Our journey into understanding the power of psychological triggers in marketing might seem new, but it's been happening for centuries, whether we realise it or not.

The term 'horsepower,' coined by Scottish engineer James Watt in the late 18th century, was a brilliant marketing strategy. By comparing steam engine output to the work of horses, Watt effectively demonstrated the economic benefits, showing that one engine could replace many horses and reduce costs. This innovative marketing approach was pivotal in driving the widespread adoption of steam engines during the Industrial Revolution.

This was an early example of 'anchoring'—Watt fixed the audience's perception of the number of horses needed for a task, then presented the option to replace them with a single machine, saving both the expense and effort. This made the machine, despite its initial cost, appear exceptionally valuable.

Persuasion as a science - the origin story

Let's widen our perspective. Think back to Aristotle's Rhetoric from the 4th century. While not about marketing directly, it aimed to unlock the tools for persuading others. It introduced three 'modes' of persuasion:

  • Ethos - building credibility through personal character or endorsements by experts or celebrities. For example, Colgate's “9 out of 10 dentists recommend our toothpaste” or Michael Jordan's association with Nike.
  • Pathos - stirring emotions to prompt action. Neglecting pathos can weaken persuasion. Charities like RSPCA often use emotive imagery and language to appeal to potential donors' emotions.
  • Logos - using logic and facts. This can involve highlighting product features and benefits, often comparing them to competitors. Car ads might focus on fuel efficiency or storage space, while Apple's 'Get a Mac' campaign emphasised the superiority of their products over PCs in terms of speed and reliability.

If you watch TV commercials or read ad copy from any era, you'll likely spot all three modes of persuasion at play. The key is to skillfully adjust these modes, much like tweaking a 3-band EQ, to match the product or message you're promoting.


Bringing persuasion into marketing

Widely accepted as a foundational text on the subject of persuasion in marketing, Psychologist Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is often cited by prominent exponents of behavioural economics, such as Rory Sutherland and Richard Shotten. He originally outlined six principles and later added a seventh (unity).

Below is an outline of the principles, and how they can be applied to marketing:

#1 Liking

People prefer to say yes to people or brands they like. Brand personality, compelling storytelling and customer engagement all foster a positive relationship and liking for a brand. 

Brands such as Aldi use their Twitter/X account to produce off-beat, humorous tweets that encourage brand liking while promoting their product.


#2 Reciprocity

People tend to return favours. Be the first to give, and make it personalised and out of the blue for best impact. Can be a piece of valuable content marketing, a free sample or offer. This can be seen in supermarkets with sample stands - once shoppers have taken the free sample, they feel almost obligated to return the favour by purchasing the product.


#3 Social proof

People will do things they see others doing. Customer reviews are the most common form of this, as well as user-generated content and influencer marketing. Amazon puts this to great effect with their prominent customer reviews.


#4 Commitment and consistency

People like to be consistent. If they’ve made a small commitment, they’ll follow through with another, larger one. This links to the ‘sunk cost’ bias; our tendency to continue with an endeavor we've invested money, effort, or time into, even if the current costs outweigh the benefits. Loyalty programmes and subscriptions take advantage of this trigger.


#5 Authority

People will follow the lead of credible experts. Leverage this tendency through partnerships with industry experts, certifications or awards, and authoritative content marketing.


#6 Scarcity

People value things if they seem scarce. Making products or services seem unique, rare, or limited, triggers customers to act, as they stand to miss out if they don’t.


#7 Unity 

People are influenced by the perception of shared identity. Foster a ‘we’re in this together’ or ‘we’re with you’ feeling with customers.


#8 Anchoring

In addition to these, another well-utilised trigger is ‘anchoring’. This is where our attentional bias means we systematically rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. Think about companies like TK Maxx or Sports Direct. In the former example, every tag has an RRP, and then the price it’s being sold at. The latte always seems to be having a sale. The truth is, the products are unlikely to ever have been sold at the full RRP, but anchoring the ‘value’ of the product by displaying it makes the actual sale price seem like a bargain.


Integrating Psychological Triggers in Digital Marketin

The digital landscape offers numerous opportunities to integrate these psychological triggers into your marketing strategies effectively. Let’s explore how these principles can be applied across various digital marketing channels.

