Guilty until proven innocent

To customers you are guilty until proven innocent

There was a judge in the US who, at the start of every trial, would step out from behind the bench, approach the defendant and shake their hand. “I have just shaken the hand of an innocent person,” he would proclaim.  Why did he bother?

The justice system is predicated on “innocent until being proven guilty”. The challenge is those on the jury are prone to judge the defendant before the facts are even introduced, and seek confirmatory evidence for their view. A case of “guilty until proven innocent”.

By proclaiming the defendant innocent, the judge was using his authority to correct the decision-making frame for jurors. Start from a point of innocence, not defence.

What this means for you

In business, your customers are like jurors who come to the task of purchase with expectations. You are like the defendant. They will be predisposed to not buy your story (product, service).

The upshot is you can often be at cross-purposes with your customer.

You think they will make a decision based on grounds you believe are important (e.g. how much time you’ve put into your product or service, your credibility, why you are amazing) when they are using their frame of reference (e.g. how price compares to other options, the opportunity cost of their time and money if they spend it with you, their deep-seated motivations for wanting to buy).

Tips for you:

  • It is important not to talk too much about yourself, particularly early on (e.g. your value proposition, using “we do this, we do that” statements). Instead you need to prove you understand their objective and fit how your solution fits.
  • Re-frame the decision context if you need to move the customer away from their frame of reference to yours.  Red Bull, for example, did not frame itself as an aspirational drink and compete in that hyper-competitive soft-drink space. Instead they re-framed the category (a functional drink) so they could charge substantially more.
  • You don’t have a judge to proclaim you innocent, so instead use testimonials and credibility cues to signify why you are worthy of trust.
  • When people are used to something being free (like online news) it is very difficult to charge for it. You need to significantly shift the benefits they receive in order to substantiate a charge and distance it from the free service.
  • As the popular meme attests, when the CFO says, “what if we train people and they leave?”, the CEO can reframe as “what if we don’t and they stay?” In other words, flipping the context can be helpful to have your customer rethink their position.

Frame the gain or is loss the boss? The nuance of prevention vs promotion focus

Having working with hundreds of people over the eight years since I founded People Patterns I have observed two distinct approaches to new information or techniques.

According to Regulatory Fit Theory (RFT), some people are motivated by a prevention focus where they are attracted to resolving a perceived gap in their business. These clients tend to feel they are missing something and seek answers about how behavioural science can help.

Others are attracted to opportunity. Their promotion focus means they like identifying new ideas that can immediately improve their business.

The end point might be the same – applying behavioural science to improve everyday business and personal effectiveness – but the message that resonates is different. Life is easier for some, and less difficult for others.

How to apply Prevention and Promotion in your business

Your customers and staff will tend to have either a prevention or promotion focus too, which means you should adjust how you engage them accordingly.

For example, promotion-focussed diners in a restaurant spent more time on higher-level information (e.g. entrees, mains), where those in a prevention mindset were more goal-directed (e.g. specific dishes). When the structure of the menu matched their mindset, diners were willing to pay 17% more.

For customers or stakeholders who are prevention-minded, loss is boss. Speaking about the avoidance of negative consequences is powerful so use words and phrases like “gaps”, “missing out”, “waste”, and “avoid”.

For customers or staff with a promotion-mindset, frame the gain. “Opportunity”, “growth”, “win” and “save” will be your go-to words.

Which are you?

To make it easier for people to work out which of my products and services are best for them, I developed a short personality-based matching tool. To find out whether you are a Sleuth, Prospector, Mechanic or Physician, jump on the free online tool right now. Let me know whether your profile reflects your approach.

Why people reject change

In January we experienced two public debates that reinforced the essential equation when influencing people to change behaviour; what they gain must exceed what they stand to lose.

Getting people to accept a proposed change

Two important issues have been hotly debated this past month –  whether to change the date of Australia Day and whether people should opt-out of My Health Record. 

