Start from the beginning. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the blurring line between story and science when it comes to branding, and I’ve noticed something interesting.
Greek myths, western literature, eastern philosophies, childhood fairytales, and any number of narrative “windows into the soul” many times fall in parallel to scientific cognitive biases.
- When we quote Tennyson’s poetry and say, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” we are brushing against both Status Quo Bias and Loss Aversion in the same breath — a preference to maintain the current baseline, and a preference to avoid losses over acquiring equal gains, respectively.
- Pygmalion, who fell so deeply in love with his own carving of a woman that he asked the goddess Aphrodite to give him a living, breathing version of his statue, is reminiscent of the IKEA effect — a cognitive bias where we “place a disproportionately high value on products [we’ve] partially created.”
- The tragedy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a blend of confirmation bias —our human tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our pre-existing assumptions and beliefs — and the related congruence bias — where we fail to consider there may be alternatives we haven’t yet thought of.
- The story of the Ugly Duckling (which was heartbreaking for a sensitive kid like me). This story is a demonstration of the in-group bias — where we favor those in our group over others — and more darkly, the essentialism bias — “the view that certain categories (e.g., women, racial groups, etc.) have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly.”
- And who can forget Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer? You know why you can’t forget him? Because of the von Restorff effect — where non-homogeneous items are more likely to be remembered.
The stories that define us show the fingerprint of human thinking.
In his incredible Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet, Buster Benson decodes and groups the hundreds of cognitive biases in our minds as answers to simple, live-or-die questions:
You don’t need to understand every bias. What you need to understand is how they work in the flow of logic, according to Benson:
1. Information overload sucks, so we aggressively filter. Noise becomes signal.
2. Lack of meaning is confusing, so we fill in the gaps. Signal becomes a story.
3. Need to act fast lest we lose our chance, so we jump to conclusions. Stories become decisions.
4. This isn’t getting easier, so we try to remember the important bits. Decisions inform our mental models of the world.
Cognitive biases reveal our nature as consumers. We think and decide in non-sensical ways on a granular level, but pull back you’ll see the coping mechanisms that these biases afford us.
Information processing is basically storytelling, and biases are a shortcut to creating meaning.
That’s why your brand strategy is so crucial — it tells the story that facilitates the decision to purchase. It creates the meaning the customer needs in order to buy.
Yes, you can control (or exploit) consumer biases with product, UX and customer service, but none of these touch points can frame a belief before it has even been established.
I’m going to show you how biases can be leveraged through brand story instead.
The story is always what matters.
Without it, we drown as consumers searching for meaning in a pool of meaningless information.
Understand the biases that reveal what your customer wants, and then give them the meaning they’re looking for… before they misinterpret it for themselves.
4 Consumer Biases That Threaten Conversion, and How to Reverse Them
1. Ambiguity Effect
We tend to choose options for which the likelihood of a favorable outcome is known, over an option for which the likelihood of a favorable outcome is unknown — even if the unknown option has the potential for better gains.
Thinx is a fascinating case study on what happens when you attack the ambiguity effect head-on.
I was hesitant before buying my first set. They were expensive, unlike anything I had ever bought before, and the real big question was — would they work?
There is no way to understate that last concern. The idea of “period-proof underwear” possibly not working was a non-starter. As it is for nearly every woman, the shame, embarrassment and fear feels insurmountable.
Thinx turned the ambiguous into something concrete by being everything a period brand isn’t.
- Instead of demonstrating with blue liquids as so many brands have done for generations, they used blood bags and red colors throughout their advertising.
- They resisted using euphemisms and analogies, and instead used language like “This is the story of a girl who bled a river and… it was fine” or “No, they don’t feel like diapers, and it’s not like sitting in your own blood. Boom.”
- They resisted generalizations and used real measurements of blood capacity, flow and wearability.
Sure they were more comfortable, more eco-friendly, and safer, but that didn’t matter. When consumers like me suffer from the Ambiguity Effect, the potential for better gains don’t fully register — not when the status quo of pads and tampons are dependable and safe (no matter how uncomfortable or archaic they are).
That’s why Thinx got straight to the heart of the matter. They had to break taboos to get there, but by doing that, they marginalized their competition.
“There are so many ways to go wrong. All we’ve got are metaphors, and they’re never exactly right. You can never just Say. The. Thing.”
― Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
There is constant anxiety about the unknown, about getting it wrong and missing the mark… especially in a space where no one has the guts/ permission to say it in plain terms.
If your customers are resisting conversion from a competitor brand because of the Ambiguity Effect, consider finding new ways to tell a story where ambiguity is eliminated and the very DNA of your brand story celebrates a new, known reality free of risk.
2. Reactive Devaluation Bias and Semmelweis Effect
Reactive Devaluation: We devalue thoughts and ideas if we believe they originated from an antagonistic figure, even if we may have otherwise found them valuable.
Semmelweis Effect: We have a strong tendency to reflexively reject anything new because it doesn’t match up with our norms, standards or beliefs.
Blu E-Cigarettes was dealing with a lot of shame-based beliefs and mentalities among their intended audience when they launched a few years back. There was a huge cognitive dissonance between what smokers knew (smoking kills) and what they did (smoked).
