Mar­ket­ing expert Nick Kolen­da breaks down some psy­cho­log­i­cal tricks.

5 min read

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As a mar­keter, I love test­ing things to see what will increase sales. The head­lines, the copy, the imagery. But when it comes to a product’s pric­ing page, I use the same strat­e­gy as when I’m dri­ving a car: If nobody is scream­ing at me, it’s prob­a­bly all fine.  But that’s a mis­take. A com­mon rea­son peo­ple don’t buy things is the price. So what if you could use psy­chol­o­gy to change how peo­ple per­ceive it?

Luck­i­ly, mar­ket­ing expert Nick Kolen­da is obses­sive about psy­chol­o­gy and has been research­ing just that. He’s writ­ten books on per­sua­sion and the psy­chol­o­gy of mar­ket­ing. His lat­est title, The Tan­gled Mind, explores how humans learn and how mar­keters can use that knowl­edge for per­sua­sion.

“The first thing you need to know,” he explained to me in a recent inter­view, “is that humans learn by asso­ci­a­tion. Every con­cept that you under­stand, you’ve built on top of an ear­li­er con­cept.” 

Kolen­da elab­o­rat­ed that we humans learn con­cepts about how to inter­act with phys­i­cal objects when we’re chil­dren, but then apply them, false­ly, to buy­ing things online. And when mar­keters know them, they can affect your per­cep­tion of price. Here, along with Kolen­da’s insights, are four such con­cepts. 

Relat­ed: 5 Strate­gies of ‘Pyscho­log­i­cal Pric­ing’

Concept 1: Size

One of the first con­cepts an infant learns is that large objects are more impor­tant than small ones. Adults are big­ger than us, and they set the rules. Cars are dan­ger­ous, and they are huge. Firetrucks are the biggest, coolest vehi­cle ever, and they are gigan­tic. Then we grow up.

Even if we stop lov­ing firetrucks (I haven’t), we still car­ry with us that ear­ly asso­ci­a­tion: Big­ger is more impor­tant. That idea is so ingrained that we apply it to abstract con­cepts like prices. “Most prices we see dai­ly are pix­els on a screen, but we still apply the same asso­ci­a­tion,” says Kolen­da. “Researchers have shown in stud­ies that a phys­i­cal­ly small­er price, in font size, is per­ceived as cheap­er than if the font size was large.”

Concept 2: Weight

When we are small, adults lift us. When we grow to be too heavy, they stop. When we’re pack­ing a shop­ping cart or car trunk, we put the heav­ier stuff at the bot­tom. Our brain forms a sim­plis­tic asso­ci­a­tion. Light things rise, heavy stuff falls. Although sim­ple, the asso­ci­a­tion is strong. It warps our per­cep­tion in oth­er areas — even pho­tos of food.

Kolen­da points to a study from Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mia­mi, which showed that when a prod­uct image is placed at the bot­tom of food pack­ag­ing, we assume the food itself is heav­ier. When the image is placed at the top, we believe the food is actu­al­ly lighter.We do the same with pric­ing, too. On a price tag, the clos­er the num­bers are to the bot­tom, the heav­ier and more expen­sive we per­ceive the price to be.

Concept 3: Proximity Association

As humans, we learn that items grouped are sim­i­lar. Maybe they are from the same tribe. It also means when images are close togeth­er online, we fuse the ideas; we asso­ciate them. It’s like how fast-food chains dress the beef burg­ers in ads. Crispy let­tuce and ripe toma­toes cas­cade from the pat­ty in the hope we asso­ciate the whole thing as fresh.  

Kolen­da explains how researchers took an image of an inline skate and test­ed dif­fer­ent text next to it to judge if the effect worked with pric­ing. “Some descrip­tions empha­sized a ‘low fric­tion’ ben­e­fit,” he recounts. “Oth­er descrip­tions empha­sized a ‘high per­for­mance’ ben­e­fit. What they found was the price of an inline skate seemed low­er when it appeared next to the ben­e­fit ‘low fric­tion’ because peo­ple merged the con­cept of ‘low’ with the price.”

Concept 4: Motion

Which col­lege would you pre­fer to go to? One whose rank­ing rose from sixth to fourth or anoth­er that dropped from sec­ond to fourth? Most peo­ple would go with the col­lege whose rank­ing improved, regard­less of the fact both col­leges are now fourth. The rea­son is that we apply a con­cept we learned in the real world, i.e. momen­tum, to the abstract world. We like a col­lege that is on the rise because our brains were trained in the phys­i­cal world, and we expect that col­lege to keep ris­ing, despite no evi­dence as to why we should think that. 

It works with pric­ing, too. As Kolen­da puts it, when “a high price trans­forms into a low­er price” — like when stores cross out the orig­i­nal price and write in a dis­count­ed one — “then peo­ple con­cep­tu­al­ize this change as a motion of reduc­tion.” Then our phys­i­cal train­ing kicks in. Our brains per­ceive the pric­ing on the screen to have momen­tum, and even if we for­get the actu­al price, we’ll remem­ber that it was great val­ue. “Like the col­lege study,” Kolen­da observes, “the final price — because of the inher­ent momen­tum — will seem even low­er.”

As we learn, our brains cre­ate chains of men­tal asso­ci­a­tions — vivid men­tal pic­tures. The world’s best mar­keters are the ones who mas­ter the abil­i­ty to trig­ger­ing those asso­ci­a­tions from the past and the pos­i­tive emo­tions that go with them. Not all these con­cepts will work to increase sales in every cir­cum­stance, but not exper­i­ment­ing with visu­al asso­ci­a­tions is a car crash wait­ing to hap­pen. 



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