that Rory takes the same biases that everyone else knows about and applies them in wonderfully unique ways. Every second page of my copy has a folded-down corner or furiously written notes scrawled across it.

Rory also writes a fortnightly blog for The Spectator. It’s ostensibly a technology column, but it often covers behavioural science. That's worth the subscription alone!

2. Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

If I had to recommend just one pure psychology book, it’d be this. It was written by Sutherland, the Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex, a full 16 years before Nudge.

Somehow, in the early 2000s, it went out of print. Before it was reissued, second-hand copies were so sought after that they traded for a hundred quid. It’s a wide-ranging book covering a huge range of biases. Whatever brief you’re working on, there’ll be a relevant experiment in here. Best of all, it’s a joy to read. 

3. Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern (2015)

Finally, a book by someone whose name isn't Sutherland! This is an excellent book written by the CEO of the Behavioural Insight Team, the organisation set up to apply behavioural science to government policy. It outlines four broad approaches: make it easy, attractive, social and timely. These themes are just as applicable to commercial advertising as government advertising. 

Many books on nudges and biases just recount the results of academic experiments. This one stands out as it provides lots of details about real-world tests that government departments have run.

5. In your upcoming course, you discuss how marketers often overlook the opportunity to make their products easier to buy. Why do you think it's so common to fixate on boosting motivation rather than ease?

Market research is often to blame. Too often, brands ask consumers directly why they bought the products they did, and then marketers take those answers at face value.

As David Ogilvy famously said, “People don't think how they feel, they don't say what they think and they don't do what they say.” 

That’s an issue in the case of ease, as who wants to admit that they followed the path of least resistance? It's much better for our self-image if we claim that our behaviour was driven by fundamental motivations.

Take Richard’s ‘Behavioural Science for Brands’ course and learn how to turbocharge your marketing campaigns.

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