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Steve Lister
Steve Lister 13 December 2018

How to tap into the subconscious processes behind impulse buying

It’s tempting to believe that us marketers wield influence over every choice a consumer ever makes. But the truth is, as many as 70% of these decisions are made on the spot at the point of sale.

Steve Lister
Steve Lister 13 December 2018

It’s tempting to believe that us marketers wield influence over every choice a consumer ever makes. But the truth is, as many as 70% of these decisions are made on the spot at the point of sale.


To help you get closer to your customers, KMMS Head of Retail Performance, Steve Lister reveals the cognitive influences behind impulse purchases.

The average UK adult spends almost £200 a month on a whim – that’s a whopping £144,000 in a lifetime. Or, put another way, every year capricious Brits fork out a staggering £21.7 billion on unplanned purchases.

I want it now

Products with a strong emotional reward – that’s things which make us happy or feel good – prove particularly irresistible. Typically this means goods that are pleasurable rather than sensible so, not surprisingly, confectionary, clothes and takeaway food top the list. But tech, toiletries and cosmetics are popular too.

Of course, these spontaneous buying decisions are influenced by a cocktail of cultural, social, environmental and psychological factors. The challenge for agencies and marketers is to understand what drives them – and how can we influence them.

Broadly, there are two main forces you can turn to your advantage.

1: Cognitive biases

No blog about the impulsive nature of humankind would be complete without delving into our most primal set of hard-wired preconceptions and behaviours – collectively known as cognitive biases.

Here are just four that can have a powerful influence on consumer decision making:

+ Bandwagon Effect or Social Proof

People like to conform to what is popular even if they have no rational reason to believe it is positive. Black Friday is a prime example: ‘I wasn’t thinking of getting this, but now must be a good time to buy one because everyone else is.’

+ Scarcity Bias

Sale must end soon! Only four left! Limited time offer! Yes! As unlikely as it sounds, these all play to our inherent belief that rare is valuable.

+ Framing and the Decoy Effect

To boost the sale of a product display a more expensive model next to it. Or offer three products – one which is cheaper but has relatively little value and a more expensive version which is obviously not as good value as the mid-tier product you actually want to shift. Not surprisingly, the middle option is usually the most popular.

+ Loss Aversion

Heard of FOMO? This is that. The classic BOGOF promotion is an example of our desire to avoid missing out on a great deal – even if you don’t need one of the item, let alone two.

2: Pre-attentive cognition

This covers the ways in which we subconsciously accumulate information from our environment. In store or online, we’re talking about the elements of design that register with a consumer before they consciously process any information.

+ The eyes have it

When your brain registers a stimulus, but before your eyes are consciously looking at it, you experience 3-5 seconds of pre-attentive vision. So while emotional triggers and cognitive biases are important, they’ll have no time to shine if your marketing doesn’t pass this test.

The good news is we all share the same pre-attentive processing pathways. So here are 5 triggers you can incorporate into your designs that are proven to attract attention.

Edges: Keep them sharp so you notice the contrast between one area and other.

Intensity: Use bold colours and eye catching textures.

Red/green contrast: Red stands out against green.

Blue/yellow contrast: Blue stands out against yellow.

Use faces: The brain naturally recognises human faces over other images. Use your assets to create eye-to-eye contact, or draw attention to your key message.

+ Seeing is believing

Visual Attentive Software (VAS) is a powerful web-based tool developed with sophisticated algorithms that can help make sure your marketing is making the most of these five triggers.

Are your key messages being seen? Which elements are being noticed? In what order? VAS can tell you all this and more – as well as give you bespoke advice for improving your assets.

We can help you act on impulse

Our in-house experts know how to use cognitive biases and pre-attentive cognition to your advantage. So why not get in touch today and we’ll be happy to tell you more about VAS (while stocks last).

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