Be a cheat to win


Thought piece:

Be a cheat to win

By Duncan Campbell, Senior Client Manager, Capture

The human brain is an ignoring machine. It’s fundamentally lazy and will do anything it can to make life easy for itself and not use too much energy. That’s not because it doesn’t want to think about things, it just has so many things to think about that it would take hours to perform a small task if it went through the taxing, rational process of imagining every scenario possible. So it simply tries to ignore as much as it can.

Imagine walking into a supermarket without knowing what food you’re going to have for that evening. Now, think how long it would take to consider every product in the shop to decide what you’ll have, before you eventually choose spaghetti bolognaise. Your brain needs to ignore almost all of the other products in order for you to make a relatively simple choice about your evening’s nourishment. It therefore resorts to automatic processes for filtering out this information, based on everything you’ve experienced in supermarkets previously: knowing what is food for dinner and therefore what is suitable, which aisles to avoid, which products you think are good quality etc.

Further to this automatic process, the brain needs to find answers to questions it doesn’t have experience of, in the fastest possible time. It takes shortcuts, it cheats, it does anything it can not to expend too much unnecessary energy. What should be very interesting to any marketer/brand manager is that you can become one of these cheats and bypass your competitors in a relatively simple fashion.

One of the most important of these to marketers is how the brain will automatically want to default to the easiest solution. In the store environment, one of the most common defaults is price. (Stephen Lomax, Weetabix). Supermarkets now have a whole range of complex messaging, from nutritional information, variations of the same product and multiple points of difference. If a shopper can’t tangibly decipher this they will typically default to promotions, or base cost, to make their decision. Not a great thing when you’re a cheese brand, not on promotion in a category where a high percentage of products are only purchased when on deal.

The idea of defaults has prompted numerous trials to measure its effects. One of the most well-known is the organ donation rate in Austria: compared to the UK, Austria has a donation rate of 90% versus the UK’s of c.15%. Why? Because Austria requires its citizens to opt-out of donating their kidneys when they die, as opposed to England who requires them to opt-in. The brain is happy to stick to the easier option of choosing the default, even in a situation as emotionally charged as donating pieces of your body. It’s powerful stuff.

This behaviour translates to when a shopper is buying a product. Brands have started to manipulate shoppers’ behaviour by becoming a default product. There are several ways in which they can do this: from the simple act of getting their products into a shopper’s online Favourites list, so it’s one of the first products they see when starting their shop, to the more advanced technique of subscription models where a shopper receives their product before they even have a chance to contemplate a competitor.

Gillette’s Shave Club is an excellent example of removing all competitors and becoming the default. They make the process simple by requiring a shopper to select their model, the retailer they’d like it delivered from and then letting them relax, as razors are delivered while they sit at home and make no further decisions. Perfect for the lazy brain and even better for Gillette who win the hard earned razor cash by only having to convince a shopper to subscribe once (maybe twice if they’ve needed to test the razor first). Graze have been doing a very similar thing in the snacking world for years, which works with equal effect.


Unsurprisingly, Amazon are at the vanguard of letting brands pay to become a default on their site with their Amazon Dash option. These physical default buttons are a good concept to help make a process of auto replenishment as easy as possible when the consumer is in the right mindset.  There are still some flaws in that having buttons placed around your home is unsightly and (ironically) not always practical – what happens when you can’t find your dash button at the bottom of the cleaning cupboard? Amazon have recently made these virtual so a shopper can have easy access to their defaults on any device which makes for quick, simple links to help their brains not work too hard. There’s still a way to go with this concept, but Amazon make it very easy for a brand to buy into becoming the default option.

To become a default isn’t an easy task: it requires hard work to get on default lists, or encourage shoppers to subscribe to your product, but the reward is well worth it. Playing to the human brain’s natural desire for ease will ensure they never want to think of any of your competitors: a genuine solution to that common problem of standing out in store.

Thank you to Richard Bradford of Wavemaker and WARC, for the talk that inspired this piece and for some of the examples listed.

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