“Monstromart: where shopping is a baffling ordeal” reads the slogan of a fictional supermarket in The Simpsons.
Inside the supermarket, there were whole aisles for one type of product. There were different brands of tomato ketchup as far as the eye could see, bags sugar could be bought in hundreds of varieties, the express checkout had a sign reading: “1,000 items or less”.
In the end, the Simpsons returned to Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart. In doing so, the Simpsons were making a choice to reduce their choice. It wasn’t quite a rational choice, but it made sense. Their unconstrained freedom left them paralysed to make decisions.
There is no denying choice improves the quality of our lives. When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. Choice is essentially freedom, which is fundamental to our well-being. However, like The Simpsons, the choice paradox suggests that offering consumers too much choice can leave them paralysed to make a decision.
I recently watched a competitive swimming heat on television. The race sticks in my mind because 50% of the athletes, four in total, were from the United States. Knowing very little about each participant, nor who the favourite was for the race, at first glance, it looked like the United States had to place in the top three. The result: none of them finished in the top three.
In this case, the size of each category, the country each athlete represented, incorrectly led me to believe they had a better chance of making it into the top three. I incorrectly believed “they had the numbers on their side”.
The category size bias demonstrates how our probability judgments are often inaccurate. Category size can impact the perceived likelihood of a specific outcome, such that an outcome classified into a large (vs small) category is perceived as more likely to occur.
Domestos kills all known germs. Dead’ was an example. But in a world where functional advantages are quickly matched by the competition, brands rarely own these claims for long. In fact, any bleach could make the same claim of Domestos.
And this takes us to the nub of how branding works. Brands succeed not by being different, but by being distinctive. Brands need a distinctive style, tone of voice, and personality. They need to have their own way of saying what they do. An end-line’s job is to sum that up in a memorable way.
Think about two great brand end-lines: Nike’s “Just do it” and Tesco’s “Every little helps”. There”s nothing inherently ownable about these words. Or the sentiments behind them. You couldn’t come up with a more ordinary bunch of words if you tried. But each of these lines reflects an attitude to the category in question that’s clear, distinctive and memorable. And over time, they’ve become inextricable linked to the brands in question.
And that’s the point. “Ownership” takes time and money. The smart marketing directors who bought those successful long-running campaign ideas and end-lines weren’t agonising over wether they were ownable.
The California Roll principle is based on the underlying rule of combining something new with something familiar to make it ‘strangely familiar’. It’s a phenomenon that psychologists like Robert B. Zejonc have labelled the ‘mere-exposure effect’ or the ‘Law of Familiarity’. Humans, understandably, have a tendency to be more comfortable around people and things they are familiar with. There is more than one way to build on this.
Apple does it though a design feature Steve Jobs called ‘skeuomorphism’. It’s a catch-all term for when design cues are taken from common objects or elements in the physical world. The iPhone calendar resembles a physical calendar. The notes app looks like a yellow legal pad. The rubbish bin on the first Mac was exactly like a metal bin. The podcast app when first launched looked like an ancient reel-to-teel tape and iBook looked like a real bookshelf with wood veneers. The familiar elements are not necessary but tap into our memory banks.
If you thought that ambulances, fire engines and police cars have blue lights in order to be seen better — then you thought wrong. Emergency vehicles have blue lights in order not to be seen…. During the Second World War, the Gestapo began to use blue lights on their cars so as not to disturb the blackout of German cities, which was in force to protect them from the bombers of the Allied Forces. Blue lights are difficult to detect when it is dark. After the war, other police forces continued to use blue lights, although it was totally illogical to do so.
This story about the colour of police lights just goes to show how difficult it can be to introduce a better idea, even though the present one is not effective. The same thing is true of red fire engines. Perhaps you have noticed that ambulances and fire engines in many cites are, in fact, bright yellow? A much more suitable colour for emergency vehicles as bright yellow can be seen more easily in traffic both day and night. Although most of those involved in the fire fighting forces knew that red was not the most suitable colour for the job, it took decades before they dared replace their red vehicles. This might be comforting when you have an excellent idea that no one has any time for!