This blog won’t be dealing with the merits of either. Instead I want to focus on what we can learn about how these issues have been framed by those seeking to get Australians to accept a change.

Australia Day

It is my view that those who want(ed) to have the date changed from 26 January needed to propose firm alternatives earlier in the discussion.  Much of the resistance has come from the sense of “losing” the 26 January, without any reassurance that another date would be suitable.  Rather than being framed as a shift to something, it was a changeaway from the status quo, and that can be uncomfortable.  Instead of framing the debate as whether it should be moved, advocates should ideally have framed it as which date to move it to.

My Health Record

My Health Record, a centralised database of personal medical information, is fast becoming a case study in how not to roll out an online service. What should have been good news has instead been drowned out by data security and privacy concerns. Whether these fears are justified is almost secondary to the perception that has taken hold, and in my view this is also largely due to poor framing.  The agencies responsible were either too late or too quiet and their message around the benefits of a record has simply not cut through. Last I heard over one million people had opted-out, and given we are predisposed to leave things as they are, this rate of activity signals a significant and unfortunate rejection of the system as it stands.

Lessons for you

When trying to get people to accept a change, whether it’s a customer moving from not buying to buying, a website visitor moving from not clicking to clicking, or a colleague moving from not producing to producing, you need to carefully consider how you frame the message. If they feel that they have more to lose than gain, there’s no way they’ll bother. Nullify their sense of loss and amplify their sense of gain and you’ll be much more likely to move together in a mutually beneficial direction.

Effortless influence

5 minutes to design the logo.

2 years to convince her clients to use it.

In 1998, as renowned graphic designer Paula Scher sat listening to her clients discuss what the identity of newly merged Citicorp and Travellers Group should be, she doodled the new Citibank logo on a napkin.

“The design of the logo is not the hard part of the job”, said Scher, “it’s persuading a million people to use it”.

Whatever your role, I’m willing to guess your success relies on your ability to work with and through others. To influence.

I’m also willing to guess that the biggest frustration you have, why some days you feel worn down, exhausted and depleted, is when you can’t cut through.

Imagine a workday that felt effortless? Where your talents could shine and every traffic light turned green. Where stress melted away.

Imagine a world of business where people were smiling as they commuted because they couldn’t wait to get to work and ply their influencing skills?

That’s what I want for you. Effortless influence.

What’s the path to effortless influence?

1.  Make your environment do the heavy lifting

Just having a meeting in the right room can help productivity. Priming, which I write a lot about because it is so critical to your success, means people are influenced by environmental cues. Some supermarkets, for example, play the sound of thunder in the fresh produce section to remind their customers of nature and freshness.

Aside from the environment, how you contextualise your message is as important as what your message is. The behavioural principle of framing means you need to choose your images, typeface and words carefully. An email with “feel free” to get in touch is better than “don’t hesitate”, for example.

2. Anticipate resistance to design your effortless approach

Conceptualising the logo was the easy part for Scher. The hard part was convincing layers of management that the logo was the right one. We could explore dozens of behavioural principles underpinning client resistance, but all roads lead back to three core barriers

  • Apathy, they can’t bothered;
  • Paralysis, they are confused; and
  • Anxiety, they are worried about proceeding.

Know that the natural human state is status quo. Even if a client thinks they want change, you still need to convince them to move. That means the bulk of your work is getting people to move away from something rather than move towards it.

3.  It’s not them at fault, it’s you

You can’t control another person, but you can control your approach. If you are getting frustrated, then change how you engage, starting with empathy.  Just like a tennis umpire who wears sneakers so they can feel how the players experience the court, you have to see the situation from your customer’s perspective. By doing so you can work back to modify how you act and communicate. 

Effortless influence isn’t actually effortless

Is effortless influence actually effortless? Clearly the answer is no. But it’s good effort rather than bad. By skilling yourself in behavioural influence you gain efficiencies every day, in every interaction, turning your traffic lights green.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Sources: Paula Scher’s work was profiled in the Netflix series “Abstract”.

