Behavioral Science & the Agnostic Shopper

Several weeks ago, I wrote an article called “Advocates, Antagonists and Agnostics,” which spoke to the importance of facilitating action (among those open to our arguments), rather than wasting energy trying to persuade those who were not.  Given the upcoming U.S. Presidential election, I used the example of voting.  I’d envisioned that this simple framework could be applied to advocacy of all kinds (regarding the environment, diversity/inclusion, inequality, etc.).  However, I hadn’t anticipated that many readers would find it relevant to their marketing challenges. 

As it turns out, I’ve spent most of my career in Shopper Insights, primarily supporting consumer goods marketers.  From this experience, I can confirm that there are indeed many “Agnostic” shoppers out there, both in-store and online. I’m not speaking of “brand switchers” in the traditional sense.  Instead, I’m referring to shoppers who simply don’t want to invest a great deal of time and energy into deciding which toothpaste, detergent or orange juice to buy.  These people can’t be bothered to comparison shop – and thus, they typically “default to the familiar,” even though they are not emotionally attached to their current brand.

When marketers try to attract these Agnostics, they often fall into the same traps made by politicians and social advocates.  Their first instinct is to try make these people “care more” about their brand choice – and to persuade them (with new features, claims and benefits).  These efforts are well-intentioned – and to be fair, some brands have created clear superiority (in quality, taste, efficacy, etc.) relative to their competitors.  But there’s clearly a limit to this approach, among shoppers who won’t spend more than a few seconds making their decisions.    

So how can we impact the decisions of these time-pressured and unengaged “Agnostics”?

One answer lies in focusing less on traditional marketing – and more on behavior change.  Here, I find a modified version of the Behavioral Insights Team’s EAST framework to be quite compelling:

BIT’s EAST Framework. If you want someone to do something, make it: Easy. Attractive. Timely. Social. © The Behavioural Insights Team.

“E” is for Easy

The reason that most Agnostics stay “loyal” to their brand is because it’s the easiest decision to make.  Sticking with the familiar involves no perceived risk – and very limited cognitive effort.  To break this cycle, competing marketers need to find ways to make their brand even easier.  Depending on the category, this can involve making it easier to shop (via fewer varieties, cleaner/simpler pack graphics, etc.) – or perhaps making it easier to use (via product or pack design).

And certainly, one look at the toothpaste aisle speaks to the opportunity to make shopping a bit easier!


“A” is for Attractive (Amusing)

Here, I might substitute “Fun” (or perhaps Amusing, if we stay faithful to the acronym.)  Marketers may have limited time to make rational appeals to Agnostics, but they can make them smile, by adding a bit of style or fun to an everyday product.   Something small and unexpected can turn a mundane product or experience into a positive emotional connection.  My long-time personal favorite is L’Oréal Children’s Shampoo, which makes me smile with clever pack design.  

“S” is for Social (Salient)

In a shopping context, I’d instead emphasize Salience. When not defaulting to their familiar brand, Agnostic shoppers are quite likely to purchase the first “acceptable” brand they see.  In fact, across hundreds of eye-tracking studies at PRS IN VIVO, we found a strong positive correlation between visibility and purchase, in both physical and digital contexts.  Thus, shelf visibility, search engine optimization and mental availability are all critical.  In fact, increased salience is more likely (than new features, benefits and claims) to drive sales.    

Eye-tracking research has consistently confirmed the importance of visual salience (“unseen is unsold.”)

“T” is for Timely

Marketers clearly have a very narrow window of opportunity to influence Agnostic shoppers.  But they do have more tools (and data) available than ever before, which should allow them to send timely messages at the exact moment of decision.  To do this successfully, it’s important to focus on a very specific shopping behavior change. Often, marketers focus on brand selection. Yet in some cases, the more realistic or profitable opportunity may be to drive trade-up, incremental or bundled purchases. Understanding this dynamic – and continually “testing and learning” with alternative messages – is the key to developing effective small interventions (“nudges”) to influence shopper behavior, in store or online.

Mobile devices are powerful vehicle for timely “nudges,” but the messages must be short and precise.

A Change in Mindset 

Certainly, there are more extensive, sophisticated frameworks – including the BVA Nudge Consulting’s Drivers of Influence – to help marketers apply Behavioral Science to understand and influence shopper behavior. But the starting point lies in recognizing that Agnostic shoppers are inherently less engaged – and less likely to respond to rational arguments, rooted in claims, features, and benefits.  Thus, marketers need to change their own mindsets.  They need to think less about changing shoppers’ minds (via persuasion) – and more about changing their behaviors (via Behavioral Science).  In a world of time-pressed Agnostic shoppers, those who make their brands Easier, more Amusing, Salient, and Timely are likely to be well-rewarded.

Scott Young is the Senior Vice President of  BVA Nudge Consulting, a global consultancy specialized in driving successful behavioral change.  Scott transitioned to this role after 20+ years leading Perception Research Services (and later PRS IN VIVO), a top-25 global insights agency.  Scott is passionate about finding “win-win-win” opportunities (that benefit companies, consumers and society) – and in applying behavioral science to help individuals and organizations make better decisions and adopt more sustainable habits.