Why These Cognitive Biases Are The Foundation Of Marketing

Everyone makes bad decisions, but did you know we may be the victim of our own cognitive biases? What’s worse, marketers know this and use this knowledge to influence.

The human mind is amazing. Our mastery over tools, fire and language have allowed us to reach our evolutionary apex.

But our monkey brains were not designed for life in modern society and urban centers. And there are still many mental imprints that remain from our tribal, nomadic, pre-societal past. 

Some of these imprints are our cognitive biases — a systematic and predictable digression from rationalism and logic based on our perception of the information received. These cognitive biases largely serve detriment to us today – arising out of our brain’s processing limits.

Rhetorical techniques such as the rule of three work because our cognitive load is too limited to process more than 3 “chunks” of information.

Unfortunately, we are especially perceptible to logical fallacies and cognitive biases, something marketing firms love to exploit.

Fortunately, we’ve compiled our list of the top 10 most commonly used cognitive biases used in marketing to make you cognizant of these sneaky marketing techniques.

Stay with us as we break down each cognitive bias and explore how they’re used, why it’s effective and how you can (ethically) incorporate it into your own marketing and content.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

What Is A Cognitive Bias? 

Cognitive biases describe the irrational errors of human decision making.

If you’re a marketer of any kind, you need to become aware of the existence of these cognitive biases to take advantage of this knowledge for your future ads and campaigns.  

Let us explain further.

Cognitive bias explained 

A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from rationality, which occurs due to the way our cognitive system works.

Cognitive biases cause us to be irrational in the way we make decisions and search for, evaluate, interpret, use, judge and remember information.


Types Of Cognitive Biases

A few seemingly innocent tactics can significantly influence the choices that consumers make.

Here are a few you can note down to use in your strategy. 

RBC leverages the fact of their many years of operation to attract customers.
1. Conservatism bias

A lot of trust is placed into things that seem to last the test of time and tend to regard new information with dubious doubt. Ever wonder why pseudoscience still persists despite it having been debunked?

Set in our ways, one of the cognitive biases we have is to cling to tradition. We have difficulty changing our beliefs when presented with contrary evidence.

Companies have been leveraging this bias to build their brand’s trust. Marketers convince consumers to stick with their brand as it by presenting it as a trusted “for over 25 years,” for example.

In times of uncertainty, we privilege old information in favour of the unknown, a stance that many stocks traders support.

Banks and financial institutions are some of the biggest proponents of leveraging tradition and familiarity of their brand to keep customers for the long-term. 

For example, The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in the above example reminds website visitors that they have been operating for “more than a century.”

This might be enough to persuade consumers to stay with RBC even if there are better institutions they can bank with.  

New information is slow on the uptake and disregarded in favour of being set in our ways. Use this to your advantage by highlighting the permanency of your brand and its history.

In product showcases, utilize long-standing articles that support your claims to build trust and authenticity.

Casper offers an easy-return policy plus a free trial to entice customers.
2. The endowment effect

As a species, we are inherently geared towards loss aversion. The endowment effects strengthens this cognitive bias by making us appreciate the things that we already own more than things that we don’t.

A behavioral study published in 1990 presented a group of students with mugs and another group without them before being offered the opportunity to trade it for chocolate or choosing between the chocolate or a mug, respectively.

The students who didn’t receive a mug were ambivalent with their choices, with 56 percent choosing the mug and 44 percent choosing the chocolate.

On the other hand, 89 percent of the students who received a mug chose to keep the mug.  

Once we have ownership or even partial ownership of a product or service, we begin to overestimate its value and become attached to it.

Free trials, samples and coupons exploit our cognitive biases to great effect. The above example from Casper mattresses offers an irresistible offer of a trial where you can return your mattress and even receive a courier who will pack it back up for you on return. 

L’Occitane has taken care that their visual design is emblematic of their brand and provides a great shopping experience for visitors.
3. Salience bias

Humans haven’t always stood at the precipice of evolution. Life before civilized society was wrought with predators and other existential threats.

It’s no surprise then that we hone in on information that stands out to us while disregarding everything else.

The salience bias may have helped us identify predators in the past, but now it just makes us perceptible to flashy, eye catching advertisements.

This hyper-focus on conspicuous information can become a problem for us as consumers.

It causes us to ignore objective information for information that is more visible, affecting our judgement in the process. 

A meta analysis on the effects of a national Anti-Drug media campaign on youth showed that marijuana consumption actually rose. How? It made the drug more readily visible and gave off the impression that other youth were consuming it too (here’s looking at you, bandwagon effect).

To capitalize on this cognitive gap, pepper your content with distinctive product placements and testimonials.

L’Occitane’s website displays their products in an aesthetically pleasing way. Their products are front and center; photographed to highlight their features and allow them to visually pop on screen. 

The colours and overall visual design of the page speaks not only to their products, but their brand as well – care is taken to ensure that each element of visual design, including but not limited to their graphic design and colour choice, is emblematic of their brand. 

