ESP: Shaping the social context to influence customers

ESP: Shaping the social context to influence customers

One of my favourite ads is one that appeared in my gym for Rexona deodorant. “Do you sweat more than normal?” it asks. And with that, my need to be normal and accepted was triggered. 


Figure 1. Rexona ad

Following on from last week’s discussion of the E in customer ESP, how the environment you create for your customer can impact how they behave, let’s now look at S for Social Context, how what other people do impacts your customer and why Rexona was on to something.

Social norms

When faced by an unfamiliar situation, people look around and try to work out “What is the normal behaviour here?” The desire to conform – at least until we understand the situation – is strong. We wear clothes that are similar to those with whom we associate, use the language of our tribe (including horrendous work jargon) and buy products that others have recommended.

For businesses, the smart thing to do is use cues about social norms to help your customer believe that doing business with you is the normal behaviour. Things like “best seller” or “most popular” are useful signals.

However, before you race out and apply social norms you should read my article about two traps marketers fall into, specifically normalising the wrong behaviour (e.g. insurance companies incorrectly normalise the fact most of us are under-insured and superannuation companies normalise our disinterest) and/or undermining your proposition by using negative social proof (i.e. using a number that is less impressive than you think).


An interesting counterpoint to social norms is that we all believe we are unique and want to be treated as such. By extension, although we might be influenced what other people do, we don’t necessarily want to own up to that fact. Ask someone why they bought a luxury car and you are likely to get answers around performance and safety, not the fact that most of their neighbours have them. This means you should not explicitly remind your customers that they have been influenced by other people – they will likely deny it (because it happens subconsciously) and get shirty with you.

We’ve all heard that customers hate being treated like a number, and now you know that it’s because it insults their sense of uniqueness. Calling them by name, remembering their favourite coffee, starting your newsletter with a personal salutation and tailoring your product to their specific needs are ways to support the customer’s desire to be recognised as an individual.


There’s a reason the ex-governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Bernie Fraser, was employed to front ads for AustralianSuper and the Ponds Institute parades actors in lab coats – to signal authority. When uncertain, your customers may be persuaded by an authority figure – someone who can serve as a proxy to convey trust and assurance that the decision will be a good one. 

Likewise, consider the use of awards, industry associations and affiliations and (reputable) media appearances as authoritative cues to signal your credibility. Kickstarter, for example, showcase which media outlets have been talking about them so that new customers will feel less anxious about engaging with them.

Figure 2. Kickstarter showcasing media coverage

Applying the social context

The social context is something that is easy to overlook when thinking about your business. We often talk about consumers v customers and buyers v influencers, but this is typecasting the role people play in the purchase rather than how we must establish a social context that supports a decision in our favour. 

Start from the position that your customers will be influenced to some extent by what they think other people do and grab hold of the opportunity to design how this information is imparted. 

Next week we round out the environmental and social contexts of customer ESP by looking at how personal biases impact customer decisions.

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



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