What signals you are really sending?

Pedestrian traffic lights have been in the news lately, with a select few intersections in Melbourne changing from a little green man to a little green woman.  While some have labelled it a stunt; a trivial change that won’t make a difference to gender equality, this reaction disregards the power of the unconscious in shaping behaviour. Let’s turn our attention then, to how unconscious cues can impact how your customers engage with you.


How something is described, matters. In fact just last week I wrote about research that found people end up looking like their names.

Through the behavioural principle of framing, we can use language to influence how people respond to a message. For example:

  • A café in France was able to influence its customers to act more politely by framing their prices according to how they ordered from staff. Barking an order for “one coffee!” was more expensive than saying “Hello, one coffee please?”
  • More people were likely to agree to surgery with 80% survival than 20% mortality
  • 97% fat free yogurt is more attractive than yogurt with 3% fat


We are visual creatures, processing the messages from images 60,000 times faster than the written word. Some examples of using imagery to impact behaviour include:

  • Foot traffic to a food court in the UK increasing 75% when poster with the headline “who says lunch has to be after 12?” included an image of people to normalise the behaviour
  • A painted fly in a urinal helping men direct their attention, reducing cleaning time
  • Pictures of eyes on an honesty box increasing the amount of money contributed by staff for their break room coffee.
  • In separate initiatives, smiley faces decreasing speeding and energy consumption


Not only do people respond to what is written, but how it is written. For example:

  • Difficult to read typeface has been shown to reduce the ease of cognitive processing, increasing the perceived effort required to complete a task
  • Thanks to the size-congruency effect, people have been found to perceive a discounted price as lower if it is written in typeface smaller than the original price
  • Rounded numbers have been found to signal preparedness to sell more quickly


From the Mercedes Benz “thunk” to the whoosh of an email being sent, sounds shape our reactions to products, environments and experiences. For example:

  • Dwell time in shops can be increased by playing the right type and tempo of music
  • People were more likely to buy French wine in a bottle shop when French music was playing
  • The sound numbers make when people mentally rehearse them means $14.90 will be perceived differently than $15


75% of emotions are generated through smell, and it’s the fastest way to our brains. For example:

  • Purchase intent increased by 80% when Nike stores added scent
  • A petrol station convenience store increased coffee sales by 300% by pumping the smell of coffee through the store
  • Exposure to pleasant scents made people more creative in problem solving and more vigilant during tedious tasks


The environment around us can shape our behaviour without us knowing. For example:

  • Rooms with high-ceilings have been found better for creative brain-storming
  • People were more likely to vote in favour of a school initiative if they were in a school rather than church hall
  • Nutritionists ate 31% more ice-cream when handed a large rather than small bowl
  • People consumed beer faster from a curved glass

As these research-based examples illustrate, unconscious cues can be the difference between you being able to influence a customer or not. On paper such initiatives may seem irrational, but that’s exactly why they work. They bypass conscious awareness and get processed by the parts of our brain that make most of our decisions. With this in mind, challenge yourself to take a look at your business with a fresh, unconscious cues perspective. What messages are you really sending?

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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