Five oranges

Let’s say I give you five oranges. Is that good?

It depends.

Did you want four oranges?

Did you want six oranges?

Did you want five apples, not oranges?

Did you not want anything at all?

Whether the act of giving you five oranges was a good or bad thing depends very much on context.

And yet, in business, we often seem to forget to consider the context of the exchange we have with our customers. We overlook the role we play in shaping the context to ensure our offer is always a good thing.

So is giving you five oranges a good thing?

It depends.

Or-an-ge glad I gave you oranges?

To understand context, we start by asking some basic questions about what is happening.

Who are you to me? If you are a stranger or friend will impact how the act is perceived. Have we been discussing oranges at length, or has this come out of the blue?

Where are you? If you are in a fruit shop and I am the retailer, there’s a chance it’s a commercial transaction. If you are at a sporting event and the oranges are segmented, it’s likely you will be distributing them to those on the field. If you are about to board an airplane, it will seem inconvenient and odd.

Who is around you? Are others there to help you carry them? Do you want others to see you receive the oranges, or will this be embarrassing? If you are at a Mango Growers convention, it may seem inflammatory.

What time of day is it? Presenting you five oranges at 10pm may not be as helpful as 7am.

What are your needs? Your wants? Do you hate oranges? Do you have more oranges than you know what to do with? Are you suffering scurvy and desperate for vitamin C?

Contextualising value for your customers

Now that we have considered the context in which the transaction will take place, we can move towards shaping perception of value.

Remember, value is relative, not absolute. That means your customer will be comparing what they get and have to give with a frame of reference.

You therefore have two choices as a business.

You can let them use their existing frame of reference. This is dangerous.

Or, you can create a new frame of reference. This is smart.

I once had an accounting practice send me a proposal for services, for example. This is how they communicated price to me.

Pretty standard phrasing, right? The problem was they left me to define the frame of reference. Was $2,000 good value or not? If I had $900 in mind, then $2,000 seemed expensive. If I had $5,000 in mind, it seemed cheap. I didn’t end up accepting their terms.

Remember, our job is to frame the value of our goods and services to encourage our customer to proceed. Here are many techniques you can use, but let’s tackle two now: numbers and names.

Number framing

Contextualising the numbers you share with customers can make or break your interaction. Your success depends on the first number they see as it ‘anchors’ their perception of what follows.

Use a low anchor to be seen as generous

Use a low anchor if you want to be seen as generous e.g. “I know you only asked for four oranges, but I wanted to give you five as a thank you for choosing us”, or “last year’s bonus was $1200, but this year I’m pleased to say you will receive $1700”.

Use a high-anchor to diminish perceived cost

Steve Jobs used a high anchor when introducing the iPad so we would think it was great value. He started by citing ‘pundits’ who said it would be priced at $999 before thrilling the audience by revealing it would only be $499!

For the accounting practice, that could mean contextualising value as follows: “For larger clients we typically charge $5,000, but for your portfolio it would only be $2000”.

Or, if they didn’t have tiered pricing, they could use another larger number to anchor perceptions. For example: “Your current portfolio is $1,245,678. For us to manage everything we’ve discussed for you the fee will be $2000 plus GST.”

Re-set the anchor

What to do if they have a fixed expectation and you can’t deliver? For example, they wanted six oranges but you only have five to give?

Provide a reason for the shortfall, ideally citing an external event that is out of your control and likely to be affecting alternative providers as well, before framing about what you can do for them, right now. For example: “Unfortunately there is a shortage of oranges at the moment. What I can do for you is give your five right now, and arrange for an additional orange to be delivered to you tomorrow.”

What if the product or industry category has a fixed anchor, but you want to charge more? Starbucks faced this issue when launching in the US. The existing anchor for diner coffee was around $1, but they wanted to charge 4-6 times that. How? They re-framed what ‘coffee’ meant. From their store fit-outs with couches, cool music and the smell of roasting beans, to the fancy names they gave their drink sizes (Grande, Venti), they created so much distance between ‘coffee’ and “Starbucks” that they could re-anchor price expectations.

