A fascinating article by David Taylor from the brandgym about the book ‘Decoded: the science behind why we buy,’ addresses how we assimilate vast amounts of information to make hundreds of decisions in our every-day lives.

Autopilot decisions

It argues that we make most decisions quickly and intuitively on ‘autopilot’ – with a slower, more deliberative ‘pilot’ mode reserved for when we really need to think things through. This is how, Taylor says, we’re able to choose 30 items from 30,000 at the supermarket in just 30 minutes.

This has important consequences for marketing as people’s autopilot mode gives scant attention to overt sales messages. The book reckons we devote around 1.7 seconds to print ads, 1.5 secs to posters, 2 secs to banner ads and 2 secs to physical mailers.

This reinforces what we already know: that mass advertising needs to be simple, immediate and high-impact to get noticed. (Subtler forms of content-led communications are different if they succeed in being truly engaging.)

Purchasing short-cuts

The article goes on to outline the short-cuts our autopilot uses to make fast choices – cues that are most often based on pricesocial proofproduct format and comparative context.

There’s a lot of sense in this and, although Taylor writes mostly about consumer products, it applies equally to services and B2B markets. Even where purchase decisions are of a magnitude that customers switch into pilot mode, their autopilot is still on in the background, picking up signals and influencing their thoughts.

Price as a short-cut is fairly clear: high prices signal premium status; low prices = budget positioning. Taylor cites a study that found people rank a certain wine as tasting much better when they’re told it’s expensive.

This holds just as well in business markets – although pricing always needs to be handled with care: your quality had better match your price for any brand positioning to stick in the long-term.

Social proof is the confidence that comes from what you see others doing. No-one likes to eat in an empty restaurant.

A form of this has long been at the heart of most effective PR programmes, for business as well as consumer markets: third-party endorsements to convey credibility. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

The consumer product example Taylor gives of the influence of product format is granulated – instead of powdered – instant soup, to remind you of premium instant coffee. With services and B2B products, this may equate more to the tangible elements of the offering – such as the quality of the packaging, accompanying collateral and level of support.

Finally, the point about comparative context is that our autopilot automatically seeks to gauge purchase decisions against a benchmark of some kind.

An intriguing example comes from the Economist, which tested two US subscription offers:

  • Deal 1: Web-only subscription: $59; Web & print: $125
  • Deal 2: Web-only subscription: $59; Print only: $125; Web & print: $125

With Deal 2, 84% went for the premium web & print option, but only 32% chose this from Deal 1. Clearly Deal 2’s print-only offer acted as a subconscious anchor to make the web & print option feel much better value.

Sub-conscious triggers

This is all interesting stuff, although it certainly doesn’t mean explicit marketing messages are pointless. This is particularly so with complex, high-cost decisions that are more typical in business markets than on supermarket shelves, where our pilot mode kicks in.

But it does underline the importance of being clever with subconscious triggers as well. In the development of B2B marketing strategies, these can be easily overlooked.


What do you think about the theory of autopilot vs pilot mode buying decisions? What other subconscious triggers are important to consider?