Ensure that your content and your user experience is visually and aesthetically appealing. Centre the focus around your brand or product.

Fetch Eyewear completely eliminates a risk for consumers with their offer to pick 5 frames over 5 days.
4. Zero-risk bias

The future is uncertain and certainty is something that we love. The zero-risk bias flirts with our desires by making us more susceptible to options which eliminate risk completely over a larger reduction in harm.

Consider the rise in popularity of gluten-free diets despite only 1.4 percent of the population worldwide having Celiac’s disease. Gluten is more than safe to consume for those without Celiac’s disease.

But that doesn’t stop consumers from avoiding the (harmless) risk by paying premium prices for gluten free food options.

Fetch Eyewear offers a trial where customers can select 5 frames, try them on at home, and return them for free when they’re done trying them on.

This eliminates any risk on the consumer’s part – the most troubling thing about purchasing frames online is the inability to see how they look on your face.

Through this trial, Fetch Eyewear is able to completely eliminate any and all risks associated with purchasing one of their frames. 

People pay high costs to completely eliminate a risk. Utilize this to your advantage by offering trial programs or money back guarantees – get them onboard and then charm them into staying!

The North Face have created an athlete hub on their website to attract their target customer interested in the adventurer, athlete and explorer lifestyle.
5. In-group favouritism

Humans are social animals. Belonging to a social group is essential for our self-esteem, identity, and sense of belonging. It comes as no surprise then, that we generally favor the input and decisions of those we deem to hold similar beliefs or who’re a part of our social circle.

Rugged brands such as The North Face and Arcteryx have created a brand image of people living an active, explorer lifestyle. They market their products so consumers can feel like they’re joining a larger community of like-minded individuals.

Forming a group identity centered around your brand encourages your client base to make purchasing decisions which resonate with their inclusion in your community. 

Take The North Face that has created a “Global Athlete Team” and recognizes some of the greatest in skiers, snowboarders, runners, hikers and climbers as listed on their website. Here they’re making a connection between accomplished athletes and the customer who dreams of becoming an explorer or adventurer like them.

The North Face products, and the consumer who believes subconsciously if they buy their products, they might get a piece of the adventurer lifestyle.  

Identity is important – make sure your brand’s identity is clear and authentic to attract and retain more customers.

Once you figure out what your client bases’ core values and identity, it becomes possible to create a marketing strategy specifically designed to engage with them.

Tag Heuer uses the influence of actor Chris Hemsworth to promote their product.
6. Authority bias

From the early days of our childhood, we’ve been conditioned to obey the authority of our caretakers for their wisdom and advice. Now as adults, this cognitive bias is difficult to shake – authority figures are now police, managers and celebrities.

A famous social psychology experiment enacted in the 1950s, known today as the “Milgram Experiment,” had its participants apply increasingly severe electric shocks at the discretion of an authority figure to an actor who faked sounds of pain.

The participants listened to progressively degenerating increasing cries of pain and lethality as they delivered each shock.

The results? An overwhelming majority of participants continued to follow the authority figure’s instructions of delivering the shocks.

This exhibits the power of an authority figure, no matter the consequences.

So, if you’re wondering how this ties in to marketing, celebrity endorsements are a tried and true method of appealing to authority, leading to increased sales as well as brand awareness.

Tag Heuer’s employment of superhero actor, Chris Hemsworth, is a prolific example of this practice in use. Although not an authority on swiss watches, Hemsworth nonetheless wields an immense amount of influence through his ubiquity as an actor. 

If celebrities aren’t your thing, then customer testimonials, empirical facts and influencer/affiliate marketing are great methods to impart an air of authority to your brand.

TenTree aims to be transparent regarding their manufacturing process.
7. Genetic bias

Today, “natural” is more commonly used as a marketing buzzword than an actual indicator of a product’s spatial or genetic origins. 

Despite exhibiting “no toxicity, in one generation or across many,” a large cohort of consumers still look upon GMOs dubiously.

Another callback to our early hunter-gatherer days when food was more of a discerning matter, this cognitive bias assumes that what is “natural” is inherently good.

The global organic food and beverages market is  valued at 77.4 billion USD in 2017. And its forecasted to grow alongside the likes of alternative herbal remedies and other “natural” holistic medicines.

Since natural and organic are concepts that have been twisted, you can utilize green and natural imagery in your marketing strategy.

TenTree’s transparency regarding their manufacturing process and how each factory is in line with social compliance is a good example.

In addition to this practice, TenTree also commits to planting a tree every time one of their products is purchased.

Environmentally conscious consumers can feel good about their purchase knowing that their ecological footprint is minimized and that the company will plant a tree in their stead.

Commit to a sustainable and environmentally friendly manufacturing process. This will better align your brand with your customer’s identity and values, if that’s the audience you’re seeking.

ASUS features clear, succinct copy that is free of jargon.
8. Curse of knowledge

Once we become knowledgeable about a certain area or subject, we tend to forget about the gaps of knowledge we had to bridge on our learning journey. 

