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A soft power look a behavioural economics in branding

Brand managers are, in part, tasked with driving growth and converting consumers, and they want something impressive they can show off. But in reality it's very difficult to convert someone. Change is hard, and big stunts often feel forced and alienating.

In truth, it’s the little things that count. Strategies based on behavioural economics - the science of how and why customers purchase when they do - go far.

From Bernays to béarnaise

Branding and behavioural economics are old friends. Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, spent the 1920s outlining how skilled psychologists could steer the herd instincts of the general public, and the rest of the twentieth century proving it. Procter and Gamble, Cartier, General Electric, CBS and Dodge Motors all built their reputations along Bernays’ pioneering work with endorsements, experiential promotion, subconscious imagery and market segmentation.

In the decades since, the science of behavioural economics has become more sophisticated. Studies have continued, theories have been refined, and more behavioural tics have been discovered.

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For instance, Daniel Kahneman took behavioural economics down to the individual level, exploring how people process information and make decisions before the actual moment of choice, and what can change their mind at that moment. Essentially, people have two different mental ‘systems’. System 1 is fast, automatic, and easily influenced by stimuli - System 2 is slow, reflective, and rational, taking into account personal goals.

The strategy to eat healthily is an example of System 2 thinking - a goal is considered and set - but when the customer is actually standing in front of the shelf, they happen to be hungry, and they see the familiar and inviting Dairy Milk packaging, they end up making a System 1 decision.

These decisions are triggered by design elements - packaging, placement, powerful claims and more - and those elements are the stuff of which soft power is made.

How soft power can harness behavioural economics

The look, feel, experience and impact of a brand expresses itself through five elements of soft power - areas where design can demonstrably influence consumer behaviour - and those influences all have psychological triggers at their core.

Take a strong, differentiated visual identity, for example. How does visual identity feed into a purchase decision?

For long-standing brands like Heinz it’s easy - don’t change anything. Heinz doesn’t quite own its category, but it’s pretty close, and its aesthetic is recognisable anywhere. Beanz more or less does mean Heinz. Even new products - like Heinz Fruitz - should lean into the same layout, style and recognisable identity. Sticking to that aesthetic across the product range keeps the consumers’ choice simple: it makes Heinz feel like the default option, and people are nudged into buying out of sheer habit.

Challenger brands, on the other hand, need to look like nothing else around: that’s why Ugly’s minimalist metallic blue works as well as it does. In a category full of claims, promises and a certain amount of earnestness, Ugly’s entire identity is in your face and proud of it.

Tone of voice

Ugly’s aesthetic carries across into a no-frills, no-nonsense, tongue-in-cheek tone of voice. They recruit people into their world by asking for ‘ugly drinkers’ - their ‘get real; get Ugly’ claim leans into a feeling of authenticity.

The overall effect subverts the earnestness and ambition that pervade the soft drink category, pitching squarely at consumers who are thirsty and just want a drink. It’s a pitch-perfect nudge: when you’re spoiled for choice and baffled by options, you reach for something that tells you exactly what it is.

It’s a visual equivalent of the cocktail party effect - the behavioural quirk which allows people to segregate stimuli into different streams, tuning out everything they don’t want to hear.

Impact and relevance

Weight Watchersdo this well, presenting two simple and authoritative goals - ‘Be Inspired’ and ‘Be Healthy’ wrapped into the Balance logo - and a series of clear, uncontentious claims about the contents. The logo provides impact; the portion details give relevance. Every Balance package offers a series of small details that elevate the product’s value in consumers’ eyes.

Esther Papies, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow, found that handing out recipe flyers at store entrances that included words like “healthy” and “low-calorie” caused people who were overweight or dieting to subconsciously buy fewer snacks.

And not by a small margin either - 75% fewer snack items to the checkouts than those who received the control flier, which did not have the health-related terms on it. Seeing those words – being primed by them – activated people's existing goals and reminded them what they could do now to meet them, without the shoppers really taking notice, says Papies.

It’s what behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein call nudge theory: little things like putting fruit at eye level on shelves. Consumers know they should eat healthily, but they have to actively choose to do so. Easing that choice by putting the healthy option where the eye naturally falls means more consumers actually make the choice.


People look at others to guide their own behaviour. Influencers with authority carry more weight. This is why endorsements work: they’re what behavioural economists call social proof. The technique comes straight from Bernays, who introduced the concept by asking 5,000 doctors to confirm what he’d heard about a heavy breakfast being the best start for the day. When 4,500 said yes, he published that figure in newspapers throughout the country, alongside claims that bacon and eggs should be a central part of the bigger breakfast - and in so doing, he effectively introduced the fry-up to America.

There’s a downside, however - a product which leans too heavily on endorsements lacks an identity of its own, and raises questions about the reliability and validity of the endorsements. Imagery helps to modify endorsements and make sure they’re received in the right way.

Dr Anders Podiatrist walks the fine line by associating itself with the authority of the qualified  professional, but also keeping it personal. By using one name, a restrained design, and emphasising what the product can do, the endorsement becomes quietly authoritative - it’s reminiscent of the one-to-one relationship people have with family doctors.

Seamless brand experience

The underlying principle here is goal dilution: essentially, this means “people focus on one goal at a time, and prefer to achieve it in one clear way”. If you pitch your product as doing too many things, people are less likely to choose it: it doesn’t look like it can do any one thing well. The opposite is also true: if you’re offering a general purpose product, but overemphasising one feature - one goal that it helps consumers achieve - they’re less likely to buy.

This is why FMCG brands tend to lean into a particular feature, separating their products into discrete SKUs. Colgate sells dozens of toothpastes, and all of them clean your teeth, but this one is for whitening and that one is for strength and the otheris for fresh breath: leaning into a particular goal means customers ‘know’ which one to pick up.

With Scholl, we created a cohesive visual look that brought all their products together under a masterbrand with a distinctive logo, colour and design. Package it in the right shade of yellow and blue, make sure the picture is front and centre so you know what the product is, and you have a visual identity that carries across an entire pharmacy.

Branding is ultimately about people - how they relate to products, and how that tips their hand into their pocket and encourages them to buy what the brand is putting out. Brand designers need to know how people decide to buy, and what subtle nudges they can apply to bring them closer to that decision.


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