Back to the accounting practice. If the customer is used to paying $900 and they charge $2000, they need to re-frame expectations of what services from this accountant means. One approach is to offer the $2000 as the most basic option, introducing two more expensive options to drag the customer up to a higher anchor point.  Now the customer is comparing $2000 to $6000, and thinking they need to at least move to the $4500 option to get value.

Name framing

People are persuaded by descriptions. Rather than just give you “oranges”, I am giving you “sweet, juicy, sun-ripened organic oranges from Australia’s most awarded orchard”. A restaurant was able to increase sales of one item on its menu by 27% by changing the description from “broccoli” to “seasoned Asian-broccoli” (Just & Wansink 2009).

The language we use conjures up images in the minds of our customer. Not only does that mean paying attention to how we describe our offer, but what we call the product itself.

Imagine you were selling sweets, for example. Calling them “fruit chews” rather than “candy chews” would likely double consumption (Irmak, Vallen & Rosen Robinson 2011).  

Staging cocktail hour? Listing a drink as “Red Bull and Vodka” rather than “fruit cocktail” would prime your guests to act 51% more intoxicated.

If your product or brand carries a taint due to the connotations of what the name represents, consider changing it. Kentucky Fried Chicken moving to KFC and British Petroleum becoming BP are just two examples of companies distancing themselves from the original meaning.

Common product names you may have seen (or used) have their own framing connotations

  • Standard: Use to normalise it as a default. Avoid if you don’t want them to choose it.
  • Basic: Use to signal no-frills, low-cost and build tension about selection. Avoid if you don’t want to disparage your product.
  • Essentials: Use to signal they can’t live without. Avoid s lowest cost option because it will reduce impetus to upgrade.
  • Achiever: Use to signal aspiration. Avoid for lowest cost option.
  • Pro: Use to signal status difference between pro and amateur. Avoid if all options are for pros because it loses its meaning.

So you are about to give your customer five oranges. Is that good? It depends…on you.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

How one small thing increased sales by 77%

A meal delivery service in the US was able to increase sales by 77%. How? By changing the way it represented its pricing.

Periodic vs. aggregate pricing

Researchers Atlas and Bartels (2018) (PDF) recently delved into the issue of how to best structure pricing terms.  Should you break the price into smaller, periodic payments, or hit them with a lump-sum? $16 a day or $99 a week?

Taking insights they gained in the lab, the researchers worked with a million-dollar prepared food delivery business on two versions of their website banner ad.

$16 a day vs $99 per week ads

In the first ad, pricing for meals was represented as $16 a day (periodic pricing). In the second, the price was instead represented as $99 a week (aggregate pricing).  Across the 12,648 first-time (unique) visitors to the site over five weeks, the price expressed as “per day” resulted in 81 transactions at a conversion rate of 1.3% compared with only 47 transactions at 0.7% for the “per week” ad, generating an additional US$5,200.  This is despite the cost per day being more expensive for customers than price per week offer!

Periodic vs aggregate pricing

When the analysis was expanded to include repeat customers as well as first-timers, similar, though slightly diluted, results were found.  Price per day garnered 19% more orders than per week, with 185 transactions compared with 159.

This supported the researcher’s contention that periodic pricing encourages customers to focus more on the frequency of benefits they receive. In other words, they conceptualise receiving multiple benefits (i.e. meals taken care of every day of the week) rather than a single, aggregated benefit (i.e. one delivery of meals per week).

It also supported the contention that first time visitors are more sensitive to how pricing is communicated. Where repeat customers understand your pricing and are more focussed on getting their order processed, first-timers will be seeking this key costing information.


