TRA Journal

Changing buying behaviour - is education the answer?

Greg Sampson

When John Nash passed away last year, Russell Crowe said of him ‘he could look at a row of figures and just know the answer’. Amongst other things, this exceedingly rare skill, made Nash the worthy subject of a Hollywood movie. For the rest of us mere mortals we must work to solve all but the most basic maths problems. And even when we do put in the effort, it seems some of us are not good at it.

A recent study by Ehrenberg Bass showed that 23% of Australian shoppers could not correctly identify which was the best deal amongst a number of common discounts you might come across in a typical supermarket. This number rose to 60% of those with low levels of literacy – a disturbing level to be sure. In the financial interests of these people, education is offered up as the solution. But will this really make a difference to peoples’ finances?

Most people would likely agree that good education is one of the most important investments we can make personally and as a society. In this case, however, teaching people to do the maths correctly is unlikely to deliver the desired outcome. It simply does not align with how we behave.

Even if we can work out the cheapest deal for the category we want to buy from, we are unlikely to go through the process of comparing our options. The vast majority of all decisions we make (up to 95% by some estimates) are automatic, unconscious and largely habitual. Unlike Nash, who had a strong interest in numbers and maths, we simply do not apply the cognitive effort required to work out the answer.

Grocery shopping in particular is one of those activities that relies heavily on automatic and habitual decision making. In a recent piece of shopping research, we observed in one particular category most people making a selection without any consideration at all. Their decisions were driven by habit and largely automatic decision making.

The ‘education trap’ is one that marketers can fall in to. Many marketers feel that if they could get people to understand better a key element of their brand this would differentiate it in the mind of consumers. That differentiation, when meaningful to a shopper, will change behaviour in the brand’s favour. But, the automatic, unconscious, habitual nature of our decision making will most likely override even the best education attempts. Indeed, as Ehrenberg Bass themselves have shown, on average only about 10% of the buyers in a wide range of categories think the brand they buy is different to other brands.    

Marketers need to focus more closely on elements that work with the way people behave and shop. This means focusing on two key areas. Strongly and unconsciously associating with the category in peoples’ minds, e.g. easy family dinner equals Old El Paso or breath freshening equals Extra. And being easily available and recognisable where people buy e.g. a yellow box with red tiled roof punching out in the meals aisle or a green ellipse attracting attention at the checkout counter.