Why PRs must understand behavioural economics

Why PRs must understand behavioural economics

Charlotte Stoel

Charlotte Stoel

defSo our approach to life is rational eh? We like to think so, but anyone who’s studied psychology will know it’s absolutely not the case. Why is this important for people in communications? We need to understand that people are less rational and more unpredictable than we believe. All businesses rely on selling something (product, service or an idea) to someone and behavioural economics bridges the gap between rational and emotional thinking as a proven science. Everyone likes to think they take a considered approach to decision making, but in fact they really don’t. And neither do they realise it.

I’m no brain scientist but here’s a quick 101 explaining why. There are two modes of decision making:

  • System 2, the conscious part of our brain, is like an accountant. It thinks things through rationally, checks facts and looks at the long view
  • System 1 is the adaptive unconscious. It’s the here and now, it’s impulsive, it detects patterns and follows them for ease. The brain prefers ‘cognitive ease’ as it’s less work – this comes from repeated experience, clear display, a primed idea and the right mood

We like to think we’re using system 2 for all choices but in fact system 1 kicks in first, with system 2 adding the rational reason later. We’ve all joked about post-rational decision making. People need a rational excuse to justify their lust, their emotional decisions and desires. So why not make it simple and always include an easy option?

Emotions versus rationality in monetary decisions – what PR professionals need to know

As an industry, we need to remember the people we’re trying to reach are very likely to be swayed by various others things that we may have never thought of, overriding rationality. Knowing this, here’s a list of dos and don’ts to abide by as a communications professional:

DO work on priming an idea to ease the decision making. The king of priming is Derren Brown. Take this example where he proposes an unusual task to advertising executives. Two men have half an hour to come up with a company name, logo and an advert of a chain of stores following a seemingly loose brief from Derren. Watch the magic:

It’s this reason why at Firefly we advocate continued and consistent communication to your target audience(s). For example, with peak activity like the launch of a new product or service, we ensure good ‘surround sound’ building PR campaigns that include build up, the ‘boom’ bit and follow-up. People have short memories.

DO work on the context and don’t under estimate the mood people need to be in. We all know that a chilled glass of rosé tastes better when you’re sat on a terrace in the South of France, but people who drink wine while listening to music perceive the wine to have the same taste characteristics as the artist. Mood is a powerful determinant of actions – so deploy compliments judiciously to put your audience in a good mood at the start of a meeting, or at the start of an interaction. Put people at ease and in the right mood.

DON’T think more information helps us make better decisions. Eliciting emotions can make people feel differently about a topic, creating a mental shortcut for future behaviours. However, we also trust brands that have familiarity and continuity in our minds – we trust brands we know, we buy from brands we trust, and we forgive the brands for whom we are fans. Sometimes, all it takes is persistence to build that trust and belief!

DO think beyond income based demographics. You need to think of what emotion binds your audiences together as a group – but don’t over-simplify things. As David Ogilvy once said “The customer is not a moron, she is your wife” relating to the patronising adverts in the late 50s. This emotional binding is further complicated by the fact that people are often complex and contradictory because of System 1 and System 2 thinking.

At Firefly we use a ‘high definition’ approach to PR, during which we analyse the audience closely, looking beyond income, gender and age and what drives them and what motivates them to change their behaviour. We consider what will prompt the emotional and rational decisions.

So, before crafting your next PR programme or campaign, remember that people don’t always think as rationally as we’d believe. The emotional subconscious often plays a role in determining our thought process and we need to make sure we account for that when setting our next PR plan to ensure success.

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