They understood that presenting their E-Cig product solely as a healthy alternative (which was at the time supposedly deemed 95% safer than smoking regular cigarettes) would only reinforce that dissonance and shame, especially if it was told by a member of the health community (an antagonist) so they had to tell a new story.
They had to tell the story from an insider’s point of view.
And just as importantly, they, had to tap into a different set of secret norms and beliefs.
As I wrote in my article on The Cognitive Dissonance Hiding Behind Strong Brands:
All you had to do was take it from the rugged, free-thinking Stephen Dorff himself when he said, “I’m tired of feeling guilty every time I want to light up […] We’re all adults here. It’s time we take our freedom back. C’mon guys, rise from the ashes.”
Those are fighting words. Those are words that make it ok to be a smoker… words, I’ll add, that smokers never hear. It flipped the script and said you’re not the bad guy, you’re the victim. You don’t deserve to be vilified.
Blu tapped into a secret belief — that smokers aren’t bad people. It was a very different kind of message that wouldn’t have been heard if it didn’t come from someone on the inside.
If you want to combat Reactive Devaluation and the Semmelweis Effect for a group, create a story of empowerment and tell it from the inside.
Create a new truth that acknowledges peoples’ secret desires.
“And perhaps a sense of death is like a sense of humor. We all think the one we’ve got — or haven’t got — is just about right and appropriate to the proper understanding of life. It’s everyone else who’s out of step.”
— Julian Barnes, Nothing To Be Frightened Of
The Blu story changed the behavior by acknowledging an unspoken belief.
[Read more about cognitive dissonance and easing the customer’s tension here.]
3. Self-Serving Bias
We tend to take personal credit for our successes by attributing them to our inherent characteristics, yet distance ourselves from our failures by ascribing them to external factors beyond our control.
I was an early adopter of Digit — a lightweight app that siphoned small amounts of money out of my checking account and placed it in a separate savings account in the background. It was a brainless way to save money that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
And I loved it. Eight months of Digit afforded me a trip to London.
But when the company announced they were going to enforce a new $2.99 monthly fee, I disconnected my account.
My Self-Serving Bias was saying, “I can save that money on my own. What do I need to pay $2.99 a month to Digit for?!”
Even though the fee was small, the “irony of paying money to save money was too much” for some, including me, and I never reconnected my account. Digit failed to spot the bias and just kept sending me innocuous email reminders to update my banking details.
What they missed was a big opportunity to change the story and shift my perspective.
Imagine — what if they had repositioned themselves from a money saving/ money management app to a self-care tool? (stay with me here…)
Digit is a new kind of self-care platform. Every 6–8 months, Digit makes sure you can treat yourself to the vacation, spa weekend, shopping spree, dinner party, home upgrade, or paid off credit card debt you need to live a happy life.
If they had told that story, I would have framed my relationship with the app very differently.
I believe I can save a little money every week if I have to, but a memorable self-care experience every 6–8 months is not something I can do on my own.
“Success, after all, loves a witness, but failure can’t exist without one.”
― Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
This new story would have forced me to bear witness to what was truly gained when I had the app, and then lost when I gave it up.
4. Functional Fixedness Bias
We use objects the way they are traditionally meant to be used. If we need a paperweight, but only have a hammer, we may not think to use the hammer as a paperweight.
Functional Fixedness keeps us from experiencing old things in new ways, and in my experience that goes for any kind of product, not just objects.
About a decade ago, denim was the clothing staple for women everywhere in the US.
For nearly every day-to-day occasion, from daywear to casual evening, jeans anchored a woman’s outfit.
At that point Lululemon had been around for a while, but they began to see a change in the way customers wore their athletic and yoga-inspired clothing.
As a small niche of women increasingly wore Lululemon gear outside of the gym, overall jean sales were starting to decline and Lululemon made a pointed discovery — they were no longer just in the athletic/ gear business. They were in the fashion business.
Their styles evolved into fashion-forward cuts and prints, aesthetic began to take precedence over performance, and their story expanded into a brand-led vision for who the modern, active woman was… all while the new ‘athleisure’ category was beginning to emerge.
While it’s unclear where the athleisure name came from, Lululemon took it, owned it, and ran with it. They became the poster child for athlesiure and thereby gave mainstream women a clear signal of when and how to wear their clothing.
If Lululemon had continued to run their company like a pure workout brand in those early days, the mainstream consumer would have kept using it merely as workout clothing — in the gym, for a limited purpose, and clear-cut use case.
That Functional Fixedness Bias was reversed with a refreshed brand story.
People can’t properly discover your new product if they expect it to work like an old standard. After all, our expectations frame our experiences.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”
As I have written before, new languages and narratives that force your customer to engage with your product outside of the typical consideration set can help you get past the bias.
You have to knock users out of their fixed mental boxes in order to come to your product free of preconceived notions.
Only then will they accept the experience you’ve intended.
Our biases are always among us. We are either letting them guide the way, or deliberately working against them.
The key to getting through to your audience is not only to understand what those biases are, but what they reveal about the person who holds them.
“We find comfort among those who agree with us — growth among those who don’t.”
Whichever side of that equation you’re on, make it count for your customer.