Excerpt from: The Idea Book by Fredrik Härén
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together are monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length, And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals — sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Excerpt from: On Writing Well by William Zinsser
I was walking down the street when I was approached by an eleven- or twelve-year-old boy. He introduced himself and said that he was selling tickets to the annual Boy Scouts circus to be held on the upcoming Saturday night. He asked if I wished to buy any at five dollars apiece. Since one of the last places I wanted to send Saturday evening was with the Boy Scouts, I declined. “Well,” he said, “if you don’t want to buy any tickets, how about buying some of our big chocolate bars? They’re only a dollar each.” I bought a couple and, right away, realised that something noteworthy had happened. I know that to be the case because: (a) I do not like chocolate bars; (b) I do like dollars; (c) I was standing there with two of his chocolate bars; and (d) he was walking away with two of my dollars.
You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work. And if you tell all these other people “Here’s this great idea”, then of course they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product… Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together.
During a famine in 1774, Frederik ordered a national cultivation programme. In a response typical of many towns, the people of Kolberg declared: “The things have neither small nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?”
Frederick’s initial response was more a violent “shove” than a nudge – he threatened to cut the noses and ears off any peasant who did not plant potatoes. However, he soon changed tack. In modern parlance we’d say that he used a bit of “psychology”.
Legend has it that instead of issuing further threats, Frederik ordered his soldiers to establish a heavy and visible guard around the local royal potato fields, yet also instructed them to be deliberately lax in protecting them. At the same time, the local peasants noticed their king’s conspicuous admiration of potato flowers as well as the tubers themselves, and sneaked in to steal and plant the “royal crop”. Within a short time, many potatoes were stolen and soon being widely grown and eaten.
But when Meghan Busse, Duncan Simester and Florian Zettelmayer, academics from MIT and the Kellogg School of Management, investigated they discovered a curious anomaly. In the previous weeks the car companies had been cutting prices so much that the employee discount was generally no better and occasionally more expensive, than existing deals.
The academics hypothesised that it was the price cue, not the price, which mattered. Consumers reacted to the plausibility of the deal rather than the actual discount. When consumers don’t trust brands they treat deals sceptically, but when they’re accompanied by a back story they have more heft.
When you are contemplating promotions don’t rely on an eye-watering discount. Numbers leave customers cold. We’re not natural statisticians – stories move us to action far better.
Whereas with a complicated proposition you dilute and fragment your message.
Less important points don’t add to the communication.
They detract from the most important point.
That’s what the single-minded proposition is all about.
That’s why we need people to make the effort to decide what is absolutely essential.
Not just people who think of what else they can include.
Welding a JCB to a Ferrari doesn’t make a machine that can dig roads at 200 mph.
It makes something that can’t do either job properly.
We found that over the next several weeks, those who had been consuming more energy than their neighbours reduced their energy consumption, by 5.7 per cent. Not much of a surprise there. More interesting, however, was the finding that those who had been consuming less energy than their neighbours actually increased their energy consumption by 88.6 per cent. These results show that what most others are doing acts as something of a “magnetic middle”, meaning that people who deviate from the average tend to be drawn towards it – they change their actions to be more in line with the norm regardless of whether they were previously behaving in a socially desirable or undesirable way.
During the Second World War and the Korean War, doctors and nurses discovered that unconscious soldiers stretchered off the battlefields survived more often if they were laid on their fronts rather than on their backs. On their back, they often suffocated on their own vomit. On their fronts, the vomit could exit and their airways remained open. This observation saved many millions of lives, not just of soldiers. The “recovery position” has since become a global best practice, taught in every first-aid course on the planet. (The rescue workers saving lives after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal had all learned it.)
But a new discovery can easily be generalised too far. In the 1960s, the success of the recovery position inspired new public health advice, against most traditional practices, to put babies to sleep on their tummies. As if any helpless person on their back need just the same help.
The mental clumsiness of a generalisation like this is often difficult to spot. The chain of logic seems correct. When seemingly impregnable logic is combined with good intentions, it becomes nearly impossible to spot the generalisation error. Even thought the data showed that sudden infant deaths went up, not down, it wasn’t’ until 1985 that a group of paediatricians in Hong Kong actually suggested that the prone position might be the cause.
A clear but somewhat narrow majority of Americans today support eliminating the so-called “estate tax,” and a slightly higher percentage would back the elimination of the “inheritance tax,” but more than 70 percent would abolish the “death tax”. Sure, some object that the term “death tax” is inflammatory, but think about it. What was the event that triggered its collection?
