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“How you can incorporate the science of behavior economics into your marketing” With Author Will Leach

If you want to understand why people do what they do, why they buy your product or sign up for your service, you need to understand four nonconscious factors driving their decisions. Specifically, what are their higher-order goals, their core motivations, the regulatory approach used in your category and, lastly, the key triggers or decision […]


If you want to understand why people do what they do, why they buy your product or sign up for your service, you need to understand four nonconscious factors driving their decisions. Specifically, what are their higher-order goals, their core motivations, the regulatory approach used in your category and, lastly, the key triggers or decision shortcuts. With these in hand, you can easily identify the psychological mindstate needed to activate emotional arousal, or psychologically what we call a “hot-state.” Why is this important, you ask? Well because when we are in hot-states, we are more susceptible to influence. This is the science behind emotional marketing. If you don’t message to people’s mindstates, you’re severely limiting the effectiveness of your marketing.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Will Leach, the best-selling author of Marketing to Mindstates: The Practical Guide to Applying Behavioral Design to Research and Marketing. Will is also the CEO of TriggerPoint, a leading behavior research and design consultancy specializing in using behavior economics and decision design to drive consumer decision-making. He is a behavior design instructor at the Cox School of Business BLC at Southern Methodist University and has more than twenty years of behavior insights experience. Will is a two-time winner of the EXPLOR Award for his work in behavior design and is known as America’s foremost authority in applying behavior science to marketing.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As it has for many people, my career path has taken a few twists and turns. Coming out of high school I joined the army and after my first tour of duty I decided to leave to pursue my college degree. I fully intended on going back into the army as soon as I could, but that was before I took an elective course and discovered what would become my life-long career passion — consumer behavior.

I started my professional career as a marketing researcher in biotech, then energy, and finally consumer packaged goods giant Frito-Lay. It was there that I was introduced to behavioral economics and I was instantly hooked. I knew that I was blessed to be able to study the most complex system ever created — the human mind. I ran various marketing research teams and initiatives at Frito-Lay, all with a strong focus on understanding and influencing consumer and shopper behavior. My favorite role at Frito-Lay was leading the shopper insights team where I was able to apply behavioral science thinking to our research methods. This experience was life-changing and after a few years (and hundreds of research studies) I felt the strong pull to go out on my own and start doing behavioral research and design full-time. I’ve never looked back.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

I once spent three days and nights locked inside a Home Depot conducting Behavioral Audits. In these sessions, we continually observe shopping behaviors to analyze the primes, frames, and triggers influencing how people shop. This one project a few years ago required audits of various areas of the store, so I had to spend almost 16 hours per day in the store…just concentrating and running our observational analysis. Now this in itself isn’t particularly funny. What was…..well, maddening, is that I conducted these behavioral audits two-weeks before Christmas. So, the same 13 tracks of holiday songs were being looped over and over and over for three days straight. I thought I was going insane by day two! I hated my life on day three and wondered if the army would take me back. I couldn’t get those songs out of my head for weeks. I seriously don’t know how the employees in those stores can stand it, but I’m betting earplugs and Jack Daniels are involved.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started my career, I was a research analyst at Florida Power and Light in south Florida. One of the more important communications initiatives we did each year was creating PSAs warning people about the dangers of cutting tree limbs near power lines. I joined a smaller team to develop that year’s TV marketing strategy and together we came up with the idea of building a full 360 plan called Chalk Lines. In this strategy, we were going to show various “chalk outlines” of people holding tree trimmers, saws, etc., with yellow crime tape and body bags to show that people had died by trying to cut their own tree limbs. I really thought that our idea was a home-run and was excited to show our CMO — a newly hired, former Proctor and Gamble Brand Manager. He let us present the full plan and I could see him biting his tongue. After finishing our pitch, we told us to throw everything out and start from scratch. In protest, the agency pushed back until the CMO said, “I’m not sure if you learned this in your program, but we learned that it’s not a smart idea to associate your brand with death. Wouldn’t you agree?” I worked on a plan to place our brand next to crime tape and body bags. Good job, Will!

Marketing Rule of Thumb: Don’t Associate your brand with death.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I started TriggerPoint after years working at PepsiCo watching our behavioral insights not being applied to our actual marketing strategy and activation. It wasn’t because our agencies didn’t believe our insights. They did. There was just something lost in translation. We speak two different languages. So, I started a company that does both. No just behavioral science/economics research to understand people’s nonconscious. But also Behavioral Design consulting and activation to drive shopper choice. That’s the basis of my new book, Marketing to Mindstates. We’re bringing science to design.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now, we are applying machine learning and artificial intelligence to uncover the four, nonconscious factors driving human behaviors at incredible speeds. Studies that used to take us 10 weeks to conduct can now be performed in hours. It’s impacting our design work as well. We are taking subjectivity out of marketing by merging behavioral science, design, and AI to make marketing so much more effective. Behavioral design is fundamentally changing research and marketing in corporate America.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lessons that others can learn from that?

