Confirmation Bias and Brand Loyalty

Our minds hate change. Several studies have shown that people are twice as likely to seek information that confirms their beliefs than they are to consider evidence that contradicts them. This "confirmation bias" can influence how consumers and marketers make decisions.

Henry Ford famously said, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have asked for a faster horse." In other words, the road to true innovation is rarely illuminated by customers telling you what to do next; they may often not know what they want next or rely on a "confirmation bias" about their preferences.

Most innovative marketers say that fighting confirmation bias is a never-ending battle. But if you can't conquer this gremlin of your own mind, you don't stand a chance of outwitting your competitors.

We see this behaviour in all our decisions. A case in point is how retail investors hold on to stocks in a falling market, believing that the markets will rise, without any empirical evidence that this is likely to happen. Consumer confidence is a big driver of purchase behaviour. If consumers believe this recession will last a lot longer than it will because they recently lost their jobs, they are likely to scale back discretionary spending even after they find a new job because of a "confirmation bias".

In short, the human mind acts like a compulsive yes-man who echoes whatever you want to believe. Psychologists call this mental gremlin the "confirmation bias". A recent analysis of psychological studies with nearly 8,000 participants concluded that people are twice as likely to seek information that confirms what they already believe as they are to consider evidence that would challenge those beliefs.

Why is a mind-made-up so hard to penetrate?

Psychologists say its easier for consumers to repeat decisions than to take new ones. Whatever decisions consumers are inclined to make, are the decisions consumers are likely to go about justifying. It's simply easier to focus our attention on data that supports our preferences, rather than to seek out evidence that might disprove it. "Confirmation bias" is one of the biggest drivers and often under reported influencers of brand loyalty. It transcends the usual influencers such as product performance, emotional empathy and brand recognition.

It also is easier for people to rationalize than to be rational. Consumers and marketers are very good at cooking up post-hoc explanations of why our predictions didn't work or why we made some decisions. We tend to reinterpret our failures as near-misses.

The more you learn, the more certain you become that you are right. While gathering more data makes people more confident, it doesn't make their predictions much more accurate. Each new fact makes you more inclined to find another fact that resembles it, reducing the diversity and value of your information.

Confirmation bias contaminates the thinking of brand preferences of consumers. A lot of psychological traps can be combated with humility, but on this one, that doesn't help. For example, several North American auto companies missed the significant growth opportunity in fuel efficient cars because they clung to outdated strategies for gas guzzling SUVs and eroded brand value with carrots such as 'employee pricing'.

So how can marketers counteract confirmation bias?

A way to approach it is to imagine that you have looked into a crystal ball and have seen that your strategy has gone bust. Next, come up with the most compelling explanations you can find for the failure. This exercise, which some of the most innovative and successful marketers have integrated into their research process, can help you realize that your beliefs regarding why consumers might or might not prefer your brand might not be as solid as you thought.

Try estimating the odds that your analysis is wrong. Let us say that you reckon there is a 20% chance of an adverse outcome; that is like saying you will be proven wrong one in every five times. This way, if the investment does go awry, you will be less likely to dig in your analytical heels and desperately try to prove that you are still right. This procedure provides "psychological cover for admitting that you're wrong."

Show your ideas and strategies to another person you respect whose ego isn't already invested in the decision. Ask: If you didn't have to take this decision, would you still agree with it?

Run an imaginary strategy alongside your real one. There, you can change it at will, with no risk to your brand portfolio. On that blank slate, would you do more—or less—of your existing approach to strategy and consumer engagement? Some organizations require each team member to run a stress test of their brand portfolio and to justify any differences between their paper strategies and the company’s real-world plans. It helps senior executives know what people really think.

Before you decide on a marketing or business strategy in the first place, write down a statement of what would compel you to change your view of the strategy. If any of those influencers come to pass, the written record will make it harder for you to pretend nothing has changed or that you don't have to do anything in response.

Please email me if you would like to receive Arcus Consulting Group's series on "Better consumer engagement strategies".

1 Comment

  • Matt Cover said

    This is pretty obvious, especially if we compare Apple and Android supporters. Both have their merits and disadvantages, but the trick is to come up with something that will gear both groups of users towards your products. Biased? I hardly think so.

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