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Play to norms




About DJC

The older I get, the less I know and the more inquisitive I get.

Unfortunately, despite a lifelong search, most of the answers elude me. That said, I love to ask the questions and fuel the debates that will ultimately lead us all to a better understanding of the big issues in life, the universe and everything.

They say that we spend 98% of our lives in our head. I for one would like to use that time as effectively as possible.


Consumers are attracted to what they see as the norm.

There was a fascinating experiment completed in the United States in 2015 by a group of behavioural economists. It dealt with the consumer response to norms, and how this response might impact on purchase decisions. This same experiment has since been replicated with similar results.

An experiment using hotel towels threw up some very interesting results.

An experiment using hotel towels threw up some very interesting results. Pic: iStock

The experiment in question was undertaken in a hotel chain. In the first of two samples, people having checked in and entered their bathroom were confronted with a sign that read "to save water and help the environment, please recycle your towels". The second sample saw a sign reading "80% of our customers recycle their towels".

From the first group, some 30% of patrons recycled their towels.

From sample two, some 60% of patrons recycled their towels.

Some may suggest that this demonstrates that patrons of this hotel chain do not care about water or the environment. Perhaps they don’t. Other similar experiments, however, have led researchers to the conclusion that the second group was more likely to recycle their towels because they believed it was the norm. They wanted, consciously or otherwise, to behave in a manner consistent with other people.

Perhaps more importantly, they did not want to be seen to be behaving in a manner inconsistent with that of the majority of patrons. They did not want to appear to be out of step.

This effect has also been identified in retail environments. Seeing another customer looking at, or buying, a new product or brand significantly impacts the likelihood of a new customer studying a product or making a purchase. The same range of products was tested, with sample one seeing no one else viewing the product while sample two saw someone else viewing the product. Subjects in the second group were significantly more likely to make a purchase.

We all like to think we are individuals, but we are, in fact, sheep. To appreciate this, you need only look at the dress worn by teenagers – all of who look the same – and all of whom think they look distinctive. The same is true of other fashion conscious groups. They consciously, or otherwise, want to look similar.

Consumers are naturally attracted to the norm. Most human beings want to behave in a manner consistent with that of the majority of people in their world and, in particular, the people in their world that they respect.

Yes, we are sheep. We like to be like everyone else and to be seen as normal.

While it may not always help to suggest to people that they are sheep, or that they should behave like sheep – it is important to appeal to this instinct.

In the case of the hotel experiment, the researchers actually created a norm that people could respond to. They created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Appeal to the need most consumers have to be seen as normal. Use perceptions of the norm to influence behaviour. Create a new norm if you need to.

  • Marketing is the business of managing human behaviour to achieve behavioural outcomes that facilitate commercial objectives. As such, marketing cost-efficiency cannot occur without an understanding of ‘how’ and ‘why’ consumers do what they do. This series of articles will provide helpful insights into how consumers think and respond.
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