Marketing: What’s Psychology Got to Do With It?

michelles first guest post title image

Why do we buy the stuff we buy? Is it because of necessity? Desire? Freedom to choose between two or more items? Think back to the last time you went shopping: what prompted you to make that final decision to take an item off the shelf?

A few weeks ago, I had a sugar craving that could not be satisfied by what I had at home. At my neighborhood store, I headed directly to the candy aisle with the intention of picking up a Hershey chocolate bar, but something caught my eye on the way to the register: a large yellow sign enticing me to buy a bag of a newfangled candy and get a second bag for free.

This particular candy is not my favorite, but I know children love it, and the offer was too good to pass up. I told myself that taking up this offer was a rational thing to do; having a stash of sugary goods at home would come in handy the next time I had a sugar craving, which just happened to be last night. Common sense would have told me to look for that candy stashed somewhere in my pantry, but instead, I went back to the store to pick up another Hershey bar.

The truth is that I have not even looked at the two bags of candy I purchased weeks ago. Back then, I fell for a cleverly effective marketing scheme that convinced me to buy two bags of candy I do not really care for. I knew this candy was popular with the kids in my family, and the large colorful sign with the “buy one, get one free” offer, known in the retail marketing world as BOGO, helped to seal the deal.

buy one get one free candy

My retail candy adventure made me wonder about the psychology behind the marketing tactics that convinced me to buy a product I would not normally purchase. I’ve discovered that these tactics are part of a larger strategy that marketers use to gain new customers and retain existing ones.

If you want to attract customers, you need to learn some of the basic of how the human mind works. We will discuss a few elements of social psychology, the psychology of savings and color psychology, along with strategies that can be used when marketing products.

Social Psychology

Social psychology is the study of how our thoughts and behaviors can be influenced by various factors that can be factual, implied or imagined. Thoughts and behaviors can be discerned and predicted according to widely observed social norms. Understanding the following social psychology strategies will enable you to appeal to your target audience more effectively.

Social Proof

Let’s say you go out to dinner in the trendy Lincoln Road restaurant district of Miami Beach. Two bistros catch your attention: one is nearly empty while the other is overflowing with people who seem to be very animated as they enjoy their meals.

If you are like most people, you will wait for a table at the bustling bistro based on the social proof presented by the happy diners who got there before you.
like buttons brick

Social proof can be found all over the Internet, too. Content sharing buttons with hit counters let you know how many people thought they should share their digital experience within their social circles.

Facebook “likes” and comments serve a similar purpose, and the same can be said about review platforms such as Yelp, IMDB and YouTube comment sections.

Celebrity social proof is even more powerful; an example would be the online video campaign of website builder, starring legendary supermodel Heidi Klum.

In the strategic marketing models of yesteryear, Klum’s deal with would have been a straight endorsement; these days, however, her social media clout provides valuable social media proof.


This is a classy marketing strategy that many people tend to associate with the wholesomeness of small town American life.

Reciprocity is what the owner of a Chinese food takeout restaurant wishes to achieve as she gives you a handful of free Hong Yuan guava candy when you pick up your order of house fried rice: she is giving you something with the hope that you will feel indebted and reciprocate.

In the online realm, we see reciprocity at work when bloggers create valuable content that will elicit guest posts. Another example is the “freemium” model, free trials used by many games and apps.

Marketers hope that, after using the app for 30 days for free, you will be hooked and feel like owe them, so you’ll pay for the full version.

Scarcity Principle

When we hear about products, services or events that we consider to be once-in-a-lifetime offers, we tend to be more generous in terms of attaching value to these scarce opportunities.

An extreme example of the scarcity principle played out in 2016 with the ultra-exclusive release of “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” an album by the rap collective known as the Wu-Tang Clan.

The only pressing of the album, which was auctioned off for $2 million, was acquired by a controversial pharmaceutical industry CEO.

More traditional examples of the scarcity principle are used by the hotels and airlines that announce a limited number of rooms or seats.

In the venture capital world of Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs talk about “fear of missing out” (FOMO) to hype up their start-up firms to investors. We naturally want things that are exclusive, limited, we are afraid that others will have something we don’t or experience something we won’t.

last chance offer!


The Psychology of Saving

In their search for value, shoppers will often set aside rational thought. Marketing professionals know that consumers ultimately base their shopping decisions based on a perception of value; in turn, this perception is shaped by various economic factors.

Due to the Great American Recession, the shoppers have changed their former preference for brand perception into price consciousness. People are now more likely to buy in bulk if the price is right, and they are also interested in shopping at stores where they can use coupons and find lower prices.

The global financial crisis has changed consumer behavior in a way that price consciousness has been elevated as people try to maximize their income, save money and become frugal.