This “pennies-a-day”, periodic pricing concept is not new, and has been used to make the cost of something seem manageable.  It’s not without it’s caveats, however.  As the researchers note, Gourville 1998 found pennies-a-day can backfire once the daily amount reaches a ‘non-trivial’ threshold. Further, Gourville 2003 found consumers would rather pay a monthly sum than daily on property taxes, mortgages and income tax, suggesting the type of product may have a bearing on when it is most applicable.

Key takeaways

This latest research contends that periodic pricing is most effective when the product (or cause in the case of charities) is highly affecting. In short, it’s best when people can imagine themselves enjoying the benefits, and seeing those benefits at a greater frequency is a positive.  People expressed a greater intent to lease a luxury car, for example, when it was represented as $20/day rather than $7250/year not because the cost was a smaller unit, but because the benefits were more salient.

There’s a lot of nuance when it comes to pricing, so to work out whether periodic pricing is right for you, I’d encourage you to run some tests of your own. Set up some A/B testing with a banner ad on a landing page, or, if that’s too difficult, run some low cost ad-word campaigns that promote your prices using either periodic or aggregate amounts. See what people click on, and then make changes on your site and in your collateral to represent your pricing in a way that best resonates with your customer.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Nothing harder than soft skills

A landscape designer friend of mine was telling me about a client whom she had to talk out of pulling the pin on a project. Despite having the process of drainage works explained, the client freaked out when she saw her garden being dug up. She changed her mind and didn’t want to proceed. What was the designer to do?

Another friend, a CEO, was in the midst of contract negotiations with one of their biggest clients.  A group of representatives from the client were touring the site and one of their number was being particularly finicky, making the CEO’s team very defensive and annoyed. As my friend said, “It wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it”.

There’s nothing harder than soft skills

What skills do you need to be effective in business? Well, you typically need some technical expertise that provides value, whether that’s being a landscaper designer, accountant, lawyer, baker, or candlestick maker. But these “hard skills” are not enough; you also need to have skills in relating to others – people skills. So called (annoyingly) “soft skills”.

Let’s consider then, how many hours you put into formalising your technical skills? For many of us it’s at least 13 years of schooling followed by trade or university qualifications and then years spent at the coalface of our craft.

What about your “soft skills”?  How much formal training have you had to learn how to most effectively relate to and influence others? I’m guessing not much. I’m guessing most has been informal – learning through trial, error and observation – and resting on the assumption that because we’re human, we should know how humans tick.

Now consider, how much of your day is spent on technical vs. soft skills? Where is your energy directed, and where would you like it to be?  

If you are like most of my clients, the majority of time, energy and angst is spent on people issues – the soft skills domain. Can you see the problem here? 

When faced with a real-life issue, like how to talk a client around when they are threatening to pull out, or how to respond to a prickly contract negotiation, we tend to wing it.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and this uncertainty means we waste a lot of time, energy and emotion on guesswork.

No wonder we get stressed.

No wonder conversion rates are low.

No wonder the hardest thing about working is dealing with people.

It is my belief that there is nothing harder than soft skills. Think about it. Pilots have a manual to fly a plane. Where’s the manual to influence another human being?

It’s here, and it takes the form of behavioural science. A whole lot of researchers are out there probing the depths of behaviour and providing answers on what will and will not work when trying to engage and influence others.

Which gives you an opportunity. If you want to be more effective in your work, it starts and ends with formalising your soft skills. My role in this is to distil behavioural science into what it means day-to-day for you.  Want to make sure a client doesn’t get anxious and pull the pin? Let’s talk about the role of communication, expectations and assurances to overcome loss aversion. Want to unearth reasons a client is being finicky? Let’s talk about norms, the curse of knowledge and framing.

It’s not just for now. Your future depends on soft skills

Formalising your soft skills through behavioural science will not only benefit you now, your future depends on it.

The movie “Hidden Figures” tells the story of a group of women who performed calculations for space agency NASA. Recognising that IBM computers were being installed to replace their jobs, one of the women retrains her team of “human calculators” to instead work as computer programmers, elevating their skills and securing their value.

