One green bottle – that should have been amber

Imagine you are planning to launch a new non-alcoholic drink to the market and need to decide what colour the bottle should be. How do you make your decision?

In their recent presentation to a retail marketing forum, packaging experts Vivian Zurlo and Candice Dunn shared this real-life scenario.

To answer the question, their clients first turned to focus groups and had participants state whether they would prefer the drink in a green bottle or amber.

Green won hands-down because, the research subjects claimed, green signalled fresh and clean. But Candice and Vivian weren’t convinced.

Creating samples of the product in both green and amber bottles, they introduced them as options in a bar environment where people were making decisions in front of their friends. This time something changed. Candice and Vivian observed that the amber bottle was preferred.

What’s going on here? In a focus group people say one thing, but in real-life do another?

The Say vs Do Gap

As I’ve shared before, as a product manager in a past life I was consistently on the receiving end of research into what people said they’d do.

“If you do this, I’ll do that”.

But what they said they’d do rarely turned out to be the case. For Candice and Vivian, people said they’d prefer a green bottle but they actually chose amber.

It’s not that people in research necessarily lie, it’s because in artificial situations – like being asked by a researcher or survey what you’d do – our System 2 rational, slow-thinking, logic-driven brain answers the question. “A green bottle, thank you”.

When in our natural environment – like being in a pub – our System 1 fast, lazy and intuitive brain makes the decision. “I’ll take amber please”.

According to Vivian and Candice, people ordering a non-alcoholic drink in a pub in front of their mates preferred an amber bottle because they wanted to conform. They didn’t want their choice to stand out from the amber-bottled beers that their friends were consuming*. In behavioural terms, social norms were at play.

As the case of the bottles makes clear, understanding the behavioural biases and heuristics (mental short-cuts) that underpin decision-making means we are more likely to develop products and businesses that align with real rather than imagined behaviour, wasting less time and effort and bringing things to market that will succeed rather than fail.

If you are interested in finding out more about how behavioural economics can improve your business, join me for my webinar on Thursday. You’ll find the details here.

*If your first thought was that an amber bottle was obvious, Google “hindsight bias” because everything is obvious once it’s pointed out.

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


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