A Bank Marketer’s Guide to Hacking the Human Brain

Applying insights from behavioral psychology can help make marketing messages more effective. Read on to get a quick overview of cognitive biases like the "endowment effect," learn how such biases impact the way people make decisions, and get some ideas for tapping into those biases to make the messaging from your bank or credit union stand out.

Marketing and advertising copy can be as much an art as it is a science, but understanding how human beings process information and make decisions can help make messages to customers and prospects far more effective.

People are hard-wired to make what Nancy Harhut refers to as “default decisions.”

Humans have developed these defaults over the millennia as a way to conserve energy,” says Harhut, chief creative officer for HBT Marketing. “If we had to weigh every bit of info before making a decision, we’d never make one.”

Banks and credit unions can — and should — construct their marketing messages to activate these decision-making defaults, she says.

Create a Sense of Ownership and Tap the Desire to Avoid Loss

One of these defaults is something behavioral scientists call the “endowment effect.” People value things they already own more than comparable things they don’t own.

“When people feel a sense of ownership, it affects the way they behave,” Harhut says.

That bias influences consumer behavior in many ways. For example, if a bank or credit union offers people $500 when they open an account, Harhut says, “it’s almost as if I have this $500; it’s mine.” And because they feel the money is already theirs, people are more motivated to open the account than they would be otherwise.

The same insight can be applied in proactive outreach to customers as well. “Banks and credit unions have a lot of tiered programs,” Harhut says. “So, if someone is in danger of dropping from a platinum status to a gold status, remind them of all the benefits they have in the platinum status.”

Keep Customers In the Loop:

Don't let banking customers fall out of their tiered program. Keep them engaged by reminding them of what they could be missing.

This particular tactic also taps into another powerful default for humans, which is their natural desire to avoid loss.

“People are more motivated to avoid pain than to achieve gain,” Harhut says. “They don’t want to feel like they missed out on something.”

This is why short-term offers like the ones home shopping networks rely on — “available today only!” — work so well. “If we think something is more likely to be around for a while, we’re less likely to pursue it,” Harhut says. “Phrases such as ‘limited time’ or ‘limited quantity’ are generally very effective.”

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Be Cool — Use Language as a Tool

It isn’t just context that triggers decision defaults. Word choice can have an outsize effect on consumer behavior too.

For example, people respond differently to words that mean essentially the same thing — Harhut notes that “free” is a more effective marketing word than “complimentary.”

People also are much more likely to respond to phrases or sentences that rhyme; it’s one of the reasons why song lyrics often get stuck in our heads.

“It’s easier for the human brain to process rhyming language,” Harhut says. “If something’s easier to process, it feels right.”

Behavioral scientists call this the “rhyme as reason” effect — essentially, people tend to put more trust in statements that rhyme. “You can have two sentences that convey basically the same message, but the one that rhymes will be judged as the more truthful statement,” Harhut explains.

This doesn’t mean marketers must write poetry like the Bard. Harhut advises experimenting with simple rhymes in things like email subject lines and call-to-action buttons, as people are much more likely to click on those that rhyme.

“It’s easier for the human brain to process rhyming language. If something’s easier to process, it feels right.”

— Nancy Harhut, HBT Marketing

Don’t be afraid to use “a corny pun” in marketing messaging either. Words and even visuals that are a bit different from the norm capture people’s attention, as they stand out from all the other marketing material a person is bombarded with on a daily basis.

“We are hard-wired to notice something that’s different from its surrounding environment,” says Harhut.

People also crave instant gratification; that’s why “instantly” is one of the most effective words that can be used in marketing messaging, according to Harhut.

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Talk About How Customers Benefit

Banks and credit unions often focus marketing messages on their offers and the quality of their products and services, rather than the needs of the customer.

It’s worth remembering that all humans have “implicit egotism.”

“It’s why our names are so important to us,” Harhut says. “Use the word ‘you’ way more than the words ‘I’ or ‘we’ in your communications.”

She says it’s natural that banks and credit unions would want to tout their products and services in marketing communications. But customers and prospects want to hear how their problems will be solved.

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