In the last 60 years the world has moved beyond IBM, of course. Now Artificial Intelligence is the technology that will replace most tasks. Just when you think your profession is safe, footage pops of a new advancement that makes your “hard skills” redundant.

Take, for example:

So where does that leave us? How can we provide value beyond that a robot can produce? Only by being an expert in relating to others. Only by being able to anticipate and address resistance. Only by having excellent behavioural soft skills.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

How to influence an answer

Here’s a question. How would you feel about reducing the voting age from 18 to 16? Or what about giving 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote?

They’re the same question, right? Only they’re not. While they both deal with the legal voting age they frame the question differently, and that matters.

Market researcher Ipsos-Mori illustrated the impact of framing when they put these exact questions to UK voters.  When asked about “reducing” the voting age, only 37% of people supported the change. When asked about “giving” younger people the right to vote, 52% were in favour.

How you ask is as important as what you ask

As the UK voter survey reminds us, how we ask a question is as important as what the question is.  Would you prefer surgery with an 80% survival rate or 20% risk of mortality? Yogurt that is 97% fat free, or 3% fat?

It’s not the first time I’ve written about framing; how the words, numbers and phrasing you use send their own subconscious message that will influence the reaction you get. 

But it’s time to talk about it again because an example with profound real-life consequences is dominating Australian media at the moment.

The Same-Sex Marriage debate is rolling on with the Australian Government launching a plebiscite (a national non-binding postal vote) on the topic.  So how will that question be posed?  I’ve seen different versions reported in the media, such as:

  • Do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?(1)
  • Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?(2)

At first glance the questions seem the same, but subtle differences can be telling. For instance:

  • “Do you support” suggests that there has been work underway to make the change and that this is a collective effort whereas “should the law be changed” makes it sound like someone has to do the work, starting from scratch
  • “Change in the law” and “law to be changed” both focus on the act of change (the legal instrument) more than the outcome (marriage equality), and as previous referenda have proven, people tend to vote to leave things as they are unless they feel very strongly
  • “Allow” is a more permissive word than permit or legalise
  • “To marry” speaks more to the once-off act of getting hitched where “to be married” would elevate thoughts to the long-term commitment

Australia is certainly not the first to consider this issue (indeed, at this rate we will soon be one of the last), so how did the Republic of Ireland phrase the question to their voters back in 2015?  They asked whether new section in the Constitution should be inserted stating “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”(3).

In this case, the question was about adding something, not removing or changing it, and as such no one seemed disadvantaged. They avoided a negative (loss aversion) frame, and made equality (“without distinction”) the focus. The vote was Yes 62% No 38%

Framing for the response you want

The question itself aside, you can frame the context in which a question is considered. Here are four angles to consider.

1. Social norms

As a social animal, we are influenced by what others do – what the “norm” is. If the norm is with your side of the argument, you can capitalise on that. But if the mood is against you, you’ll need to devise a strategy to counter act its lure.

The “Yes” to marriage equality campaign is leading with the statement “I’m voting yes”. Note they’ve gone with “I’ve” rather than “we’ve”. Why? By emphasising “I’m” they are signalling individuals can show leadership and courage in their act of voting. They have judged there is enough community support that people can feel proud in their “yes” proclamation – they are normalising affirmation.

The “No” campaign has likewise judged that the mood of the masses is pro-marriage equality, and therefore need to frame a vote against it as being socially acceptable too. Their “It’s OK to say no” campaign is intended to dispel people’s concerns about social exclusion if they vote against the change.

2. Broadening and re-framing

If you can’t change the question, you can try to change what the question represents. Former Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott, a “no” campaigner, has attempted to re-frame the same-sex marriage question as a vote on protecting religious freedom and stopping political correctness. In his eyes, the vote is more an opportunity to protest against the direction of social change than it is marriage equality.

