The interplay between behaviour and strategy

How can understanding the intricacies of human decision-making and cognitive biases unfold new horizons in crafting marketing strategies that resonate and drive impactful consumer engagement?

Abstract: This article takes a deep dive into the fascinating realm of behavioural economics and explores its robust impact on the marketing landscape. It delves into how our mental tendencies can steer our purchasing decisions and how astute marketing strategies can harness these cognitive quirks to their advantage. It contains insightful tips, providing marketers with a rich toolkit to sculpt persuasive and deeply resonant campaigns by embracing the essence of how customers process choices. By peeling back the layers of consumer psychology, it unveils a world where marketing meets the mind, opening up a treasure trove of possibilities for crafting strategies that speak to the consumer's head and heart. 

An Introduction to Behavioural Economics

Behavioural economics is a field of study that combines principles from psychology and economics to understand how individuals make decisions. It focuses on the influence of cognitive biases and heuristics on human behaviour, challenging the traditional assumption of rational decision-making. In the context of marketing, behavioural economics examines how consumers' psychological biases and decision-making processes affect their purchasing behaviour and preferences. By understanding these factors, marketers can design more effective strategies to influence consumer choices and drive desired outcomes.

Introduction to Behavioural Economics

Behavioural economics emerged as a significant field of study to challenge the conventional economic theories that often rested on the assumption of human beings as perfectly rational agents. Traditional economics posited that individuals always aim to maximise utility, making choices based solely on logic and complete information. However, the behavioural approach diverges significantly, taking cues from psychology to delve into the cognitive and emotional factors that influence decision-making - critical, as it has been proven that 95% of purchasing decisions are made subconsciously

The field gained prominence in the latter half of the 20th century, with contributions from scholars like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who won acclaim for their work in highlighting the irrational tendencies that humans often exhibit. Their work served as a watershed, steering economics away from abstract, mathematical models and towards a more nuanced understanding of human behaviour.

"Behavioural economics provides a framework to understand when and how people make errors. Systematic errors or biases recur predictably in particular circumstances." – Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology challenging the rational model of judgement and decision making.

Behavioural economics questions the simplistic model of 'homo economicus'—the rational, self-interested individual—and instead, portrays humans as fallible, prone to cognitive biases, and influenced by social norms. As a result, the field has found application in various sectors, including public policy, finance, and healthcare, enriching our comprehension of human choice and leading to more effective interventions.

The Intersection of Behavioral Economics and Marketing

So, you're probably beginning to understand how behavioural economics and cognitive biases can help marketers predict consumer behaviour more accurately. This opens up a whole new world of opportunities for crafting persuasive marketing strategies. The symbiosis between behavioural economics and marketing is a testament to the nuanced understanding of human psychology. Far from the realm of traditional economics, which often assumes rational agents making optimal decisions, behavioural economics posits that humans are often irrational, driven by emotions, cognitive errors, and social influences. Marketing, a discipline deeply entangled in influencing consumer choices, finds this perspective incredibly valuable.

Factors surrounding behavioural economics

Take, for instance, the concept of loss aversion; the fear of missing out on a potential benefit can be a significant motivator. Businesses can capitalise on this behaviour by offering time-sensitive deals, making customers more likely to make a purchase to avoid missing out on a lucrative opportunity. However, the equation isn't that simple. While creating a sense of urgency can be effective, bombarding customers with too many options can lead to choice overload, resulting in decision paralysis and subsequently, decreased sales. The phenomenon known as the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) can serve as a powerful tool in your marketing arsenal, potentially increasing conversions by 40%. Additionally, employing elements of social proof, such as customer testimonials or celebrity endorsements, can further boost your conversion rate by as much as 34%.

Word-of-mouth, too, holds enormous power in influencing purchasing decisions; people are four times more likely to buy a product when a friend recommends it. To add another layer of persuasion, 56% of consumers are more likely to buy a product if it comes with personalised recommendations. Incorporating these insights into your marketing initiatives can significantly impact your conversion rates, making the principles of behavioural economics invaluable in crafting a highly effective sales strategy.

