Inside the Coke bubble: Lessons on how to influence behaviour

My first job after finishing university was with Coca-Cola Amatil. In those days the sugary concoction was often referred to as “black gold” and it was exciting to work for a brand that was a market, and marketing, leader.

My time inside the Coke bubble was instructional in many ways, but two lessons in particular have stayed with me throughout my career, and both relate to influencing behaviour.

1. Points of interruption

It’s difficult to remember now, but back in the 1990s soft drinks were confined to the soft drink aisle. No drinks in fridges near the checkout and no drinks next to frozen pizza.

Coke changed that. Employing their “six points of interruption”, Coke mapped out points in a supermarket where soft drinks could be positioned. In effect they were making it easy for their shopper to buy Coke (a) on impulse (“this shopping is making me thirsty”) and (b) according to occasion (“I guess I will need Coke when I cook my frozen pizza later tonight”).

Milk bars weren’t immune to the points of interruption either, with reminders to buy Coke starting on the pavement outside the shop and continuing right through to the register.

The lesson from Coke is you should map out the journey that your customer takes and insert yourself along the way. You’re probably already doing it online with Cookie-driven banners and pop-ups, but are you doing it offline too?

Behaviourally these points of interruption can work due to:

  • Familiarity bias or our tendency to prefer what is familiar. The more a brand is seen, the more familiar is becomes and more likely it ‘feels right’ to purchase; and
  • System 1 processing. We tend to be on System 1, quick-decisions autopilot most of the time, and follow the path of least resistance. If something I think I want is easy to access there and then, I will buy it. If I have to hunt for it I might not bother.

But before you implement your interruptions strategy, beware.

Interruptions shouldn’t be annoying. Ill-timed popovers on websites or telesales callers that won’t leave you alone are interruptions in the most negative sense, and will antagonise rather than seduce your customer. Take a lesson from Coke and design your “interruptions” to be subtle prompts rather than aggressive, self-serving interference.

2. Last three feet

The “last three feet” was the Coke way of describing the moment just prior to product selection. Imagine yourself in a supermarket aisle – the last three feet is when you are scanning the shelves contemplating which product to pick up and put in your trolley.

The last three feet can kill your conversion. An empty shelf in a retail environment is the clearest breach of getting this right. The sparkling TV ad and catalogue might have influenced customers to go to the shop and look for the product, but lax stock management thwarts the sale.

I conceptualise the last three feet as “micro-moments”: those seemingly insignificant moments within your process that can make or break conversion.

A micro-moment might be how your represent your pricing in an ad, the way you communicate loyalty program progress, what sort of Call-to-Action button you include on your website, or even how your team answers the phone.

A poignant example of micro-moments came from research into how ambulance phone operators in South Africa answered calls. By changing the script they were able to cut four seconds from the average call.

The last three feet/micro-moments requires you to manage two forms of tension emanating from Loss Aversion:

  • Positive tension: You need to make your customer feel anxious about not proceeding. What do they miss out on?
  • Negative tension: You need to mitigate anxiety about what it means to commit to the action. What risk do they face if they proceed, and how can you reduce this?

Syrup, water and sugar might have been the recipe for Coke, but interrupting the customer and getting the last three feet right were key ingredients in the product’s success.

While you might not drink the stuff, I certainly hope you drink in their lessons for how to influence behaviour.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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