The experiments prove that it’s hard to overturn negative opinions. Rejecters of your brand are difficult to convince because they interpret your message through a lens of negativity.
As the legendary stock market investor, Charlie Munger, said:
“The human mind is a lot like the human egg, in that the human egg has a shut-off device. One sperm gets in, and it shuts down so that the nnext one can’t get in. The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort.”
In one telling study, research participant heard sentences with the first part of a key word omitted (which we indicate by “*”), and with different endings of the sentence presented to different participants. Thus, some participants heard “The *eel was on the axle,” and others heard “The *eel was on the orange”. In both cases, the participants reported hearing a coherent sentence – “The wheel was on the axle” in the first case and “The peel was on the orange” in the second – without ever consciously registering the gap. Nor did it register that they themselves had provided the “wh” or “p” they “heard” in order to make sense of the sentence.
In a social media-driven and 24-hour news world, how on earth do you give 60,000 people a preview of what millions can’t wait to see… yet manage to persuade them to keep schtum about it for five days? The answer: you choose your words smartly. Danny Boyle, London 2012 Olympics Artistic Director, displayed a genius understanding of both human nature and the power of the right word when he asked the lucky attendees of his Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal to “#SaveTheSurprise”. Because amazingly, everyone did. How different would it have been, though, if instead had Danny asked them to “Keep It Secret”? The words seem so similar. But the canny choice of the word “surprise” rather than “secret” made all the difference. Everyone wants to know and tell a secret. We can’t help ourselves. It’s human nature. But no-one wants to spoil a surprise, or have a surprise spoiled. The persuasive power of the words we choose… Choose them carefully.
Psychologist Franz Epting explained: “We use diagnostic labels to organise and simplify. But any classification that you come up with,” cautioned Epting, “has got to work by ignoring a lot of other things — with the hope that the things you are ignoring don’t make a difference. And that’s where the rub is. Once you get a label in mind, you don’t notice things that don’t fit within the categories that do make a difference.”
When the US Air Force faced opposition to its flying over residential neighbourhoods someone had the bright idea of circulating much more information about the different aircraft being flown. Though that didn’t reduce the noise level, it certainly change the reactions to it – and as any cognitive psychologist will tell you, most perception is interpretive. “Look – it’s the new F15!” feels very different from, “it’s another bloody plane flying overhead”.
As an aside, as battles continue over airport expansion in the UK and elsewhere, I’m inclined to think that a similar techniques might be used to persuade potentially affected residents as to the benefits of a new runway or airport by offering them generous annual vouchers for flights and holidays around the world from the airport. Rather like the US Air Force’s approach, it might dramatically change how you feel about the noise and be more effective than cash alone. “That’s my holiday to Barbados this year!” you’d think as a plane roars over, giving you a personal and positive interest in the outcome of expansion rather than simply seeing it as an irritation.
An example from Seth Stephens-Davidowitz illustates the problem. He looked at the gender of Katy Perry Facebook fans and found that they were overwhelmingly female. However, Spotify listening data revealed the gender split was much more balanced: Perry was in the top ten artists for both genders. If the music label used the Facebook data to target their advertising they’d be way out.
Does that mean the new data streams are junk and best ignored?
Not at all. Observed data is an improvement on claimed data, but it’s still flawed. To understand customers we need a balanced approach, using multiple techniques. If each technique tells us the same story then we can give it greater credence. If they jar then we need to generate a hypothesis to explain the contradiction.
Let’s go back to the Katy Perry example. A simple explanation would be that while both genders enjoy listening to her, far more women are comfortable expressing that publicly. If a record label wants to sell Katy Perry songs or encourage streaming, then Spotify data would be ideal. However, if they want to promote her concerts, it would be better to use the Facebook numbers. Neither data set is right in any absolutist sense – they are right in certain circumstances.
In the policy world, a good example comes from a programme known as the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP), originally developed and tested by David Olds in the USA. The programme involves a nursing practitioner befriending and supporting a young at-risk mother from the pre-natal stage through the child’s second birthday. It is a well-validated programme that has been shown to reduce violence and abuse of the child, improve educational attainment and even reduce the child’s rate of offending at the age of 15 compared with children from a similar background who did not participate in the programme (at least in the USA).
