Why it matters that food tastes better when you eat it with concrete cutlery

Have you heard placebo drugs dull pain more effectively when they cost $2.50 rather than ten cents? That food tastes better when you eat it with heavy cutlery? And that we over-value products we’ve helped to create, a phenomenon known as ‘the Ikea effect’?

These are headline findings from the field of behavioural science, which incorporates behavioural economics, consumer research, psychology and other human sciences. The field is dedicated to understanding what really drives our choices and behaviour and it turns out, we rely on mental shortcuts and (slightly irrational) instinctive thought processes, almost all of the time. It’s not that we can’t be rational and considered, but we don’t usually bother. 

Behavioural science insights are important for marketers, who are in the game of getting people to change their consumption behaviour. Yet, too often, commercially valuable insights live and die as anecdotes. So how can you more effectively incorporate behavioural insights into your marketing strategy?

I’d suggest following a three-step action plan. 

First off, observe the behaviour that you want to change, the drivers that encourage action and the barriers that hinder it.

Second, use behavioural insights to minimise the barriers you’ve identified and enhance the drivers.

Third, run small-scale, real-world pilot tests to see which behavioural insight most effectively changes behaviour (pilot tests are preferable to talking-based market research, because the parts of the brain that talk are relatively separate from the parts that drive most behaviour, so it’s far more effective to study what people do, not what they say they will do).

This three-step process was used by #ogilvychange London and Kinetic to change customers’ eating habits at a UK mall. The retailers were frustrated because their counters were quiet before midday, but they were swamped in the lunchtime rush. 

If some customers could be nudged to eat before noon, all patrons would be served faster and by less harried employees. This would boost the overall customer experience and allow vendors to sell more meals, as fewer patrons would be put off by the crowds. Problem was, people saw it as a bit weird to eat lunch before 12, so the real challenge was to create a new norm.
With this in mind, the team created and tested two different posters in the mall, both of which drew on behavioural insights. 

The first poster redefined the ‘injunctive norm’—or social rule—about when you should eat. It showed a woman eating a burger with the line, ‘Who says lunch has to be after 12?’ When this poster was displayed, the number of before-noon visitors to the food court increased by 25 percent. 

The second poster kept the same line, but it showed a group of people eating. The aim here was to create a ‘descriptive norm’ by making it seem like lots of people eat lunch before midday. And when this poster was up, the number of pre-noon visitors to the food court increased by an impressive 75 percent. 

Behavioural science insights shouldn’t be seen as cute stories to share by the water cooler. They’re powerful tools we can use to direct human behaviour. And now, it’s 11am and I’m off to eat my lunch—with a concrete fork.

  • Renee Jaine is a choice architect at Ogilvy & Mather’s behavioural practice #ogilvychange. (renee.jaine@ogilvy.co.nz
  • This column originally appeared as part of a content partnership in the November/December issue of NZ Marketing.

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