This is clearly evident in the marketing strategy of retail supermarkets such as Trader Joe’s flyers filled with coupons and content that appeals to a frugal lifestyle; there is also the expansion of German supermarket chain Aldi, which uses its plain and functional store decoration to inform shoppers that company executives are passing on savings to them.

Perhaps the most telling sign that being thrifty has become fashionable was the 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon; the first executive decision by the online retail giant was to slash prices and shed the image of the chain as an emporium of snobbery and expensive groceries.

The following strategies use this change in shoppers’ mindset to attract them to the products and services they’re offering.


This is the principle of the previously mentioned BOGO tactic, which prompted me to buy two bags of candy I don’t really like that much. There is something about discounts that make them irresistible: BOGO, rebates, coupons, and free shipping create a certain sense of urgency among consumers who suddenly forget about math and about other options altogether.

The discount principle adds many dimensions to the shopping experience. Whether discounts are applied online or in brick-and-mortar situations, they have the potential of instilling a sense of urgency and creating positive expectations.

In online circles, blog readers, podcast listeners and members of internet discussion forums tend to be very receptive to discount offers.

discount offers

Decoy Effect

Restaurant owners who wish to drive sales of certain menu items often set one or two meals at exorbitant prices; the idea is to make diners more comfortable with reasonably priced items.

New Jersey shoppers who object to paying $200 for a smartphone at Walmart will not mind traveling to Manhattan and buying the same device for the exact same price at a fancy electronics store such as Mobile Spa.

Tech giant Apple is known to apply the decoy effect to sell its extensive iPad lineup, which features nearly two dozen options; however, the goal is to steer customers into paying more for premium iPads.

Online marketers can apply this strategy by creating three or more landing pages for products or services offered at different pricing levels.


You have probably fallen for this tactic several times in your shopping life. At the supermarket, you see a sign advertising a product on sale; you see the base or anchor price you are used to, and next to it is the enticing discounted price.

Anchoring consists of establishing an idea or a fact as reference before presenting the next option. To this effect, numbers and the way they are displayed can be very powerful in terms of attracting shoppers, but there are other uses for anchoring.

Perhaps you have seen those colorful online requests to visit a landing page or to sign up for a newsletter? The ones that start off with “do me a favor and click on this link”.

They are designed to target consumers who tend to be more agreeable, who want to be on good terms with everybody (even with Internet personas they have never seen). So, they do them a favor and click. The rest is history.

The Psychology of Colors

The strategic use of colors by marketers is often discussed in popular culture circles, but the body of psychological research on this persuasive tactic is extensive. Shopping is a very visual experience; 85% of consumers indicate that colors are primary factors that guide them towards their final purchase.

Here is what we know about universal color theory and how various colors and tones are used to portray brand image and personality:

  • Black is a symbol of strength and authority.
  • White denotes safety, purity, neutrality, and cleanliness.
  • Blue is a predominantly male color that stimulates productivity and evokes reliability.
  • Red is a physical and sensuous color that promotes urgency, desire and passion.
  • Purple is a creative color that evokes images of royalty, beauty and respect.

consumer colors and their behavior

A 2006 research study published in the Journal of Management History explained how brands make strategic use of colors:

  • IBM was known as Big Blue for many years.
  • Starbucks’ choice of its slightly emerald green is not only a homage to Seattle but also a hint towards relaxation.
  • McDonald’s prefers red and yellow in an effort to appeal to children.
  • Fanta is an orange soft drink that stands out in the cooler for the purpose of attracting impulse buyers.

There is a lot more to color theory in marketing; for example, men tend to dismiss purple, brown and orange while women tend to embrace green, blue, purple, and pink. Orange is a playful color that can be juxtaposed with black to evoke images of luxury.

Insofar as using colors in online marketing, primary colors are better for call to action messages while just about any color that provides high contrast would be adequate for conversion buttons.

The Takeaway

You will need at least some knowledge of psychology to successfully promote your products and services. The strategies described herein only scratch the surface of how the human mind perceives marketing messages.

There are myriad other cultural and socioeconomic factors that steer us in certain directions when making purchases.

However, the behavioral tactics mentioned here will always manage to catch our attention before other factors are taken into consideration.

michelle laurey profile picMichelle Laurey is a freelance writer with a new-found interest in the workings of the human mind. She enjoys fitness, relaxing in the fresh air, trying to live a healthy life and daydreaming about visiting new places (and actually visiting them). Her best ideas and problem solutions appear while she’s riding her bicycle. You can reach her via Twitter.


1 Comment

  1. Wow. I know that psychology plays a role in how we view money and how we spend it, but I never knew it went this deep and the effects it has. Marketing will become very easy for anyone if the points from this post are being utilized.
    By far the most interesting blog post I have read in a while!

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