Thus, the marriage between behavioural economics and marketing is not merely theoretical. Its principles are applied, tested, and validated daily in the marketplace, resulting in not only increased sales but also a more nuanced understanding of consumer behaviour. This interdisciplinary approach has become a cornerstone for modern marketing strategies, bridging economic theory with practical business applications.

Key Cognitive Biases that Affect Consumer Behaviour

Cognitive biases can be categorised into different types based on their effects on decision-making. Some biases affect how information is processed, such as confirmation bias, where individuals tend to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs. Other biases impact judgment and decision-making, such as anchoring bias, where individuals rely heavily on the first piece of information they receive when making decisions. These biases can lead to suboptimal choices and can be exploited by marketers to influence consumer behaviour.

Anchoring Bias

The anchoring bias involves the human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making decisions. In the commercial landscape, this psychological quirk plays a substantial role. When consumers see a high initial price for a product, all future prices for similar products appear more reasonable. If a piece of apparel is initially listed at £300 and then marked down to £150, the consumer perceives this as a significant bargain. Mailchimp uses the anchoring bias in its pricing plans by presenting a high-priced plan first, making the subsequent options seem more affordable. This strategy influences customer perception and decision-making, steering them towards specific options based on the initial anchor price.

Anchoring Bias in Action

Anchoring Bias in Action (Source: Mailchimp)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Showcase the 'original price' next to the 'sale price' to highlight the deal.
  • Use high-value comparatives to make your product appear reasonably priced. For example, use phrases like "similar products are priced at £500."
  • Mention a high-cost component or specialised technology involved in the product creation to set an initial high anchor.
  • Deploy premium models or versions at higher prices to create a beneficial anchor for standard models.

Loss Aversion

This bias is rooted in the simple premise that the pain of losing something is twice as strong as the joy derived from gaining something of equal value. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a term commonly used in marketing to tap into loss aversion. It serves as a compelling motivator to stimulate quick decisions. This perception of immediate, impending loss propels the consumer to act swiftly, often bypassing the phase of rational deliberation. This can lead to suboptimal decision-making, as individuals might be overly focused on avoiding losses, even when the potential gains outweigh the risks.

Loss Aversion

Loss Aversion (Source: Reddit)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Employ urgency-evoking language, such as "Limited Time Offer," "Hurry, ends soon," or "Only a Few Left," in your marketing messages.
  • Use countdown clocks next to special offers on e-commerce websites to add a tangible sense of urgency.
  • Extend a money-back guarantee to diminish perceived risk and trigger the purchase decision.
  • Utilise retargeting ads focused on limited-time offer expiry to re-engage potential customers.

Status Quo Bias

Humans have an intrinsic predilection for familiarity and routine. People are more likely to stick with what they know rather than embrace change. Subscription-based services or long-term contracts often use this bias to their advantage. 'Opt-out' clauses requiring consumers to actively discontinue a service tap into the innate inertia, resulting in fewer cancellations. If you understand how your buyers are framing their decision to change versus staying with their status quo, you're more likely to persuade them to change, choose you, and stay with you when your competitors come knocking at their door.

Status Quo Bias

Status Quo Bias

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Incorporate 'opt-out' instead of 'opt-in' clauses for contract renewals or additional services.
  • Remind your customers of the inconvenience or potential financial loss involved in switching to a competitor.
  • Use customer testimonials that emphasise the benefits of long-term usage or subscription.

Confirmation Bias

This bias can be a marketer's boon or bane, depending on how it's leveraged. The idea is straightforward: people love to be right. They will actively seek out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and opinions. For instance, if someone believes that electric cars are the future, they will lap up information supporting this notion. A savvy marketer would tailor messages to align with this belief system, making it far easier to target potential customers effectively. One example of how confirmation bias is used in marketing is the case of Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand. Patagonia understands its target audience well and has built its brand story around their worldview. For instance, instead of promoting the development of a place where their buyers would use their products, they demonstrate their support to keep the Jumbo Wilderness Area wild. This story confirms the worldview their target audience has of themselves, creating an affinity with potential customers.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias (Source: Scribbr)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Create content that aligns with your target audience's worldview, thereby cementing your brand as a trustworthy source.
  • Use testimonials from like-minded individuals or influencers who resonate with your target audience.
  • Leverage data, surveys, or case studies that confirm the message you're promoting.


