Anthony Tattum Colour
21st September 2020

Nudge, Nudge; Wink, Wink - How a Nudge in the Right Direction can Affect our Choices

Public Relations is no longer a matter of presenting a brand’s assets. Today, we must break through the noise to evoke emotion and promote instinct in action.

Psychology: The Paternal Advisor to PR

Traditional PR and content marketing have been changing opinions, affecting attitudes and influencing people’s behaviours for decades.

Until recently, these strategies have relied upon a classic theory of rational thinking; dependent on conscious choices, and ignoring long-held heuristics and biases.

Psychologists have been aware of these biases for a long time. Yet it was not until recent pioneers of neoclassical behavioural economics, such as Richard Shotton and Daniel Kahneman*, emerged that PRs began to sit up and listen.

With the evolution of social media campaigns, influencer programs and digital technologies, this shift towards the emotional epicentre of consumers became paramount in breaking through the noise and attracting attention for brands and campaigns.


Pride in Psychology and PR

For more than 20 years, my firm [Big Cat] has drawn on human instincts and turned them into powerful communications for all kinds of brands, charities and destinations to get people to buy, care, think, feel and ultimately, “do”.

To make these actions possible, we’ve helped people with the “heavy-lifting” of decision making occurring everyday by playing to consumers’ shortcuts, heuristics and biases.

We provide them the right nudges to inevitably make our clients’ campaigns more powerful. 

So what are these biases that make our brands #FuturePRoof? Let’s explore:


The Stairway to Brand Heaven

The most obvious bias for communications’ campaigns is social proof. Social proof is an innate trust in others’ beliefs, such that if a group you relate to are interested in something, you too will become intrigued.

Ever been guilty of rubbernecking on a motorway during a crash? Yep, that’s social proof!

In campaign messaging, social proof can have dramatic effects. For example, Richard Shotton* conducted a test whereby 300 participants were provided a survey regarding a “new beer” entering the U.K. market. One group was told simply where the ingredients came from, whilst the other group was told this beverage was “South Africa’s Most Popular Beer”.

To which beer would you have responded better? I certainly would have chosen the latter, as would Richard’s “Most Popular Beer” group, who doubled their ambition to sample the beer. A thirsty bunch eh?!

As PRs, we are adept at telling the stories behind our clients’ brands. Some clients will already hold a strong reputation from these classic tales. Yet, despite their popularity, they can still continue to climb the “stairway to brand heaven” by tweaking their messaging to fit with the social proof bias.

Never underestimate the power of people. All you need is an interested group, a slight tweak to your messaging and a multitude of appropriate platforms to reach your target audience to create a social proof-boosted brand.


The Broken Escalator Phenomenon

I don’t know about you, but I tend to wobble when I walk up an escalator that isn’t moving. My brain doesn’t catch-up fast enough with my feet.

Naturally, I thought nothing of this wobble, until I read Adolfo Bronstein and Raymond Reynolds* work which explain that the broken escalator phenomenon is indeed a real concept with which most struggle.

One sees an escalator and unconsciously prepares the body: “Right, moving equipment”. But of course, this is not the case. Habit is indeed a bias notoriously difficult to budge.

That said, budging is possible with the right communications!

A classic example from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO is Sainsbury’s “Try Something New Today” campaign.

Having noticed their customers were “sleep-shopping” i.e. buying the same goods over and over again, Sainsbury’s decided to wake them up with a brand new campaign encouraging additional ingredients to daily meals.

Through the influence of Jamie Oliver, the recipe cards placed ever so tactfully next to the ingredients and the ubiquitous TV ads, this simple statement earned Sainsbury’s £2.5 billion in extra revenue (IPA, 2008). Thank you, AMVBBDO!

What occurred here was a disruption to habit at an unconscious level through constant communication and a true understanding of one’s audience. Research pays ladies and gents!

But it’s not just day-to-day disruptions that can affect consumer behaviour. Perhaps some of Sainsbury’s customers were experiencing milestones in their lives e.g. marriage, moving, retiring or GOD FORBID turning any age with a “9” at the end (thank you Daniel Pink* and your nod to the “nine-enders”). In these instances too, consumers become more malleable to change and habits become easier to break.

So what do we take away here? Habits are NOT unbreakable and people can change (excuse the cliché). You can help people along in their consumer journey by understanding, researching and defining your audience to ensure your communications meet your business and behavioural objectives whilst giving people a nudge in the right direction to break their habits.


A China Plate vs A Napkin: The Ultimate Face-Off

If you were presented a brownie on a napkin, would you be happy to pay £3.50? What about if the brownie was on a china plate? OK, now what if I told you, you get the brownie on a china plate AND it was coated with a thick, creamy chocolate icing, topped with an organically-grown glacier cherry? Other than making you hungry, I imagine you would answer these questions based on expectancy theory.

This tasty little experiment was conducted by Brian Wansink* and expanded into more luxury sectors by Richard Shotton. Both results came back the same: most people are willing to pay more for a product that is presented splendidly with a description to match, as expectations are higher for this product than the one provided on e.g. a napkin.

It is well known in eCommerce that well-crafted product descriptions increase conversion by orders of magnitude, which is why PR and Communications experts are hired. Yet with the ever-increasing impetus on returning investment, we PR and marketing communications professionals must display our added value to prove our contribution to brands and the bottom line.

Therefore, as our toolkit and wordsmithing responsibilities expand, we must not become complacent. We must comprehend the entire customer journey to ensure it is china plates and not napkins customers experience at every touchpoint. 


Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink - The End for Now… We Think

Social Proof, Habits and Expectancy Theory are just a few of the many cognitive biases that nudge consumers in the right direction. PR and Communications’ professionals must understand their audiences, platforms and presentation to make brand messaging as effective as possible.

Indeed, we are social creatures, prone to trust and dependent on the groups with whom we find familiarity, ultimately leading to easier decision-making.

We are habitual creatures, reliant on networks previously built to guide us through life safely and smoothly.

And finally, we are creatures of expectation, drawn in by semantics and associations to help make everyday and extravagant decisions.

With the increasing need for accountability, it is important now, more than ever to understand our audiences and the details that make brands #FuturePRoof.


*For more examples on applying behavioural science to your communications campaigns see:

  • The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton
  • Thinking Slow and Fast by Daniel Kahnemann
  • The Broken Escalator Phenomenon by Raymond Reyndolds & Adolfo. Bronstein
  • When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink
  • Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink
  • Decoded by Phil Barden


Anthony Tattum

Anthony Tattum is a PR and Marketing Specialist/CEO at Big Cat Agency. For over 20 years, Anthony has helped grow global and independent brands, equipping him with insight, experience and the desire to make a difference no matter the brief or size of project.

The recently rebranded, integrated Big Cat Agency is aiming to be a Top 5 UK independent Marketing Communications Agency, boasting clients across many areas including Retail, Tourism, Hospitality, Health and Wellbeing, and Charity. 

Anthony is also the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising City Head for Birmingham and the Midlands.

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