Nudge, don’t tell: why marketers should pay attention to behavioural economics

As marketers, our job is getting people to do something, whether it’s buy our product, visit our store or share their experience afterwards. We’re in the business of getting people to do things they aren’t already doing, or getting them to do those things more often.

It’s why, when we look at our revenue targets or market share objectives, we have to think about what those mean in terms of what we want audiences to do. What’s the behaviour that we need to change? Do we want existing customers to ‘graduate’ to the premium offer? Increase usage frequency? Increase basket size?

Thinking vs doing

But if success ultimately comes down to what people do, why are so many marketers still focused on what people think? Why is so much importance placed in metrics like key message takeout or consideration? Essentially, it comes down to the staying power of neo-classical economic theory; the belief that consumers will ultimately make rational decisions to maximise outcomes. In other words, give your audience a better reason to act and they will.

However, the fundamental flaw of Homo Economicus is that it depends on people being rational actors. The truth is, we aren’t. Breakthroughs in neuroscience and psychology are proving human behaviour is far more dependent on instinct and emotion. Some psychologists suggest that upwards of 90 percent of our actions are emotionally driven. In fact, we often use that logical part of our brains to just post-rationalise the emotional decisions we’ve already made. 

Power of behavioural economics

But this doesn’t mean that your audience’s behaviour is random. In his book Predictably Irrational, the renowned behavioural economist Dan Ariely writes extensively about the ways in which people’s behaviour typically follows certain “rules” or models. By understanding them, and the unconscious biases that steer decision-making, we can make adjustments to our audience’s environment, or their choice architecture, to make certain behaviours more attractive to that instinctive emotional part of the brain. It’s the difference between telling people to take a particular path and increasing that path’s attractiveness by sprinkling it with breadcrumbs.

While this knowledge has been slowly making its way outside the walls of academia, its potential is barely being tapped. Concepts like hyperbolic discounting and framing are finding their way into briefs and creative presentations, but more often than not, they are propping up the same communications’ responses we’ve seen for years. There’s no denying that behavioural science can make advertising work better, but its true power lies in the nudge, not the message. 

Small nudges can have a big effect

Consider this: back in 2011 the area of Woolwich was torn apart by the London riots. Anti-social behaviour and vandalism were rampant and the community needed a solution. Instead of running a communications campaign, hoping to change the behaviour of would-be-vandals by changing their attitudes first, they decided to target the problem behaviours directly. Armed with a study explaining how images of babies’ have a calming effect on men, a team of artists was hired to paint the faces of local children on shop front security shutters. At night, instead of a high street boarded up with metal barriers, people found a massive gallery of smiling babies. At the end of the first year, local police reported an 18 percent reduction in anti-social behaviour, which they attributed to the paintings.
True nudges aren’t campaigns. They aren’t even messages. Sometimes nudges are as simple as the smiling face of a baby.  


  • Jeff Malone is head of Ogilvy & Mather’s behavioural practice, #ogilvychange. ([email protected]
  • This story was originally published in the July/August edition of NZ Marketing. 

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