Website Design and User Experience

Your website is often the first point of contact with potential customers. Incorporating psychological triggers into its design and user experience can significantly influence visitor behavior.

  • Reciprocity - Offer free, valuable resources, such as eBooks or guides, in exchange for visitors' contact information.
  • Social Proof - Display customer testimonials, reviews, and user-generated content prominently on your website.
  • Scarcity - Use countdown timers for sales and highlight limited stock availability to create urgency.
Email Marketing

Email marketing is a powerful tool for building relationships and driving conversions. Applying the principles of persuasion can enhance the effectiveness of your email campaigns.

  • Commitment and Consistency - Encourage small initial commitments, such as signing up for a newsletter, before introducing larger offers.
  • Authority - Share expert insights, industry news, and authoritative content to establish credibility.
  • Liking - Personalize your emails and use storytelling to create a connection with your audience.


Social Media Marketing

Social media platforms are ideal for leveraging psychological triggers due to their interactive and engaging nature.

  • Liking - Develop a relatable brand persona and engage with your audience through comments, likes, and shares.
  • Social Proof - Share user-generated content, customer reviews, and influencer endorsements to build trust.
  • Scarcity - Announce flash sales, exclusive offers, and limited-time discounts to create urgency.
Content Marketing

Content marketing allows you to demonstrate authority and provide value to your audience, fostering trust and credibility.

  • Authority - Publish in-depth articles, whitepapers, and case studies that showcase your expertise.
  • Reciprocity - Offer valuable content, such as how-to guides or informative blog posts, for free.
  • Commitment and Consistency - Encourage readers to subscribe to your blog or newsletter for ongoing content updates.

Advertising can effectively incorporate psychological triggers to drive action.

  • Scarcity - Use phrases like "limited time only" or "while supplies last" in your ad copy to create urgency.
  • Social Proof - Include testimonials, reviews, and endorsements in your advertisements.
  • Authority - Feature authoritative figures or experts in your ads to enhance credibility.


Tailor your approach to your brand - case studies of those who get it right

Rolls Royce

Rolls Royce don’t go to car exhibitions. This isn’t because they don’t need to, it’s because they’ve realised it doesn’t encourage purchases of their cars, it probably harms them. Instead, they exhibit at yacht and private jet exhibitions, but probably not for the reason you think.

It isn’t about being seen amongst the uber-wealthy or amongst equally aspirational products in order to benefit from the halo effect. It is, in the words of Rory Sutherland:

“If you’ve been looking at jets all afternoon, a £300,000 car is an impulse buy. It’s like putting the sweets next to the counter.”

Anchoring at its best.



Apple is a master of using psychological triggers in its marketing. The company effectively employs scarcity by creating a sense of exclusivity around its products, often releasing limited editions or making initial stock limited to drive fervent demand. Additionally, Apple uses authority by highlighting endorsements from tech experts and positive reviews from credible sources.


Key Takeaways

  • The science of persuasion isn’t a new phenomenon, and neither is its use within marketing. Making it part of your everyday marketing lexicon, however, is where the opportunities to maximise its impact come from.
  • It’s about developing a flexible and dynamic toolbox of strategies that can be applied to just about any piece of marketing activity, and tailored to the campaign objectives.
  • Psychological nudges such as social proof, anchoring and authority can be exploited across marketing strategies, combined and applied to those channels through which they are relevant, and chosen depending on the goals.
  • There are numerous examples of these nudges and principles being used to fantastic effect by a wide variety of brands, from multinational corporations to small, independent businesses. They’re cheap and easy to implement, but can be enormously powerful!
  • Knowing your audience, their challenges, biases and motivations is key to ensuring you use the most effective psychological triggers in your marketing.

At Reflect, we believe that the best digital strategies come from understanding the humans brands are trying to talk to. This is why we put behavioural science at the heart of everything we do to elevate digital marketing approaches, from ambitious local businesses to global e-commerce brands. If you would like to discuss your challenges with us, please get in touch!

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Ed's job as Data and CRO Lead is to make sure everything we do at Reflect Digital is customer-focused and data-driven and the results are measurable and insightful. He is a champion of hypothesis-led test-and-learn strategies, positively impacting the customer journey, website performance and client growth. Ed's expertise includes delivering robust reporting tools to enable the team to extract the maximum insight from the activity we run and help our clients to understand the impact we're having.

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