The idea of 'give and take' is deeply ingrained in human interaction. Offering something of value, even if minor, triggers an innate desire to reciprocate. Marketers exploit this sentiment by offering free trials, samples, or value-added services. Once a consumer is given something for free, they often feel psychologically indebted, increasing the likelihood of a transaction. Some successful examples of reciprocity marketing include:

  • Spotify: Offering a Premium free trial to let users experience the product's value.
  • Amazon: Providing a free trial for Amazon Prime, a similar strategy to Spotify.
  • Dropbox: Implementing a referral program where both the referred and referring parties are rewarded with extra Dropbox space.
Reciprocity in Marketing

Reciprocity in Marketing (Source: Convertcart)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Give away free trials, samples, or useful templates to introduce your product or service.
  • Craft valuable content such as e-books, webinars, or informative videos that can be offered free in exchange for an email address.
  • Implement a customer loyalty programme that gives away freebies after a certain number of purchases.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

People are highly inclined to continue a course of action in which they have invested time, money, or effort, even if the ongoing costs outweigh the benefits. This is where the sunk cost fallacy comes into play. It implies that the more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it. For instance, customers who have spent money on a brand's loyalty programme are less likely to defect to a competitor. In marketing, understanding the psychology behind sunk costs can help predict and influence customer behaviour. For instance, reminding customers of their initial investment can prompt them to make ancillary purchases. An example of this is when a customer orders a pizza online, adding the message “treat yourself to dessert for only another £5” can dramatically increase your overall sales figures.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Sunk Cost Fallacy (Source: LinkedIn / Nicholas Mason)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Roll out a tiered loyalty programme where points or benefits accumulate over time, making the investment visibly grow.
  • Use messaging that reinforces the value of staying committed to your service or product.
  • Offer incremental add-ons or upgrades at a reduced price for existing customers.
  • Create exit barriers, like data portability issues or termination fees, to make leaving less appealing.

Decoy Effect

Also known as the 'asymmetric dominance effect,' this bias, not to be confused with anchoring, impacts how people make choices between different options. When presented with two options, the introduction of a third, less appealing option can suddenly make one of the original two options look far more attractive. This is a common technique used in tiered pricing strategies, especially for online subscriptions or services. For example, when presented with small, medium, and large popcorn options, cinemagoers are more likely to choose the large option if the price difference between medium and large is minimal. The medium option serves as a decoy, making the large option appear more attractive

Decoy Effect

Decoy Effect (Source: The Noun Project / Aleksandr Vector)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Offer multiple versions of a product or service with significantly different pricing and feature sets.
  • Explicitly highlight the limitations of the decoy option to make other choices seem more valuable.
  • Position the decoy next to the premium option in visual displays to make the latter appear to be a superior deal.

Scarcity Bias

The scarcity bias triggers the perception that something is more valuable simply because it is less available. "Limited Edition" or "Exclusive Release" are phrases that can invoke a sense of scarcity, prompting consumers to act quickly under the assumption that the opportunity may not come again. Scarcity bias can be implemented in marketing in various ways. For instance, it can be used to create limited runs of a product, like seasonal Starbucks drinks or collectable sneakers, which can invoke scarcity bias in customers.

Another example is the use of "gated access", where users are limited to a certain amount of usage per day, like in the case of the word guessing game Wordle. This keeps users coming back for more, thereby increasing engagement and brand recognition.

Scarcity Bias

Scarcity Bias (Source: Salecycle)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Use "Limited Stock" or "Exclusive Availability" banners to increase perceived value.
  • Implement real-time stock counters on product pages to show low availability.
  • Run limited-time promotions with clearly communicated expiry dates.
  • Announce upcoming end-of-season sales that play on the notion of time-bound scarcity.

