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The Value of Marketing to Consumers’ Instincts

A good friend of mine, Lloyd Glen, says, “I like choices that make themselves.” This is a keen insight into human nature. While we are often loath to admit it at a conscious level, our instincts consistently guide us to the easiest choice. If there is a path that allows us to cut a corner, saving three seconds and 0.5 calories of effort, we take it.

Taking away a little effort, or even adding a little, can change our choices quite dramatically. In an experiment at Google’s New York office, behavioral economist Dan Ariely showed that putting the free M&Ms dotted around Google’s offices in jars with lids rather than open bowls reduced consumption by about 3 million pieces per month (good news for the company that provides Google’s dental insurance, but not such good news, perhaps, for Mars Inc.). We replicated this experiment in our offices and found that a day’s supply of M&Ms in a bowl lasted a full week in a jar with a lid. A study led by Paul Rozin from the University of Pennsylvania showed that when the door of an ice cream freezer in a cafeteria was left open, ice cream sales were 20% greater than when the door was left shut.

Behavioral science is littered with examples of how making things cognitively or physically easier (or more difficult) affects choice. An analysis of organ donation consent programs across Europe shows that countries that require you to opt in to donating your organs—that is, requiring you to actively indicate that you consent to donate them—seldom get more than 20% consent rates, according to research by Dan Goldstein, principal researcher at Microsoft, and Eric Johnson, a professor at Columbia University. Countries that require you to opt out seldom got less than 80% consent rates. For example, Denmark, a country that requires you to opt in, showed a consent rate of 4%, while neighboring Sweden, an opt-out country, has consent rates of about 86%.

With its vivid reminder of our own mortality, the choice to donate or not to donate our organs is an extreme example of a decision that we’d rather not think about. The default makes something difficult to consider an easier choice. For better or worse (in this case, I would put a larger supply of organs for people who need them as better), the default makes organ donation a choice that makes itself.

In his wonderful book, Misbehaving, behavioral economist Richard Thaler tells of how, in his work with the U.K. government’s Behavioural Insights Team (a breakthrough group whose work probably encompasses the biggest and broadest evidence-based and practical applications of behavioral science to date), he used a simple mantra: “If you want to encourage someone to do something, make it easy.”

In the process of writing my book, The Business of Choice: Marketing to Consumers’ Instincts, I developed an appreciation of marketing that makes choice easier. What I concluded was that approaches that did this often had other benefits to both the marketer and the chooser.

In Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman and Rick DeLisi, the authors define the role of customer service as “mitigating disloyalty by reducing customer effort.” One example that caught my attention was how clothing retailer Old Navy has labeled hooks in dressing rooms: At the time that Dixon et al wrote their book, one hook was labeled “Love It,” a second was labeled “Like It,” and a third was labeled “Not For Me.”

While researching my book, I visited a number of Old Navy stores and found that the retailer had modified the program slightly. The middle hook no longer has the “Like It” label, but is now a “Love It” hook. Forgive my enthusiasm, but I think these hooks are marketing genius! First, they make physical aspects of choice easier. I do not have to think how I will organize the clothes I like and the clothes that don’t work for me. It sounds like a small thing, but I would argue that it could make a big difference.

Second, by relabeling the “Like It” hook to “Love It,” the retailer took away the ambiguity in choice, something that makes us slower and unhappier as choosers. Third, having two “Love It” hooks and one “Not For Me” hook suggests that people bring more clothes into the changing rooms that they love rather than dislike, creating an implied social norm.

Finally, having choosers put an item on a hook that says “Love It” closes the gap between trying something on and buying it by making people feel a sense of ownership of and commitment to that item. Confirming our choice makes our preference for that choice even stronger. If Old Navy could put a credit card swipe next to those “Love It” hooks, they should.

I came across another great example of making choice easier while on vacation in Budapest a couple of months ago. Visiting in the middle of a heat wave, I ducked into a drug store to buy some sunscreen. The thoroughly modern store had mini shopping carts that had magnifying glasses built into their handles. Rather than struggle with the small type on the ingredients panel (Is that type getting smaller every year or is it my ageing eyesight?), the magnifying glass lets you read it clearly. The shopper feels that he is making a smart and informed choice, and the retailer probably gets some degree of conscious or non-conscious credit for making a difficult task easier.

Making that difficult task easier means that people are more likely to do it, so shoppers may pick up and examine more products. There is a benefit for the retailer and the brand in this. Simply picking up and touching a product increases perceived ownership, which leads to people being prepared to pay more for that item, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Consumer Research. The magnifying glass also requires shoppers to hold the item over the shopping cart while they examine it. It’s much easier to drop it in the cart than to stretch to put it back on the shelf.

In Effortless Experience, the authors suggest that organizations should evaluate how easy it is for their customers to do business with them and resolve problems with a metric that they call the “customer effort score.” I think that they’re onto something that deserves to live beyond customer service. As marketers, a question that we should always be considering is, How can we make the decision to choose our brand easier? If you take a long, hard look at every aspect of your marketing through the filter of an “effort to choose” score, you could end up making the decision for people to choose your brand—a choice that makes itself.

Matthew Willcox is executive director of the Institute of Decision Making at the San Francisco office of global marketing and communications agency Foote Cone & Belding (FCB), and author of The Business of Choice: Marketing to Consumers’ Instincts. 

For more on Matthew Willcox, check out Michael Krauss’ column in the August 2015 issue of Marketing News, available at