I’ve just read an interesting article in strategy + business magazine about Professor Cass Sunstein – the Harvard and Chicago academic and leading figure in behavioural economics.

The article focuses on his work in US social policy, based on the principle that small changes to the way choices are presented (‘nudges’, as they’re often called) can have a big impact.

This principle has long been embraced by marketing and communications, too. But the article provided a good prompt for me to think more about how it relates to recent challenges I’ve been helping clients address.

For me, the most important ideas in the article are:

  • Contrary to traditional economic theory, people don’t make decisions purely by carefully weighing their rational self-interest. Rational factors do have some bearing, but Homo Economicus is a largely mythological creature.
  • In reality, human decision making is much more impulsive and chaotic. Emotional factors play at least as important a part as facts.
  • ‘Status quo bias’ has a powerful pull: inertia often wins as we’d rather stick with what’s familiar than step into the unknown, unless we have an overwhelming reason to do otherwise.
  • Simplicity is vital: life’s too brief to use detailed ‘system 2’ thinking to analyse all the world’s challenges, so we look for shortcuts like familiarity and social proof. When we can’t find shortcuts, we often take no action at all.

These are all great points that are well-worth being reminded about. And I realised they’re highly relevant to the recent work I’ve been doing to help several companies and charities sharpen their marketing.

Common threads we’ve addressed in these organisations’ existing marketing include:

  • Too much focus on dry details (reasons) at the expense of inspiration and spirit (emotional pull). (See more in my previous post here.) In each case, we’ve worked hard to step back, look at the bigger picture and elevate both the approach and the message.
  • Presenting too many reasons for a case, with the result that each dilutes the last and none is remembered (see my previous post about ‘the power of three‘). Less is more.
  • Messages couched in jargon and complexity. Clarity and simplicity rule every time.
  • A ‘depersonalised’ approach and too much inward focus on the organisation itself instead of its customers/audience. This prevents emotional connections being built.
  • Unwieldy processes that get in the way of engagement, purchase or donations. Organisations can often do surprisingly simple things to make it much easier for people to buy from them or work with them.
  • Under-use of decision-making shortcuts such as brand credibility, track record and social proof (if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me)

These short-comings are incredibly common.

The good news – as the article reminded me – is the best ideas of behavioural economics can help us to address them. Used skilfully, we can nudge people effectively towards the choices we’d like them to make.

For help addressing these issues in your organisation, see more on our marketing strategy and message development services or get in touch for an informal discussion.