A less well known but fascinating detail of the NFP is that Olds noted when we introduced it into the UK was that the programme worked much better with mothers having their first child. This isn’t a marginal detail. It is an expensive programme, and so it is incredibly important to make sure that is focuses on the right people, and at the right time, to whom it will make a difference – young, first time mothers.
In general, we might take as an opening mantra something like “learn it first, learn it right”
It is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really thing about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.
Here’s another example: in World War 2, US paratroopers had a problem with the fact that, allegedly, one in twenty chutes failed in some way. The soliton was to require the packers and inspectors to regularly jump out of airplanes using parachutes chosen at random from the store. The quality of packing then rose to 100 per cent and stayed there. “The packers are all jumpers,” explained on NCO to Stars and Stripes magazine: ” We try to have each man jump once a month. That’s a pretty food way to keep them honest on the tables.”
Excerpt from: One Step Ahead: Notes from the Problem Solving Unit
What is more, the effect was large: groups that has to accommodate an outsider were substantially more likely to reach the correct conclusion — they did so 75 per cent of the time, versus 54 per cent for a homogeneous group and 44 per cent for an individual.
No one knows wether the story’s true, but it is a good one anyway. Ernest Hemingway was sitting having a drink with some writer friends at Luchow’s restaurant in New York. They were taking about this and that, and eventually moved on to what the ideal length of a good novel might be. Hemingway claimed that he could write a novel in six words: the others each bet ten dollars that he couldn’t. Whereupon Hemingway wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” on a napkin. Six words, behind which lies a tragedy. Those who don’t gulp when they read this must have hearts of stone.
Years ago, when The Tonight Show rules late-night TV and when the all the guests weren’t celebrities promoting their latest book, movie, or TV show, host Johnny Carson interviewed the Girl Scout who sold the most cookies that year. This young lady, Markita Andrews, set a cookie sales record that was never broken. What was her technique? In addition to hard work, she used a framing strategy to make her customers view the purchase as a trivial expense.
Markita’s strategy was simple When she knocked on a door, she would firs ask for a $30,000 donation to the Girl Scouts. Naturally, she had no takers on that request. But then she’d ask if they would at least buy a box of Girl Scout cookies. and just about everyone would.
“To withdraw now is to accept a sure loss,” he writes about digging oneself deeper into a political hole, “and that option is deeply unattractive.” When you combine this with the force of commitment, “the option of hanging on will therefore be relatively attractive, even if the chances of success are small and the cost of delaying failure is high.”
When instant cake mixes were introduced in the 1950s as part of a broader trend to simplify the life of the American housewife by minimising manual labour, housewives were initially resistant. The mixes made cooking too easy, making their labour and skill seem undervalued.
Learning this, Betty Crocker, one of the leading manufacturers of mixes, changed their recipe to require adding an egg. This simple change caused sales to skyrocket. Infusing the task with labour appeared to be a crucial ingredient in the product’s success.
When people create products with their own labour, their effort increases their perception of the end product’s valuation. And while some labour is enjoyable and allows for product customisation—both of which might increase valuation—research suggests that labour alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking and value associated with the results.
More than 22 million UK citizens, about one-third of the population, have invested over £68 billion in premium bonds despite the interest rate they offer is well below that offered by other savings products. The reality is, unless you win one of the very large prizes, you will be worse off holding premium bonds than investing elsewhere.
So why are they so popular? It’s down to uncertainty. Uncertainty creates more positive, exciting experiences. We get excited by the unknown. Uncertainty increases one’s investment of effort, time, and money in pursuing rewards—even when the outcome is likely to be worse than more certain alternatives.
In the mid-1990s, there was a shortage of organic cotton—cotton that Patagonia relied on to make its products. While other companies might source non-organic alternatives in the interim, Chouinard’s’ response was “if we have to be in business using an evil product like traditionally grown cotton, we don’t deserve to be in business”.
The big ‘a-ha’ for Chouinard was that you could do something good for the environment that was also good for your business. Patagonia became California’s first B Corporation in January 2012. At the time, the company was turning over $600m in annual revenues and employed around 2000 people.
Patagonia continues to donate 10% of its profits to small-scale environmental campaigns where $10,000-$15,000 can make a real difference. Their Worn Wear initiative encourages the repair, recycling and resale of garments. The company once took a full-page advert in the New York Times with the tagline: “don’t buy this jacket, unless you really need it”.