ESP: Shaping the environment to influence your customer

ESP: Shaping the environment to influence your customer

There’s no mistaking when you are in an IKEA store, is there? You can’t help but feel a little Swedish as you follow the winding path through a 3D life-size version of their catalogue.

And that’s what today’s article is about: how you as a business shape the decision-making environment in order to influence your customers.

Last week I introduced the ESP framework for getting in the mind of your customers; how behaviour is shaped by the Environmental context, the impact of Social influence and Personal biases. Now let’s go deeper on environment and work out where your business can do better.

First impressions

You get a feel for a place as soon you enter, don’t you? You walk in the door and immediately sense whether it’s a place in which you want to spend any time. The same is true of websites – within a few seconds you have pretty much decided whether you want to stick around.

As a business, that means you need to pay close attention to the physical environment you are creating for your customers. If it feels “off” you’ll be losing business before you can even engage your prospect.

Some examples from market that illustrate the power of environmental context will probably be familiar to you:

  • With its garish yellow and black “hand-written” typeface, point of sale electronics retailer JB Hi-Fi primes customers to think everything is marked down. JB successfully gets customers to drop their guard, and if you are like me, you go there with a false sense of security that you will get the cheapest price.
  • In keeping with their product ethos, Apple stores are streamlined and the help comes to you. They’ve eliminated cash registers and formal queuing and work hard to make everything seem effortless. When you visit an Apple store you feel like the burden of decision-making has been lifted and that whatever advice is offered is sound. Suddenly, what you pay for solving your problem seems irrelevant.
  • IKEA have drummed into their market the low-cost for Swedish design, so when you are in-store you find adding low cost items to your cart psychologically painless. With their unique product range they have also inhibited the customer’s ability to compare value of items with competitors. And they sell meatballs.
  • Crown Hotels are (as my senses told me) using signature scent and music to create a mood – for gambling or relaxation, I’m not sure?

What behavioural science tells us

In behavioural terms we are talking about “priming” – evoking a subconscious reaction that influences behaviour. In effect, you are setting the mood for the customer’s brain to make decisions in your favour. 

Here’s just a sample of how changes in the environmental context have changed behaviour:

People consumed beer faster when drinking from a curved glass (Attwood, Scott-Samuel, Stothaul & Munafo 2012)

Larger popcorn boxes lead people to eat more, even though it was stale! (Wansink & Kim 2005)

Inserting a “stop sign” red-coloured Pringle meant that people were cued to think about how many chips they were consuming, and so ate less (Wansink, Geier & Rozin 2012)

Placing ice-cream behind opaque rather than clear glass reduced consumption (Wansink, Just & McKendry 2010)

Moving healthy food choices within easy reach and less healthy items out of direct line of sight has improved nutrition at school cafeterias in the US (Wansink, Just & McKendry 2010) and even at Google.

Presenting three options tends to result in the middle option being selected, the aptly termed “Goldilocks effect” (Rodway, Schepman & Lambert 2012)

Common amongst all these studies was how people were subconsciously influenced to behave in a certain way. It was not a matter of price, facts, information or logic.

Don’t think you don’t have to get this right

You might be thinking that you can skip this process and let your products or sales pitch stand on their merit. Wrong answer. Even when you think you are doing nothing you are doing something. Having a templated website or hastily cobbled together shop is still the environmental context you have created for your customers whether you meant it or not. Don’t think it doesn’t matter.

The answer is to be deliberate in the way you organise the experience for your customer. By no means is establishing the environmental context easy, but it is ultimately what can make or break your business.

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


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