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[Book Review] A Behavioral Science Road Map for Marketers

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Source:  Kogan Page

Data science and behavioral science have emerged as the twin pillars of marketing success in the twenty-first century. They have become, in essence, the yin and yang of consistent, high-performance marketing.

These disciplines are both essential because together they enable marketers to develop a more complete understanding of their customers and potential buyers. Data science (which includes the technologies that enable the collection and processing of data) can give marketers a rich picture of buyer behaviors. Behavioral science (primarily in the form of behavioral economics) provides a set of principles that enable marketers to better understand how people process information and make decisions. 

Data science has received a huge amount of attention in marketing circles over the past several years. For example, the use of artificial intelligence in marketing has recently been one of the hottest topics in the industry. The use of behavioral science in marketing has received somewhat less attention even though it has a longer history of use by marketers.

The reality is, marketers have been using principles of behavioral economics for years, albeit largely unwittingly. A 2010 article in McKinsey Quarterly put it this way:  “Long before behavioral economics had a name, marketers were using it. ‘Three for the price of two’ offers and extended-payment layaway plans became widespread because they worked – not because marketers had run scientific studies . . .”

A new book by Nancy Harhut – Using Behavioral Science in Marketing:  Drive Customer Action and Loyalty by Prompting Instinctive Responses (Kogan Page, 2022) – is a timely and much needed resource for marketers who want to leverage the power of human psychology in their marketing efforts.

Nancy Harhut is a seasoned marketing professional who has extensive experience with using behavioral science in marketing. In 2017, she cofounded HBT Marketing, a consultancy that specializes in applying principles of behavioral science to marketing. Prior to HBT, Nancy held senior creative management positions at several agencies, including Hill Holiday, Mullen and Digitas.

What’s In the Book

Nancy Harhut refers to Using Behavioral Science in Marketing as a “hands-on handbook,” and that is an apt description of her book. She clearly wrote Using Behavioral Science in Marketing primarily for hands-on marketing practitioners.

While Ms. Harhut provides clear and concise descriptions of the behavioral science principles covered in the book and includes ample citations to the research relating to those principles, her primary focus is on how marketers can apply those principles. She wrote, “In fact, you’ll find I go short on the scientific research and longer on the way to use it.”

Ms. Harhut devotes one chapter to an overview of the emotional and rational elements of human decision making. The remaining sixteen chapters discuss specific behavioral science principles that can be leveraged in marketing.

One of the strengths of the book is that it includes real-world examples and case studies in every chapter. Many chapters also include call-out boxes that describe “mistakes” that marketers can make by ignoring or misapplying behavioral science principles.

The book covers many of the most popular principles of behavioral science including loss aversion and the endowment effect (Chapter 2), the scarcity principle (Chapter 3), social proof (Chapter 5) and choice architecture and the status quo bias (Chapter 11).

However, Ms. Harhut also addresses principles that aren’t discussed as frequently in the popular behavioral science literature. These include the consistency principle and the Zeigarnik effect (Chapter 8), automatic compliance triggers (Chapter 13) and literary devices that can increase the impact of marketing messaging (Chapter 14).

My Take

Using Behavioral Science in Marketing is a great resource for marketers who want to incorporate principles of behavioral science in their marketing programs, and it’s a book that should be on every marketer’s reading list.

Nancy Harhut’s writing style is informal and engaging – which isn’t surprising given her professional background – and she does an admirable job of making a complex topic accessible to marketers. However, it’s vital for marketers to remember that while many behavioral science principles are relatively easy to understand, it takes skill and experience to use those principles effectively.

Ms. Harhut acknowledges this in the Introduction of the book. She describes the tactics discussed in the book as “easy to apply,” but she also writes:  “These are proven approaches that you can take to influence your targets’ decisions, to increase the likelihood they’ll do exactly what you want them to. No, there is no magic bullet that will work for everyone, every time. But by skillfully applying the principles of human behavior to your marketing messages, you can gain a competitive advantage.” (Emphasis added)

Human decision making is a complex phenomenon that encompasses multiple rational and non-rational elements. To achieve consistent marketing success, marketers must become adept at applying well-established principles of human psychology in their marketing efforts. Nancy Harhut’s book is a valuable resource for marketers who want to better understand the basics of human thinking and behavior.



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