We take our knowledge for granted and mistakenly believe that it is commonplace – assuming everyone will understand us. This cognitive bias is aptly named the “curse of knowledge.”

This bias affects us all. But it’s particularly problematic in writing because, unlike being face-to-face, readers can’t ask questions and creators can’t gauge people’s reactions. The bias might surface in web landing pages, blog articles, a newsletter, a marketing email…

Take Asus’s product page for example; despite the technical nature of their products, tech-heavy language is either omitted or supplemented with a short, descriptive sentence.

The language is kept plain, and most importantly remains simple enough for the average customer, technologically literate or not, to understand the product and make a purchase. 

Often times, the use of industry-specific lingo and other niche colloquial terms can serve to alienate and confuse your customers.

Take care to be more general and simple in your language to appear as more open, inviting, and engaging with your client base.

That means no acronyms, wordy verbage or technical jargon. 

Best Buy uses the hyperbolic discounting bias presenting immediate benefits to their customer in their campaigns.
9. Hyperbolic discounting 

Food, shelter and water – the necessities of day-to-day life that were once so hard to secure now come to us in abundance, but that doesn’t mean that our brains have adjusted to this change. 

Dialing back again to our pre-societal ancestry, the hyperbolic discounting bias makes us privy to resources or scenarios that have immediate benefits or payoffs over increased long-term gains.

A study conducted in 1967 finds evidence to support the idea that when exposed to two positive results, people tend to prefer the immediate gains over the delayed gains, despite the delay yielding more benefits. 

In the study, a large proportion of test subjects preferred to receive $50 immediately instead of $100 in 6 months.

Many companies capitalize on the consumer’s preference for instant gratification over delayed gratification, stressing the immediate tangible benefits and instilling a sense of urgency to drive a sale. 

For example, Best Buy offers promotional and discounted financing plans to obtain a product immediately over saving and receiving it later. 

Utilize the hyperbolic discounting bias in your marketing campaigns by presenting immediate benefits to your customer if they end up converting.

Providing free-shipping or an immediate 10 percent discount on purchases made in that session is effective in influencing visitors to commit. 

Use the right paid media channels and promote your content in ways never before. Check out our guide on How To Start A Paid Media Campaign For eCommerce Growth.” 

Sephora incentivizes their customers offering free samples or trial sizes in a hard-to-resist offer.
10. Framing bias

How we’re presented with information has a direct influence on how we interpret it.

How positively or negatively we react to new information is dependent on how it’s “framed” when being presented to us. This psychology of framing is exploited everywhere from news to business, even our own morality.

A study conducted in 1981 asked participants to choose between 2 hypothetical treatments for a lethal disease, which were presented either positively or negatively.

The treatment which “saved” people was chosen by 72 percent of participants. The same choice presented negatively was chosen by 22 percent.

The framing bias is most prominently used in purchase incentivization. Two choices will be presented, with one being noticeably worse than the other to to push customers the higher-priced product.

Sephora emulates this practice well – each $25 or $35 purchase comes with free products and offers that lets customers both try new products before purchasing and makes their purchase feels more valuable.

In addition to these free offers, Sephora offers an additional 2 free samples with any purchase and offers free returns on top of that. 

Try offering free-shipping or a buy-one-get-one promotion once a customer reaches a price threshold. You’re framing their purchase as positive and loss-free.

Key Takeaways On Cognitive Biases In Marketing

Knowing is only half the battle. Being cognizant of these biases will help you identify how they’re utilized against you to sell you products and services. 

But correctly leveraging them in your own marketing campaigns can prove to be an entirely different struggle. 

Below are our 3 key takeaways on how you can start executing this marketing trick to gain more leads and improve your conversion rate!

  • Proper usage: For the most part, cognitive biases are also logical fallacies — pitfalls that take advantage of our lapse in logic and rationality. Incorrectly leveraging cognitive biases can only serve to alienate your client base and damage your brand. Utilizing these biases requires a degree of mastery over your content. It also means master over your brand/product, so be sure to know your audience as well as yourself.

  • Subtlety: Unless your marketing is funny, no consumer wants to feel like they’re being  manipulated. Consumers are smart and nobody wants to be taken for a fool. Subtlety is the name of the game when it comes to the effective use of these cognitive biases.

  • Writing well: If you’re going to be leveraging fallacious logic in your marketing, knowing how to effectively incorporate them into your marketing strategy is as important as using them properly.

Rhetorical techniques, figurative language, and the use of humor are essential to properly “sell” your cognitive bias based pitch. Luckily, we composed a guide on how to write better which you can check out. 

Stay tuned to our blog for more marketing tips and tricks. 

Written By Vincent Lee

The Managing Editor at Advesa, Vincent is a mechanical keyboard enthusiast, a lover of cats, and a purveyor of fine roasted matcha teas. When not writing, he enjoys exercising and biking around his beautiful hometown of Vancouver. He is also a strong supporter of the oxford comma.