This blog is modified from a Forbes article. You can read the original here

As a frequent speaker on applying neurological and behavioral science to marketing, I often get asked some version of the following question: “Why do people make this stuff so difficult to understand and explain?”

I totally get it. As the CEO of a behavioral research and design consultancy that helps brands understand and change consumer behavior, I’ve become adept at integrating behavioral science and psychology into creative analogies.

But it wasn’t always that way. When I started my journey into understanding human decision making, I muddled through academic journals and brand consultant decks, trying to make sense of jargon like “hyperbolic discounting” and “framing effects.” 

I tried to boil down these heady, theoretical concepts and present them in an approachable way, but I often saw glazed eyes on every audience member who heard my presentation. They couldn’t make sense of what I was saying or see how it could help them psychologically optimize their marketing.

So, I kept working. After a year, I had an epiphany one summer afternoon while planning a road trip with my son. What I realized is that we can better understand consumer decision making — and even learn to influence it — by looking at it as the planning of a family road trip.

Planning any road trip requires four elements: a destination, a vehicle, a map, and a few handy shortcuts. If you want to understand why people make certain choices, I believe studying these four elements can help point you in the right direction so you can get consistent, reliable results from your marketing creative.

1. The Destination

All road trips begin with selecting where you want to go. In the same way, I've found that consumers tend to crave a destination, or a goal, to guide their choices and behaviors. Goals can impact one's behavior, and I believe that most consumer purchases are made with a goal driving them.

Without a destination, you’ve got no road trip. It’s the same with consumer decision making. If you don’t understand your customer’s goal, you can’t provide them with a point to buy into your brand. They’ll be stuck in the proverbial decision making "driveway."

To get consumers out of the driveway, be explicit in reminding them of their goals. For example, if their goal is to run a marathon, be direct in how you remind them of that. Don’t make them think it through.

2. The Vehicle

Next step: Choose your vehicle. Remember, this choice can make or break the trip. A vehicle, when properly chosen, is an essential part of reaching your destination (if you don’t believe me, cram your family of four into a midsize sedan and see how far you can drive before everyone has a meltdown).

In behavioral design, the “vehicle” driving you toward your destination (i.e., goal) is someone’s motivation. So, you first need to understand the motivation that is driving your customer. From there, you can use images associated with that motivation to connect your brand with their ultimate goal. 

This is called “priming.” Here are a few examples:

  • If achievement is their motivation, show them an image of a runner crossing a finish line.
  • If security is their motivation, show them an image of a padlock or safe.
  • If nurturance is their motivation, show them an image of a parent touching a child’s face.

With your destination and vehicle selected, it’s time to choose the road you'll travel.

3. The Map

You likely use a map on a road trip to make sure you're on the right track. On some trips, you might want a sense of adventure, so you accept the risk of getting lost and take a road you've never seen before. For other trips, you might opt for a familiar route to make the experience more relaxed and reduce your chance of getting lost.

When making decisions, we follow a mental road called our regulatory approach. In this case, do you want the thrill of adventure or the reassurance of something familiar?

A customer’s regulatory approach impacts how receptive they are to your brand messaging. When you understand their approach, you can make your solution or offering feel like the most natural path for them to take in that situation. To show you how this works, consider the following hypothetical example of a healthy chip brand selling its product to health-conscious consumers with different regulatory approaches:

  • To a cautious consumer, the brand might say, "These zero-calorie chips have no preservatives."
  • But to an optimistic consumer, the company could say, "These all-natural chips are loaded with nutrients."

They're selling the same chips in two different ways to make the solution feel like a natural path for a range of consumers.

4. The Shortcut

Last, let’s talk about shortcuts. Sometimes, all you want to do is reach your destination. These mental shortcuts are called cognitive heuristics. If you can find the right shortcut for your consumer, you can help them make a quicker, easier decision that highlights your brand over others.

One way to uncover the shortcuts your customers are using is to ask them about the first time they encountered your brand. For example, if your company sells Greek yogurt and one shopper says they discovered your brand because their mom told them about it, you know they're using a social proof shortcut and will likely be influenced by reviews and testimonials.

Another shopper might tell you a store employee handed them a sample of the Greek yogurt, so they felt they had to buy it. That’s a reciprocity shortcut. If you want to influence that consumer, it would help to send them free samples.

There you have it: over 70 years of psychological research, across four separate theoretical disciplines, summarized with a simple road trip analogy. The goal is to help your customers along their purchasing journey, and with these four behavioral factors, you’ll see the "why” behind customers’ behaviors, and you'll be able to design products and marketing to help them reach their goals in ways that fit them psychologically.

To learn more about behavioral science-based marketing, be sure to pick up a copy of my book, Marketing to Mindstates.

And if you find yourself struggling to apply the principles of Mindstate Marketing to your advertising creative, a Mindstate Marketing Workshop could be just what you need. 

In this 2-day virtual workshop, we’ll dive into the many ways you can apply behavioral design and psychology to your marketing creative. Then, using real customer data, our team will show you how to create a content strategy based on behavioral design for your own company.

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Topics: Branding, Behavioral Design, Innovation, Marketing, Marketing Creative, Advertising Creative, Content Strategy