I started TriggerPoint when not many people were working in the behavioral design space and therefore had a leg up on our competitors. I had spent the better part of a decade developing our behavioral design model, so I felt the need to protect it by hiding its contents and how we did our work…even from our own clients. It made selling our services unnecessarily hard. A real tipping point for us was when I decided to open our black box and give our model out free to everyone. When we just concentrated on being transparent and giving value, our business took off. The new book, Marketing to Mindstates, was written to open the black box to teach anyone to take our jobs. I sincerely believe that this decision has made all the difference in our company.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Discover your passion and then find a way to work on that passion in any job that you have in the future. It doesn’t mean that your job won’t be hard or overwhelming at times. But when you work on your passion, you’ll never get burnout.

How do you define “Marketing”? Can you explain what you mean?

First let’s talk about what a brand is. A brand is merely an amalgamation of all the psychological associations, good and bad, that someone has with it. Some of these you control as a brand marketer, but the majority of these associations are formed outside of your control. Therefore, marketing is any activity that is within your control that builds and influences the associations people form with your brand. By this definition, marketing is certainly advertising. But it is so much more than that. It is also pricing, customer service, user experience, public relations, charitable giving, product sourcing, social media, and customer experience. You tie marketers’ hands when you don’t put all of this under their control.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My wife is the reason I’m where I am today. She was a very successful professional at Frito-Lay when I was contemplating leaving to start doing behavioral research and design full time. The story that comes to mind is one night in 2012 I was reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely at about 2:30 in the morning. She woke up and with a glazed look in her eye said, “Will you leave already?” I apologized and said that I would finish up in the living room and she said, “Not that. Leave Frito-Lay. You’ll never read about chips the way you read about behavioral science. Just start your own thing already.” And with that she rolled over and went back to sleep. Her belief and confidence inspired me to start TriggerPoint and is the engine behind our success.

Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners?

If you want to understand why people do what they do, why they buy your product or sign up for your service, you need to understand four nonconscious factors driving their decisions. Specifically, what are their higher-order goals, their core motivations, the regulatory approach used in your category and, lastly, the key triggers or decision shortcuts. With these in hand, you can easily identify the psychological mindstate needed to activate emotional arousal, or psychologically what we call a “hot-state.” Why is this important, you ask? Well because when we are in hot-states, we are more susceptible to influence. This is the science behind emotional marketing. If you don’t message to people’s mindstates, you’re severely limiting the effectiveness of your marketing.

What are your “5 Non Intuitive Marketing Strategies For Small Businesses”?

(Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Build your Behavioral Design roadmap: Begin the creative development process with a thorough understanding of the key behavioral factors (goals, motivations, approach, and triggers) that influence consideration in your category. If you don’t know these, your creative team is literally guessing how to change consumer/shopper behavior.

2. Know exactly what you want people to initially see in creative: Be strategically deliberate on the one or two key elements that you want readers to initially see when seeing your advertising. When you know these, build strong visual contrast to draw the eye towards those two parts exclusively. A good rule of thumb is to keep the number of key points to less than two or you risk too much visual complexity and an avoidance response to your creative.

3. Be deliberate in your use of primes, frames, and triggers: Behavioral design is the process of using behavioral science to inform your creative decisions. Start by showing people how your brand will help them by “activating their goals.” Create an emotional desire to act by “priming their core human motivation.” Make the choice to buy your brand more salient by “framing your brand” using the correct regulatory approach. And, lastly, make their decisions easy and immediate by “triggering the behavior” via cognitive heuristics.

4. Don’t forget your Calls to Action: Somehow, call to action statements have been systematically eliminated from most creative. I think the reason is that marketers have fallen in love with their own brand stories and use ALL marketing as a way to build a deep emotional connection with their brand. So, they eliminate “ugly” call to action statements because they feel “off brand.” But from a behavioral science perspective, this is absolutely false. The science is clear that people hate to think. We avoid thinking all the time. When you remove your calls to action (e.g. “learn more now” or “call today”), you force people to think through what the next step should be — even if non-consciously. Don’t do this to your customers. Tell them what they should do and place some immediacy behind it to drive behavioral action.

5. Determine the specific emotions or feelings to evoke in your creative: Emotions drive people to act. No doubt about it. But did you know that emotions should map specifically back to the core motivations driving your customer? They shouldn’t be picked haphazardly. They should be thought through and specifically chosen to match the motivation being primed in your creative. If you just use your gut feel and choose the wrong feelings to evoke, the piece will feel slightly off. And in today’s cluttered world, this will kill your marketing’s effectiveness and ROI.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The emergence of Behavioral Design. The core idea is to apply the best neurological, biological, and psychological insights to make marketing more effective.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“To change minds, you must first change the state of mind.” — Robert Cialdini

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn under William Leach: https://www.linkedin.com/in/william-leach-b5b80425/

Instagram @maketingtomindstates

Twitter @trigger_pointer

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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