"The emotional tail wags the rational dog."
- Jonathan Haidt, Social Psychologist

As marketers and advertisers, our job is to make connections, sell brands, products, services, and experiences – but to do this, we must understand how to make our work impact the world. The biggest hurdles we must overcome to making this impact stem from four universal facts:

  1. People are resistant to change

  2. Human behavior is hard to influence

  3. Emotions often override rational decisions

  4. Our efforts are always subject to external forces


There is a solution to the problem: If we want to foster behavioral change, we must use an approach that merges psychological science, human understanding, and creative persuasion. The strongest and best solution combines Consumer Psychology, Behavioral Economics, and Experiential Messaging.

consumer psychology

Consumer psychology in marketing and advertising began with the pioneering work of John B. Watson and Walter Dill Scott over 100 years ago. Watson and Scott's psychological research revealed that understanding human wants, needs, and desires enables us to craft messaging that can create desire. This research had a profound impact on marketing, advertising, and branding, leading to the creation of new models and methodologies. But understanding wants, needs, and desires are just one part of the equation. 

As psychologists studied human needs, wants, and desires, it became clear that people do not fully understand themselves; people often act in ways that are in opposition to their best interests. People don't approach situations or decisions rationally and, no matter the context, can make decisions that go against their self-interest. More often than not, people are irrational beings whose decision-making can appear to be random:


“Most people can’t answer the simple question of why they want the things they want. That’s because our brain drives our decision-making process in ways that we’re not really aware of.”
- Michael Fishman, Consumer Psychologist
("Cracking The Code Of Consumer Psychology")


Each decision a person makes has meaning – even if that meaning is fueled by irrational or subconscious motives. Although most people believe their choices are based on strict rational analysis, the decision-making process can be influenced by subjective emotions, external conditions, and personal perceptions. How people reach decisions can fluctuate based on individual needs, interpersonal feelings, and psychological factors.

Many people, if asked about a specific product, service, or experience, can only report whether they want it or not, without comprehending the internal, subconscious, psychological drivers that motivate their decision-making. Consumer psychology attempts to understand the consumer mindset, and focuses on the human subconscious where people can be influenced or motivated for reasons they may not fully understand.

consumer psychology:

The study of how and why people want, need, and consume things, driven by marketing and advertising influence  – or – the psychology behind understanding and influencing people to make specific purchase decisions.

behavioral economics

Today, marketing and advertising strategists that are ahead of the curve are starting to incorporate behavioral economics. With behavioral economics, irrationality becomes more predictable by viewing scenarios through different emotional, psychological, and mental models. Behavioral economic pioneers (such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky) focus on how people perceive information, respond to external influences, constraints, competition, societal and socioeconomic factors, and how all these factors impact real world decision-making.


"Standard economics assumes that we are rational. But, we are far less rational in decision making. Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless - they are systematic and predictable. We make the same types of mistakes over and over because of the basic wiring of our brains."
- Dan Ariely, Behavioral Scientist
("Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions")


People are inherently irrational: we live in the moment, are resistant to change, are impacted by our subconscious, and are subject to an innumerable amount of external factors which directly impact how we make decisions. Through the study of behavioral economics, we see that much of our behavior is based on insufficient knowledge, inadequate certainty, and limited or skewed information (among other external factors). Understanding how these factors can impact people is crucial to influencing behavior.

If consumer psychology is part of the internal mechanism to influencing people, behavioral economics is part of the external mechanism; it helps us understand what actions are likely to take place, how to target specific actions for maximum effectiveness, and how to influence behavior in a specific way.

behavioral economics:

The study of human behavior in real-world ecosystems with external constraints, competition, and perceptions – or – the focus on human behavior and external factors that influence perception and decision-making in the real world.

Experiential messaging

As Bill Bernbach said: "Advertising isn't science. It's persuasion. And persuasion is an art." Once we understand the consumer psychology and behavioral economics of our audience, the final piece of the puzzle is the use of creative and strategic messaging – or the experience. The experience addresses awareness, attention, interest, decision, and action. Without an experience, there is no way to connect your message with your audience. An experience can make people stop what they're doing and pay attention; the right experience (backed by consumer psychology and behavioral economics) can plant ideas and associations so deeply into the psyche that people simply can't forget them.

Experiences should grab attention, raise awareness, and pique interest; they should be memorable and easy to recall. They should frame a brand, product, or service in a context that is relevant to the target audience, and it should achieve a desired action or influence a specific behavior. The experience should have clear goals (such as to inform, persuade, increase demand, change perception, reassure or reinforce, differentiate, frame, or position) and use clear appeals (such as informational, pre-emptive, brand imagery, affectivity), and should leverage clear positioning types (such as product, service, quality, price, personality, social status, lifestyle, aspiration, values, user, or high-cognition appeals).

experiential messaging:

The experience that synthesizes your objective, driven by consumer psychology and behavioral economics – or – the medium that contains artwork, creativity, and production value to convey a specific message.

the powerful combination

The individual use of consumer psychology to understand an audience is not a new method, nor is the individual use of behavioral economics, nor is using experiential messaging. But combining all three is an approach many have neglected to identify, let alone employ.



BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS focuses on understanding external factors and how people act.

Experiential MESSAGING focuses on creating a COMPELLING experience to influence people.


Too many decisions are made without consideration to internal association, external competition, and experiential connections. Understanding your consumers isn't enough. Understanding how to influence behavior isn't enough. Having creativity in messaging isn't enough. Each element plays off the other and each is a crucial part of the equation. When consumer psychology, behavioral economics, and experiential messaging are aligned they create a flourishing synergy. For true impact, combine psychology, economics, and experiential messaging; it’s a powerful tool that gives a substantial advantage in our ability to understand and influence human behavior.


"At the heart of an effective creative philosophy is the belief that nothing is so powerful as an insight into human nature and what compulsions drive people, what instincts dominate their actions, even though their language so often camouflages what really motivates them."
- Bill Bernbach