The bamboozling burrito offer

A friend sent through this cheeky picture of a sign for a burrito special, which read: ‘Buy one burrito for the price of two and get one free!’ Huh? Talk about putting a spin on your pricing…

With lashings of humour and a wink to the mysterious art of marketing, this offer provides a great opportunity to fill in the blanks with behavioural science and remind ourselves of two common principles:


1. We prefer things to be simple

We navigate our world on auto-pilot most of the time, making quick assessments of value based largely on rules of thumb (heuristics). Weightier wine bottles signal a better drop and 97% fat free is much healthier than 3% fat.

In this case, the offer deliberately trips up and interrupts the customer. After quickly scanning the ad you don’t know what you get, but it feels like it’s a good offer.  Your ‘system 1’ thinking that responds to fast information at a fairly superficial level will be salivating before your ‘system 2’ slow, rational thinking can even unravel what the message means.

The lesson is to appeal to the emotional, fast-thinking brain first – let the rational argument come later.

2. Free still makes us look

The most influential price point of all time is zero.  It can and does change behaviour, influencing many to switch their preferred choice to the free offer because it is perceived to eliminate any (financial) downside. Dan Ariely demonstrated it well with his study on how preference for chocolates reversed as soon as the lower quality truffle was offered for free.

The burrito sign is playing to our love of free, and even though rationally we know we are paying for it somewhere along the line, our impulse is to react favourably to the word ‘free’.

Like me, you probably think free has worn out its welcome and people are suffering free-fatigue.  Consumers have indeed become increasingly cynical as they realise that free can mean low quality and/or strings attached.

However, free remains an attention grabber that at least makes people look twice to see what is on offer.

So will this cheeky burrito sign drive sales? Two possible reactions spring to mind. One, people will find it confusing and/or insulting and will move on, or two, people will admire the cheek and check out the restaurant. Either way, the sign is at least provoking a reaction in a market crowded with messages.  So would you buy one burrito for the price of two and get one free?  Let me know.

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


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