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Mind Control for Brands 101: Behavioural Economics on Social Media

by Tommy Lee - December, 2019

I have no idea where to stand on the train platform every morning to be right by the doors. But when I arrive and pick my spot, people usually bunch around me. I’m no train whisperer. I’m not a celebrity around North London.

This is behavioural economics in action – the hidden psychological reasons behind the choices we make.

It’s full of little nuggets of knowledge that can nudge people towards buying. Nuggets like Social Proof, The Pratfall Effect and The Placebo Effect.

Social proof

We’re influenced much more by others than we think.

My Pied Piper of Finsbury Park example is social proof in action.

To copycat consumers, if people around you think something is worth buying, it’s probably worth buying. To use it, brands need to make their products stand out.

From Apple’s white headphones, to Magners insisting that ice is put in their cider. A little touch of distinctiveness can go a long way to making your product stand out, look more popular and set the social proof cycle spinning.

It’s also pretty good at making us greener. We recycle more if we’re told our neighbours are. And it’s probably why the government has announced plans to give green licence plates to all electric cars.

Social media is obviously set up for social proof – but you shouldn’t rely on anyone caring about one of your posts enough for it to get a shedload of shares. Bring it into the real world and give customers a reason to upload themselves. Give your beer a beautiful glass in pubs. Slap a sassy line of copy on your packaging for people to put on their Stories.

The pratfall effect

Showing and owning weaknesses makes brands, products and people more appealing, endearing and popular.

It’s what makes VW’s famous ad campaigns so effective – they admitted the Beetle was ugly, proving they must have concentrated on the really important stuff. And it’s reassuring to know that Stella is expensive, because then it must be tasty. Or head over to Oatly’s campaign for their new ice cream. They’re keen for you to know it’s unhealthy.

It makes you more persuasive. If you’re honest enough to admit to and show your flaws you must be trustworthy. And what you’re saying next is surely more likely to be true.

The self-deprecating tone is something that works well on Twitter, as shown by the modern masters of capitalising on a cock up – KFC. They’re still riding the waves of their Chicken shortage. Check out their feed for pratfall by the bucketload.

But you don’t need to wait until you run out of your main ingredient to become more human. Next time you make a typo – why not respond in a thread and make a joke out of it, rather than hastily deleting and reposting? Tell your clients your mistakes are all in the interest of building brand equity. That’ll work.

Placebo effect

We believe something is effective if we expect it to be.

In studies, people rate red pills as more effective than blue ones, even when they’re made of the same stuff. Because in our minds, we associate the colour red with action.

It also triggers stimulation, appetite and hunger. That’s probably why almost all the fast food giants team it up with yellow – signalling happiness and friendliness. All things that burger slingers will want people to think when looking at their logo.

Interestingly, as McDonald’s have shifted their (unofficial) positioning from take your food and get the hell out, to savour your meal and stay a while, they’ve ditched the red. They’ve gone for green instead – making for a much more chilled out experience. Until you have to use a f*cking screen to order your post-pub Big Mac.

Thinking about your visuals on social, don’t go too rogue with picking your palette. Colours have powerful meanings in our minds. You want it to be distinctive, but not communicate the complete opposite of the vibe you’re aiming to throw down. Don’t go red if you want people to relax.

Behavioural economics – further reading

If all of this has piqued your interest, a lot of people more intelligent than me have written about it a lot better than I have*. Richard Shotton’s The Choice Factory and Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy are good places to start for further reading (or podcast listening).

*An incredibly clever use of social proof and the pratfall effect in one sentence. I couldn’t think of a way to get the placebo effect in.