Decoding the Blunders: How Brands Misread Consumer Behavior and What to Do About It

Petrified wood piece

Introduction – Let’s delve into the fascinating world of consumer behavior and the common blunders brands make when trying to decipher it

Well, here we find ourselves, dear reader. At the precipice of an expedition into the perplexing psyche of the consumer. Shall we take the plunge?

I dare say, we’ve all borne witness to a marketing mishap or two in our day. Who can forget the calamitous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad of 2017? The one that trivialized protest movements in a failed attempt to sell soda? Not their finest moment.

But fret not, there’s much to learn from past blunders. And learn we shall! In the following post, we’ll explore some common mistakes brands make when trying to sway fickle consumer behavior. Spoiler alert: the mistakes typically stem from ignoring science and blindly following the herd. Shocking, I know.

We’ll also discuss how to avoid said mistakes, so pay close attention. There will be a quiz at the end. Oh, and do expect the occasional wry quip here and there. I tend to get a bit cheeky when brands behave daftly.

Right then! Enough preamble. Let’s delve into this consumer behavior hullabaloo, shall we? Tally ho!

The Misuse of Negative Social Proof – A Big Mistake Brands Make

Well, on to our first marketing misstep. The misuse of negative social proof.

You’ve likely seen this tactic before – those guilt-tripping charity appeals emphasizing just how few people donate. Or signs in national parks highlighting the shocking number of visitors who damage the environment each year.

The intention is reasonable enough. Shock people with daunting statistics to motivate action. But here’s the rub: this approach often backfires dramatically by normalizing and thus encouraging the very behavior it aims to prevent.

Take this example from psychologist Robert Cialdini’s research:

At Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, officials were distressed by visitors pilfering pieces of beautiful petrified wood. Up to 3% of guests were pocketing these irresistible geological gems as souvenirs. In hopes of curbing thefts, well-intentioned park managers installed signs reading:

“Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”

But rather than decrease theft, the signs led to an alarming spike – nearly tripling the number of visitors stealing wood! Turns out emphasizing how common theft had become inadvertently normalized the undesirable behavior. Making it seem like no big deal if one more visitor slipped a rock into their pocket.

Cialdini called this phenomenon “social proof” – we humans tend to follow the herd. And when negative behaviors seem prevalent, we fallaciously assume they must be acceptable on some level.

So what’s the alternative for brands hoping to curb undesirable consumer actions? Rather than highlight the problem’s scale, keep messages positive and emphasize the desired behavior. For example, the park could have installed signs reading:

“The vast majority of our visitors help preserve the natural beauty of the Petrified Forest by leaving petrified wood undisturbed.”

Subtly applauding those who do the right thing, rather than shaming the tiny minority going astray. That’s how to ethically leverage social proof for good.

And on that positive note, let’s venture forth to our next marketing misconception, shall we? Tally ho!

The Pratfall Effect – Flaunting Flaws for Authentic Appeal

Alright, onto our next marketing mishap: the tendency for brands to incessantly boast about their achievements.

Sure, it seems reasonable enough to impress customers by showcasing your accomplishments. But does this tactic truly resonate? According to research by Harvard psychologist Elliot Aronson, maybe not so much.

You see, Aronson discovered something called the pratfall effect – the counterintuitive phenomenon where exposing flaws actually increases our appeal and likeability.

In one study, participants viewed a recording of a quiz show contestant answering questions. Some saw a “perfect” contestant get 92% of answers right. Others saw the same flawless performance, but with the contestant clumsily spilling coffee on himself halfway through – a minor blunder or pratfall.

Later, the students were asked how much they liked each contestant. Intriguingly, the clumsy coffee-spiller was rated significantly more likeable and appealing than his blunder-free counterpart.

Aronson theorized that seeing flaws makes someone appear more honest, humble, and down-to-earth – and thus more appealing as a whole. Witnessing a minor pratfall signals that despite obvious skill or talent, this person remains human like the rest of us.

The smartest brands recognize this effect and strategically flaunt their weaknesses to connect. Take VW’s iconic “Ugly is only skin deep” campaign. Or Stella Artois’ “Reassuringly expensive” tagline. Both poke fun at potential negatives, while coming off clever, honest and memorable.

So when even the slightest imperfection might make your brand more appealing, why do so many companies still brag nonstop about awards and achievements few care about? More brands should embrace the power of strategic self-deprecation. As we’ve learned, humility offers wholly underutilized potential in this industry.

Now then, onto our third and final marketing mishap. An equally common yet equally misguided tendency I call…following the herd.

When Brands Play Follow the Leader, Distinctiveness Gets Left Behind

Alright, onto our final marketing misstep – the tendency for brands to mimic their competitors rather than stand out.