Framing Effect

How information is presented—or framed—can drastically affect the decisions people make. The same piece of information can elicit different reactions depending on its framing. For instance, meat labelled "80% lean" is more appealing to consumers than when it is described as "20% fat," despite being identical. The framing effect is widely used in marketing communications to highlight the positive framing of an offer. For example, a product that costs £20 could be presented as costing £1 per day (positive framing), or it might be thought of as costing £365 if bought without discount (negative framing). We usually prefer a choice framed in terms of gains than framing it in terms of losses.

The Framing Effect

The Framing Effect (Source: Scribbr)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Frame product benefits rather than features. Say "Saves 30 minutes a day" instead of "Automates email sorting."
  • Utilise positive language in customer testimonials and reviews.
  • Highlight what your customers stand to gain rather than lose by purchasing your product or service.
  • Conduct A/B testing to identify the most effective message framing.

Zero-Risk Bias

Consumers have a preference for reducing a small risk to zero over a greater reduction in a larger risk. Offering a 100% satisfaction guarantee can often be more enticing than a more complicated but statistically better offer. For instance, consumers may prefer to purchase a product that offers a 100% money-back guarantee, even if it's more expensive, because they perceive it as a zero-risk option. This bias can also influence financial investment decisions, as seen during the 2008 economic crisis, where investors leaned towards "sure bets" such as governmental investments rather than private investments that seemed riskier but could have had much bigger payouts.

Zero Risk Bias

Zero Risk Bias (Source: Medium / Gil Bouhnick)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Provide a no-questions-asked return policy.
  • Offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee to eliminate the perception of risk.
  • Highlight secure payment options in the checkout process.

Bandwagon Effect

The human tendency to follow the actions or beliefs of others can be incredibly powerful in marketing. The notion that 'everyone else is doing it' can compel people to join in. The bandwagon effect can be seen in various areas of life, including marketing, fashion, politics, and diets. From influencing people in elections to vote for someone “expected to win” to influencing the movies, we decide to watch, leveraging this cognitive bias effectively can help individuals and companies sell anything they are trying to promote.

The Bandwagon Effect

The Bandwagon Effect

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Show high levels of social engagement or strong sales numbers.
  • Use social proof like testimonials, reviews, and celebrity endorsements.
  • Feature user-generated content that showcases real people using your product.

Hyperbolic Discounting

Hyperbolic Discounting refers to the tendency for people to increasingly choose a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward as the delay occurs sooner rather than later. In simpler terms, consumers often prefer immediate gratification to delayed but greater benefits. This is why limited-time promotions and flash sales are so effective. When faced with a 'now or never' decision, many consumers will opt for the immediate benefit. Some examples of hyperbolic discounting include:

  • Loyalty Programs and Point Systems: Offer rewards programs that provide customers with free merchandise, rewards, coupons, or advance-released products. These short-term rewards play into consumers' psychological bias and give them the instant gratification they seek.
  • Limited Time Offers: Create a sense of urgency for the consumer by offering limited-time deals or discounts. This makes them think that if they don't buy now, they'll miss out on a great opportunity.
  • Delay Payment: Offer options like "buy now, pay later" or no-cost EMIs, which allow customers to delay the financial burden of their purchase. They get the immediate reward of purchasing the items they want without having to pay the entire cost upfront.
The Hyperbolic Discounting Curve

The Hyperbolic Discounting Curve

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Implement flash sales that offer significant savings for a short period.
  • Leverage Buy Now, Pay Later schemes to allow immediate ownership without immediate financial burden.
  • Offer instant bonuses or rewards with a purchase, such as digital downloads.
  • Emphasise the immediacy of service or product usage in your marketing messages.

Endowment Effect

The Endowment Effect occurs when people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. This has a significant impact on customer retention and loyalty. Once a consumer feels ownership or association with a brand or product, they are more likely to remain loyal, despite possibly better options. Businesses with membership or loyalty programmes often capitalise on this effect. 

