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Decoding Consumer Psychology: The Key to More Effective Marketing

Jun 13, 2018
Creative and Branding / Digital Marketing
by Michelle Polizzi
Decoding Consumer Psychology: The Key to More Effective Marketing

Every consumer decision is motivated by a psychological force. Sometimes our choices are driven by a basic need, like buying lunch when we’re hungry. Other times, it’s a deeper need we seek to fulfill – like going to a concert when we crave human connection. Tapping into a person’s subconscious doubts and desires is one of the best ways to create an irresistible brand and product. To learn more about the emotions driving your customers, here are four consumer psychology principles to leverage in your next marketing campaign.

Brand Categories

The concept of categories was popularized by Al Ries and Jack Trout, who co-authored the now iconic book, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind. Published in 1981, this text explains why brand executives must understand customer thought processes.

Specifically, Reis explains, marketers must learn how consumers categorize brands in their minds. From toothpaste to cars, every brand falls into a general category. The brands in these categories are what people turn to when they have a certain need or desire. It’s why we think Ford when we imagine buying a new car, or why we reach for Crest when we’re out of toothpaste.

To occupy a highly-ranked space in a given category, Reis explains that brands need to tap into themes that already exist in the mind. Instead of talking about abstract product features, it’s important to speak in terms that your audience understands. “Advertising a minor feature of your brand that is already recognized in prospects’ minds is a better strategy than advertising a major feature of your brand nobody knows about” he adds.

How to Use Brand Categories in Marketing

When people can’t relate to the language you’re using to position your brand, they can’t file it into a category in their minds. In turn, they don’t think of you when the need for your product arises, and a competitor quickly takes its place.

Instead of trying to do what hasn’t been done before, stick to what your consumers know. Set your sights on moving into a brand category that already exists but doesn’t have a clear leader. Looking into your industry and competitors can help you identify an opportunity in a category.

Reis uses the example of electric cars to illustrate this point. People already knew that electric cars existed before Tesla, yet there was no market leader. Suddenly, Elon Musk emerged in flash and swiftly seized control of this space.

Now, one can barely think of electric cars without first thinking about Tesla.

The Power of Shared Experiences

From bars and parties to protests and parades, people are innately drawn to collective experiences. Social events fulfill our need for human belonging, helping us feel like we’re part of something greater and more important than ourselves.

According to social psychologist Émile Durkheim, there’s science behind that feeling. Durkheim coined the term collective effervescence, which describes the happiness we feel when we’re immersed in experiences with others. This behavioral phenomenon dates back to the beginning of human existence, when communities partook in long, tiresome pilgrimages and lived in close-knit villages.

Collective effervescence is also the underlying force driving cult brand followings. It’s the reason why someone buys the newest Audi sports model or LulaRoe leggings – even when less expensive brands will serve the need just fine.

Buying things that our peers have instills our everyday lives with the purpose and meaning we’re constantly seeking.

How to Use Collective Effervescence in Marketing

Understanding collective effervescence can help brands unlock the mystery behind consumer fads. When people want your product in order to fit in, your job gets a whole lot easier.

One of the best ways to create a need for shared experience is through the use of social influencers. More relatable than an A-list celebrity, the social media influencer serves as a role model. These are inspirational people your customers aspire to be like. When these individuals are partaking in your product, other people will want in.

This strategy works well for brands in virtually every category, and its largely the reason why products like La Croix sparkling water and Adidas’ iconic Stan Smith sneakers have seen a resurgence amongst the millennial population. Using influencers to drive demand doesn’t have to be extravagant. In fact, it’s better to focus on being transparent and realistic. This will help your customers visualize themselves with your product in their daily lives.

Loss Aversion and Exclusivity

If you had to give up your favorite jeans in exchange for a brand new shirt, would you do it? If your answer is yes, you’re the exception to the rule. When faced the choice of losing something in exchange for gaining something else, most people are reluctant to budge.

This cognitive bias is known as loss aversion – another psychological principle that has been driving human behavior for centuries. People are scared by the idea of losing something that they have, even when there’s an opportunity to gain something new.

Loss aversion also works with opportunities that are within reach, but not yet obtained. It’s similar to the fear of missing out that we get in social situations. When we think about staying home on a Friday night, for example, we fear that we’ll miss out on fun and excitement (even if deep down, we’d rather stay in).

How to Use Loss Aversion in Marketing

Loss aversion helps create a sense of urgency in consumers that would otherwise feel indifferent. It tells them that if they don’t act fast, a product that they’re eyeing could be gone for good.

This is a common theme running throughout promotions and sales in retail. At a basic level, messaging like “1 left in stock” or “last chance!” is aiming to leverage loss aversion to inspire buying motivation. Such messaging is easy to apply to a landing page, but the technique is quite obvious to consumers.

Instead, giving away samples or free trials of a product is a more sophisticated approach. This could take the form of a travel-sized personal product, or it could be a drink or food tasting (think: Costco). After the consumers enjoy the sample, they feel a pang of impending loss. Instead of going on without the product, they are inclined to purchase the full size.

It’s important to gain an understanding of what your target audience fears losing. Knowing the underlying causes behind this fear will help you create marketing campaigns that address, and promise to solve, this sense of loss.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

Fear was traditionally used in marketing in the form of scare tactics, which relied on falsehoods and outright lies to psychologically manipulate consumers into buying one product over the other.

Today, manipulation and deceit don’t pave the path towards consumer hearts. In fact, such tactics are largely frowned upon. However, it is still possible to generate emotions of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) in consumers in an authentic way that generates more effective marketing.

Successful FUD marketing requires two key elements:

First, it generates genuine feelings of doubt and uncertainty. It inspires people to question their personal abilities or achievements. Are they doing their best? Could they be more successful? These feelings of doubt and uncertainty are then followed by fear. When successful, this fear is great enough to inspire the consumer to take action.

After rousing these fears, the successful FUD strategy then comforts them. How? Through a reward that is both satisfying and genuine. This part of the tactic is crucial because it’s how you deliver value to your customers. It elevates the simple scare tactic into a positive overall interaction that builds brand loyalty.

How to Use FUD in Marketing

FUD is clearly a powerful tactic, but how can it be used for more effective marketing? One example we’ve all experienced relates to opt-in boxes on websites. Emails are valuable currency in the digital age, and marketers will go to great lengths to capture them.

Here’s how it works: instead of enabling someone to simply click away from an email opt-in box, they have to click a link that generates doubt and uncertainty. For example, an exit link on a healthy recipe website might say “no thanks, being healthy isn’t important to me.”

Such messaging makes a consumer enter the psychological stages that characterize FUD.

First, they start to ponder the idea and feel more uncertain. Doubt slowly creeps in, and they deeply internalize critical questions: does opting out of the box say that I’m unhealthy? Does it mean I don’t care about my life? Their brain goes through these three steps, ultimately ending in the final result: fear.

They’re afraid of what might happen, or what message they might say about themselves, if they don’t fill out the box. Subscribing to one more email list won’t hurt – and plus, they do want to be healthier. One they’ve received an email confirmation in their inbox, it’s an instant sense of satisfaction. Feelings of uncertainty and doubt have dissipated, and they’re replaced with the reward.


Psychology principles have influenced consumer behavior for decades. But when implemented improperly, these tactics can feel half-hearted and untrustworthy – leading to a negative brand perception. Fortunately, these four marketing strategies use psychology in an authentic way that inspires action while driving both loyalty and revenue.

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