Want to Drive Sales?  The Answer is Behavior Design.

The following is adapted from Marketing to Mindstates by Will Leach.

Imagine you’ve stopped at your favorite local gas station for a quick lunch. As you park your car and walk up to the front door, your stomach rumbles. You’re famished.

As you walk in you’re immediately assaulted by familiar sights, sounds, and smells as you walk inside. All around you are viable options to quench your hunger and get you back on the road recharged for the rest of your workday. You start drifting toward the old reliable chip aisle when a new sign near the front of the store grabs your attention: 2 Hot Dogs for Just $1.29!

Whoa, you think to yourself, that’s a great deal. Sure beats getting a single bag of chips for the same price. You walk to the front, grab a couple of hot dogs and a soda, and head out.

Nobody would blame you for picking the discounted hot dog deal. It’s a heartier meal that will fill you up more than a bag of chips will. When I worked for PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, we saw this exact scenario playing out all across the country.

Our company was losing significant category share in convenience stores nationwide. One-dollar-menu deals were becoming a big trend in fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King. As a result, people were getting more meals from fast food restaurants and going to convenience stores less often.

To compete with fast food, convenience stores started offering their own meal deals, such as two hot dogs and a drink for $2, or two hot dogs for $1.

At Frito-Lay headquarters, our sales team started to ask, “How do we get people to bypass the hot dogs and meal deals and go down the chip aisle instead?”

Most guys who actually work hard for a living are not going to buy a bag of chips for $1.29 when they can get two hot dogs for that same amount of money. How could we make the salty snack category relevant for the hungry blue-collar guys who often walk into convenience stores for a low-cost meal, not snacks?

The answer was found in Behavior Design.

Getting Shoppers to Walk Toward the Light

Behavior Design is the process of applying neurological and behavioral insights to the development of customer communications to psychologically influence and change consumer behavior. It’s marketing designed to get shoppers to act.

We needed hungry shoppers to buy chips, not cheap meal deals. It wasn’t going to be easy, though, as a high calorie, low price meal is hard to ignore. We needed a unique, inexpensive way to draw visual attention away from those bars and into our chip aisle.  At least there I had a chance to drive consideration and choice for Frito Lay.

Like many of my projects, I started my work looking at behavioral science findings we could leverage. In my research, I found a little-known study on Google scholar that revealed a strange human behavior that I thought might be crazy enough to work.

People have an avoidant response to blinking lights, such as yellow traffic lights. These blinking lights often subconsciously create an avoidance response neurologically and psychologically. In layperson’s terms, blinking lights piss off our brains.

But this study found that there’s an exception to this rule—white lights.

Under certain conditions, the human brain is attracted to blinking white lights. Under these conditions, visual attention is created at the point of light, but without the avoidance response neurologically seen with other colors.  

Because of this odd phenomenon, I decided to spend $65 at a local Kinko’s to put a small blinking white light in the signage underneath our chips at Earl’s, an independent convenience store in Aubrey, Texas, that agreed to be our real-world research lab.

The next question we had to answer was tougher: Even if we drew shoppers’ eyes to notice our chips and walk in the aisle, how would we drive consideration and choice for snacks versus an entire meal for the same price? 

Tapping Into Consumer Emotions

The answer is Behavior Design. Along with the white lights, we needed to tailor our messaging to match the motivational psychology for the guys who were coming into Earl’s convenience store in the first place.

I knew two things about this group:

  1. Hunger brought them into to convenience stores at lunchtime.
  2. Blue collar workers often felt like they were in a daily battle where winning the day was of utmost importance.  

The competition was big for this group. Based on our previous research, we knew that these men often used metaphors around competition and battles when talking about their day. They’d say things like, “Every day is a battle, and I simply have to win.”

Knowing this, we created a new shelf strip and put it underneath the Doritos. In big, white letters, it said, “Beat hunger with Doritos. Winning never tasted so good.”

Why these words? To tap into the consumer’s mindstate at the time of purchase.

Beat and Winning prime competition, so I wanted that. Hunger was an important word to use because it was the number one reason they were going to convenience stores.


Last, the blinking white light was placed between the two sentences inside the Doritos logo to draw visual attention.  Combined with our behaviorally-optimized copy, we had a real chance to drive sales in-aisle.  So we installed this new shelf strip and waited a few weeks to see the results.

When the results came in, I was over the moon. From this behaviorally designed marketing, we had a 6 percent category sale lift without any discount.

Traditional marketing research would normally recommend dropping the price or giving something extra to these shoppers, but we didn’t do any of that.

I simply used behavioral science to drive my behavioral strategy and content and tapped into what I believed was driving these shoppers’ nonconscious mindstate in the moment.

Psychologically, the words Beat hunger with Doritos were optimized for these guys’ mindstate in Earl’s convenience store. We used small, subtle changes to our message to break through the clutter and tap into their nonconscious mind. To speak to their physical and emotional needs more directly.

My question to you is: What can you do to make shoppers walk toward the light?


If your answer is, "I have no idea," a Mindstate Training or Application Workshop can help you determine the best strategy to target your customers' mindstates.

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Topics: Shopper, Behavioral Design, Motivation, Management, Sales