Here are some tactics that marketers can use:

  • Free Trials or Samples: Offering free trials or samples can create a sense of ownership among consumers. Once they start using the product or service, they may find it difficult to give it up when the trial period ends, making them more likely to purchase the full version.
  • Personalisation: Personalising products or services can also foster a sense of ownership. This could be as simple as using the customer's name in communications or as complex as allowing them to customise the product to their liking.
  • Money-Back Guarantees: Offering a money-back guarantee can help to eliminate potential uncertainties and foster a sense of ownership. The Endowment Effect suggests that once customers own a product, they value it more than they would if they didn't own it. However, a money-back offer means they will only get what they initially paid for it, which may not seem enough due to the increased perceived value.
  • Discounts and Promotions: Companies can use the Endowment Effect when offering discounts or promotions. For example, Uber uses wording in their messages that suggests the promotion is already the customer's, making it feel like a loss if they don't use it.
  • Physical Interaction with Products: Allowing customers to physically interact with products can also trigger the Endowment Effect. This is because people tend to attribute more meaning, quality, and value to an object from the moment they touch it.
The Endowment Effect

The Endowment Effect (Source: HBR / John K Horowitz and Kenneth E McConnell)

Actionable marketing insights:

  • Use phrases that encourage ownership, such as "Your personalised dashboard" or "Your exclusive offer."
  • Foster loyalty by offering customisation options that make a product feel unique to the owner.
  • Implement a membership or rewards programme that enhances the sense of belonging.
  • Send personalised follow-ups that acknowledge a consumer's previous purchases or engagements with the brand. 

In the intricate dance between marketers and consumers, cognitive biases act as hidden choreographers. They guide how consumers perceive value, assess risks, make choices, and even how they rationalise those choices after the fact. An adept marketer will appreciate the weight these biases carry and utilise them judiciously to craft messages that hit home. Whether it's triggering urgency through loss aversion, instilling confidence through in-group favouritism, or making a product memorable through salience, these biases offer a nuanced understanding of the consumer psyche. However, it's imperative for marketers to wield this knowledge ethically, ensuring that strategies are not just effective, but also responsible.

Research on the Effectiveness of Behavioural Economics in Marketing

Recent industry statistics provide strong evidence for the effectiveness of behavioural economics in marketing and is being increasingly applied in various sectors, from public policy to marketing, to drive value and improve decision-making processes.

In the public sector, behavioural economics is being used to offer 'low cost, unobtrusive' solutions to societal challenges. The application of behavioural insights in public sector communications has proven potential to influence decisions and achieve desired goals. For instance, the UK government has set up the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which uses insights from behavioural science to inform policies that encourage, enable or support people to make better choices for themselves and society. In the business sector, behavioural economics is being used to understand consumer behaviour and improve marketing strategies. For instance, the concept of 'nudging' has been used to influence consumer behaviour and decision-making processes.

A study by McKinsey discusses how marketers have been applying behavioural economics, often unknowingly, for years. It highlights four practical techniques that should be part of every marketer’s toolkit. These include making a product’s cost less painful, understanding the ways “mental accounting” affects decision-making, being wary of generating “choice overload,” and understanding how marketers position a product can change the equation. The study provides examples of how these techniques have been successfully applied in real-world scenarios.

Research by Sandra Thomas-Comenole introduces behavioural economics and its marketing application. It discusses how behavioural economics, which incorporates the study of psychology into the analysis of decision-making behind an economic outcome, can give keen insight into buyer behaviour and help shape the marketing mix. The study also provides examples of how marketing professionals can leverage behavioural economic concepts in their marketing.


In summary, behavioural economics provides valuable insights into the psychological factors that drive consumer decision-making. By understanding and leveraging cognitive biases, heuristics, and social influences, marketers can create more persuasive and effective marketing strategies. Incorporating behavioural economics principles into marketing efforts can lead to increased customer engagement, improved conversion rates, and ultimately, greater business success.

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Posted by Steve King
This article was written by Steve King
I am a marketing and analytics professional with over 15 years experience in strategic marketing development. I am passionate about working with organisations that want to improve their marketing effectiveness and get more from their data; who wish to use its potential to describe what has happened, prescript operational activity and predict business outcomes.