You’ve likely noticed how advertising within a category often looks eerily similar. Luxury watch brands overwhelmingly depict their timepieces set to 10:10. Beauty advertisements reliably feature flawless models gazing seductively at the camera.

And sure – sticking to proven category norms seems like the “safe” approach. But this herd mentality comes at a cost: a lack of distinctiveness and memorability.

The science confirms it too. Back in 1933, researcher Hedwig von Restorff discovered our brains naturally prioritize whatever stands out. In one study, she gave participants a list of random letter strings, with one set of numbers thrown in. Later when asked what they recalled, the numbers were remembered 30 times more frequently.

This “isolation effect” persists today. My colleague Laura Weston and I replicated the study, replacing letters with a list of black numbers and one blue number. Sure enough, the colorful outlier was far more memorable.

The takeaway is clear: uniqueness captivates attention and aids recall – a crucial advantage for any brand. Yet despite these longstanding findings, brands continue relying on derivative, homogenized advertising that blends into the background.

So why play follow the leader when distinctiveness clearly pays off? As legendary creative John Hegarty puts it: “When the world zigs, zag.” Stand apart rather than clinging to norms. Back approaches rooted in behavioral science, not industry tradition.

Because at the end of the day, memorability matters. And as von Restorff demonstrated nearly a century back – when surrounded by more of the same, what makes you different makes you unforgettable.

Tapping Into Human Nature with Behavioral Science

Marketers face immense pressure to influence behavior. Our job boils down to persuading people to pay more, purchase with greater frequency, or switch to our brand.

Luckily, we’re armed with robust insights into what actually drives human decision-making – courtesy of behavioral science. For over a century, leading psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, Robert Cialdini, and Richard Thaler have illuminated the cognitive biases governing our choices. Their experiments uncover the mental shortcuts and irrational quirks affecting how we think and act.

And yet certain brands ignore these findings altogether. Rather than ground strategy in scientifically-validated principles of human behavior, they rely on assumptions, anecdotes, or the opinion of the highest-paid person in the room.

This disregard for behavioral science manifests in the common blunders we’ve covered – failing to account for social proof, overlooking the pratfall effect, blindly adhering to norms.

So how can brands avoid these mistakes? By wholeheartedly embracing the teachings of behavioral psychology. With hundreds of cognitive biases left to explore, there’s an inexhaustible well of insights to inform branding efforts.

A deep understanding of behavioral science allows you to work WITH human nature rather than against it. You can identify the specific biases most relevant to your industry and target demographic. From there, campaigns can be crafted to cater to these quirks and leverage them strategically.

Behavioral science also stresses a key theme we’ve touched on already – the outsized value of distinctiveness and contrast in capturing consumer attention and memory. Branding that stands out from the herd, defies expectations, and triggers cognitive biases for novelty will enjoy a measurable edge.

In short, to improve marketing effectiveness, brands must plunge headfirst into the psychological forces shaping their customers’ actions. Immerse yourself in the teachings of Kahneman, Cialdini, Ariely and more. Continually run small tests to refine campaign elements.

Stray from the well-worn path of assumptions and convention. Build strategy on a robust framework of human behavior. When it comes to understanding consumers, science trumps speculation every time.

The Nuance of Consumer Behavior

Comprehending the drivers of customer choice requires embracing nuance. Human decision-making defies blanket statements – it varies by context, by demographic, even by mood. The cognitive machinery steering our behavior features countless levers and pulleys – and behavioral science continues unearthing them daily.

So brands must remain open-minded and intellectually curious to truly decode consumer behavior. Rather than seeking a one-size-fits-all theory, they should:

– Continually run small, controlled experiments to test assumptions

– Analyze behavioral patterns across different customer segments

– Build an interdisciplinary team with diverse perspectives

– Immerse themselves in the latest psychological research

– Remain vigilant for outliers and exceptions

The goal is not memorizing abstract concepts like the pratfall effect or social proof. It’s developing an intuitive, working understanding of the biases governing customer choice. One that informs strategy on an instinctual level.

With this nuanced comprehension, brands can craft campaigns and products that seamlessly mesh with ingrained consumer habits. Messaging resonates precisely because it echoes innate ways of thinking.

And that bond between brand and buyer is durable over time. As new behavioral insights emerge, they integrate smoothly into existing frameworks.

So while memorizing terms and studies provides a starting point – real mastery lies in internalizing the psychology of human behavior. Conversion, loyalty, word-of-mouth – they all flow more easily when you speak the native language of consumers.

In the end, branding remains an act of persuasion. And persuasion requires first walking many miles in the shoes of those you wish to persuade. There are no shortcuts when it comes to truly understanding your customers. Lean into behavioral science as a guide, but let nuance be your compass.

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