How to harness the ‘predictable irrationality’ of consumers

More sales.
More awareness.
More loyalty.
More fame.

Whatever you call it, marketing strategy is about demand-side generation.

Whether that’s to sell more of an item, persuade people to visit a destination, or something else – as marketers, what we do day-in, day-out is figure out what to do to get people to act in the way we want them to.

In short, marketing strategy is essentially getting more people to act in a certain way.

Which is easier than it sounds.

Brilliant marketing starts with really getting under the skin of your audience, understanding human psychology and behaviour…

⁃ What drives people?
⁃ What motivates them?
⁃ What do they really want?

And the first thing this usually entails is realising that what people say, and what people do, is rarely the same. It’s a common problem with focus groups and market research. People may love the concept or idea in theory, but when it comes to actually buying / subscribing / going – this doesn’t necessarily translate. And vice versa.

Whilst logic might dictate we do one thing, very often – we don’t.

We are – to use a famous phrase – “predictably irrational”.

Coined by Dan Ariely in 2008, the idea is that our decisions are influenced by far more irrational thoughts and hidden forces than we think (or at the very least, acknowledge). And these patterns repeat – we are irrational in the same ways, in the same circumstances. In other words, we’re not just irrational, but predictable in how we are irrational.


For example, think about when you’ve felt poorly – or had a poorly child at home. You go to Boots searching for paracetamol.

There’s a packet for 49p, own branded. 400mg of pure paracetamol.
And there’s a packet slightly further along the shelf of branded Lemsip. 400mg of paracetamol, with some caffeine thrown in for good measure. £5.50

Now logic should dictate that the two have the same main ingredient, will do the same job – but one is x11 more expensive than the other (and it’s even more expensive than the other when you add in a coffee for good measure and a caffeine hit).

But we know from experience, and from the profitability of big pharma, that there are some irrational forces at work here. We might know deep down that the product will do the same job, but risk our – or our child’s – health? It’s just not worth £5. We’ll do things that aren’t rational as we’re all driven by deep, underlying emotional needs and irrational drivers.

It’s a flippant example that’s been shared time and time again, and of course – like most examples, has holes in it. But it illustrates the point perfectly.

As marketers, it’s not enough to understand your customer. To get them to act in a certain way, we need to understand how they’re actually going to behave when faced with any choice or decision (ie a product to buy). If we’re predictably irrational, it follows that how we actually act isn’t always a reflection of how we say or think we’ll act.

How to use behavioural biases and nudges to improve your marketing results

Fast forward 15 years from Ariely’s book, and the idea of behavioural nudges and science is infiltrating the world of marketing.

And it’s easy to see why.

Knowing what people say they want is one thing, but ultimately we want them to act in a certain way – and this means knowing what they actually want – not just what they say they do.

So as marketers, we need to accept people are irrational, but predictably so. We need to understand what drives that irrational behaviour in that context, and then identify the hidden nudges and tricks we can use to encourage people to act, even when they might be thinking or saying something else.

In other words, harnessing the predictable irrationality of your audience.

In summary, this means:

1. Understanding your audience – and what you want them to do.

Recognising that we’re predictably irrational, and acknowledging that as a result we don’t always act in the way we think they will – no matter how compelling our proposition or idea might be!

2. Identifying the blocker or prevention to this behaviour – in other words, the challenge to overcome.

Getting under the skin to understand why we are irrational in a certain situation – be it familial concern, worry about health, social perceptions or otherwise. What is it that stops us acting in the rational way?

3. Deploying the right nudge in the right way at the right time.

Once we’ve identified the why, how do we overcome it? What tools, nudges, levers can we pull that will encourage behaviour in one way or another? There’s many we can choose from – as discussed in our recent webinar and social series on nudges – but the real power comes from knowing which to deploy and when.

4. Test. Test. Test.

The only way to really know if it’s working is to test – quickly and timely. Don’t wait until a campaign has run its course. Test as early as possible, learn, adapt and try again. Behaviour is fickle and the best impact is seen when we react and adapt.

Marketing is so often described as blending hearts and minds, art and science – and it’s true. Humans are fallible beings – we can’t predict, guarantee or assure that our audience react, respond or act in a certain way because of a prompt or a stimulus. But if we understand not just them, but their drivers and limitations, we can give ourselves a good chance of creating brilliant work that works.

You simply can’t get the answer without understanding both sides of the coin – the art and science – and there’s never an easy answer. But, in my opinion, that’s what makes it a such a wonderful and exciting industry to be a part of.

About the author: Victoria is the Strategy Director at CreativeRace, having previously been a Strategy Director at London-based Clear M&C Saatchi where she led strategic projects for large, global clients including Disney, Prudential, GSK. Prior to that she worked at a variety of brand strategy agencies including BrandCap and Kantar, as well as in management consulting at Deloitte.