It’s Friday, and you’re just absolutely done after a long hard week at work. Mentally drained, you browse a few news channels and scroll through social media.
And then it happens: you see an ad for a delicious burger! Yes, you are on a diet, but this one looks so delicious! It’s an offer, and it’s even close by! Can today count as a cheat day? After all, you’ve been working like crazy all week. You deserve a little treat. Yeah, let’s go for it!
After the tasty burger comes the regret. The calorie counts. The bad conscience. A good dose of rumination. The burger was tasty, sure. But was it really worth it? No, not really.
And how do you feel about that place you bought the burger? The next time you see that brand, your feelings are more mixed than before. After all, it was a blend of positive and negative experiences.
Chances are, you will be less happy with your choice, since it’s a conflicted goal between positive and negative values. You did get that delicious burger, but it was at the cost of sacrificing a long-term goal you’ve set for yourself.
The unconscious consumer wants to be conscious
Consumer psychology studies have shown that consumers are often happiest with their choices when they feel that they are actively involved in the decision-making process and are empowered to make an informed decision. By contrast:
When consumers feel that they were tricked or manipulated into making a choice, they are less satisfied with the outcome.
It is important for consumers to feel that they were given the necessary information and tools to make a conscious decision that aligns with their values and preferences. This increases their satisfaction with their choice and improves overall product and brand experience.
So, to use terms from psychology and philosophy, as consumers, we want to be both the owner and the agent of our choices. By ownership, we mean that it is our choice. We are the ones actually buying that chocolate or refraining from it.
But moreover, we also want to feel that we are the active chooser — we have agency — of the purchase. We don’t want to feel conflicted about our choices. The optimal is when a choice is both rationally good and also feels right. The unconscious and conscious work best when they go hand in hand.
It’s all about microdecisions
But the truth is that we are all susceptible to manipulation, especially when it comes to making decisions.
Our brain is continuously processing signals and is constantly making decisions - about what to pay attention to, and what to ignore; or whether something matches what we are looking for or if it’s not relevant at all. These instant decisions are called microdecisions.
Microdecisions are often subconscious choices we make throughout the day without realizing it.
They can be as simple as which route to take to work or which shirt to wear, but they can also impact our thorough decisions, such as which car to buy or which restaurant to go to.
Unconscious microdecisions are driven by our past experiences, emotional state, and even physical surroundings. For instance, we are more likely to stick with the same brand we've used before if we've had good experiences with it in the past. By the same token, when we are under pressure, we are more likely to choose an option that we hope will calm us down.
One of the key ways that consumers are influenced in their decision-making is by affecting these unconscious microdecisions.
The negative halo of a bad brand experience
Every experience with a brand shapes the perceptions and associations we connect to it. In psychology, this tendency is called the halo effect.
The halo effect is a consumer or cognitive bias where our positive and negative experiences influence future judgments and opinions about the same product, brand, or service.
Have you ever had a frustrating experience with streaming content on your phone, for example?
Studies show that online streaming delays lead to negative brand associations for both the viewed commercial and the connection provider. This can make people think both brands are unreliable or of low quality.
This is because our experiences with a product or service can significantly influence our perceptions of the brand associated with it.
We also build negative associations to a brand when we feel swayed by impulses and steered toward making spontaneous choices that we later regret.
To prevent consumers from associating their brands with unwanted experiences and have a bitter taste in their mouths, businesses must consider ways to empower their customers to make choices that fit their values or preferences.
Enabling, engaging & empowering customers
Today, marketing is in a state of paralysis. Marketers shout more in the fight for attention, contributing to an overall increase in commercial noise and making it even harder to stand out from the crowd.
The old Wanamaker saying still holds: “Half of my marketing budget is wasted; I just don’t know which half it is.” — Actually, it is more accurate than ever.
Along with technostress — the stress imposed by multitasking and technological distractions such as notifications — on the rise, consumers are more disturbed than ever and often get overloaded with brand messages.
The consumer journey has to change.
Instead of trickery, distractions, and nudging, we need to find a new way for businesses to talk to their audiences. A way that leads consumers to make choices that align with their mental and physical well-being and better reflect their own internal and personal goals.
There is an alternative route businesses can take. This approach strives to enable, engage and empower customers.
By treating customers with respect and providing them with the tools and support they need to make informed and empowered choices, businesses can create more positive and sustainable outcomes for both themselves and their customers.
We are generally most happy with our choices when three criteria are met:
- We need to be enabled. Our choice process starts with the recognition that we are, in the first place, in a choice situation. For businesses, enabling includes providing detailed product descriptions and specifications and offering access to all the information needed to make an informed decision.
- We need to feel engaged. We are happier with our choices when we are emotionally enthralled, and we comprehend the information we are exposed to. This means ad and brand experiences that resonate with consumers.
- We need to feel empowered in our choices. We need to feel that it is our deliberate choice and that we are both the owner and the agent of choice. This involves active involvement in the decision-making process, so consumers make an empowered decision.
As the world becomes more commercialized, consumers are exposed to more commercial noise and malignant nudging.
But it does not have to be the case today. We already have the means to enable, engage and empower consumers. Commercialization that combines growth with consumer health and well-being need not be opposites.
Businesses can do their part by putting customers first, so they won’t only contribute to economic growth but also promote a more positive and sustainable society.