3. Wordsmithing

You may have noticed that I have so far been using same-sex marriage and marriage equality interchangeably, but of course we know that choice of words carries weight. Get out your thesaurus and ensure the words you choose support your preferred position. The range of the language used in this debate for instance includes:

  • “Marriage equality” which emphasises a correction to one group being treated differently to another. It is difficult to argue against wanting all people to be treated equally.
  • “Same-sex marriage” emphasises categorisation, like it’s a special type of marriage that is distinct from that between a man and woman. This could help advocates allay concerns from their opposition that ‘traditional’ marriage will be affected.
  • “SSM” as an acronym creates psychological distance from what the acronym represents. Australians latched on to the less frightening “GFC” in place of “Global Financial Crisis”, for example.
  • “Gay marriage” again emphasises a categorisation of people. “Gay” as a word itself is still somewhat loaded and in this context can be used to create an “us vs. them” tone.
  • “Legalising same-sex marriage” can suggest such marriages are illegal; there’s a difference between not being legal (not allowed) and being illegal (expressly prohibited).

4. Acquiescence response bias

A strategy to frame questions for an affirmative answer is to create “do you agree” statements. When people are asked whether they agree to something they are more prone to the “acquiescence response bias”. In short, we find it more difficult to say no, I don’t agree.

As an example, in one news poll the question on same-sex marriage was phrased “Do you agree that marriage should only be between a man and a woman?”, increasing the odds of a higher number of respondents stating they are against change.  Phrasing the question “Do you agree that marriage should not only be between a man and a woman?” would likely sway the result in the opposite direction.

Framing your message

Debates on public policy like marriage equality are a reminder how influential language can be. The lesson is to embrace the power of your words. Whether it is an email, letter, presentation, policy, tender or webpage, if you want to maximise the chances of getting the response you want, be deliberate in how you craft your message. I’m sure you agree?

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.





The Red Bull Effect: How product names impact behaviour

New research has found that people act and feel drunker when told they are drinking vodka and Red Bull rather than just a vodka cocktail. Proving again that customer behaviour is impacted by the names you give your product and services, let’s look at the role of language and framing in maximising conversion.

Red Bullish

Splitting 154 males into three groups, researchers at the INSEAD Sorbonne University in Paris gave one group what they called a “Red Bull and vodka cocktail”, another, a “Vodka cocktail” and the final group, a “Fruit juice cocktail” before letting them loose on a range of tasks. The trick was all three cocktails were contained exactly the same ingredients – the only thing different was the name.

And boy, did that make a difference!  Those in the Red Bull and Vodka group believed themselves to be 51% more intoxicated, expressed more confidence in approaching women and were more likely to demonstrate risk-taking behaviour when gambling. When offered money to inflate a virtual balloon in a computer game, men in the Red Bull and Vodka  group were more willing to risk pumping till it burst, forfeiting their winnings. It wasn’t all bad news though, as these men were also willing to wait an extra 14 minutes on average before driving.

What does this tell us? Behaviour is impacted by how messages are framed. In this case, Red Bull is synonymous for extreme behaviour and those expectations become self-fulfilling.

But not only does Red Bull have this type of placebo effect. People have also been found to believe a branded, more expensive paracetamol is more effective than the home brand variety, and that eating in a “healthy” fast food outlet means they consume fewer calories than they really do.

Implications for you

Understanding how to frame your message is vital to influencing customer behaviour.  One restaurant, for instance, was able to increase sales by 27% by simply changing the name (not the recipe) of its broccoli to the more delicious-sounding “seasoned Asian broccoli”. Almost twice as many people prefer surgery that promises an “80% chance of survival” than the same surgery with a “20% chance of mortality”.  And next time you’re in the yogurt aisle, consider whether you’d prefer to buy 97% fat free or the 3% fat variety.

Every time you interact with your customer you are making a choice about how you can express yourself in the most advantageous way. Unfortunately, rates of conversion suggest that most have been doing it wrong. Whether you are communicating face to face, over the phone, through your website, in an email, marketing campaign or invoice, learning how to frame your message is your key to success.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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.