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Offloading Cognition: The New Behavioral Science Approach to Winning Customers

With the rise of technology, it's quicker and easier to outsource thinking to our phones, other people and the environment. This ‘cognitive offloading” affects how customers make choices.

Editor’s Note: I have an inherent distrust of the GPS in my car.  Maybe I’m becoming a cranky old guy, but I feel it’s better to really learn a route than to passively follow my car’s instructions.   Jason Martuscello argues that such “cognitive offloading” is an inherent component of our modern world, and marketers should embrace it.  Further, market researchers need to account for this feature as they work with models of consumer decision making.

Every time I go to the store, it seems like my choices are multiplying. Buying cookies is no longer as easy as picking chocolate chip, oatmeal or Oreos. We now have double stuffed, thin, gluten free, fat-free, low sugar…the list goes on. Whether it’s cookies, colas, cars, or clothes — the volume of brands and products has proliferated making it incomprehensible for customers to process information and make choices. This is bad for business! Luckily, behavioral science has a solution…


Old Marketing: Building Deep Mental Associations

For decades marketers have focused on proverbially “getting into the customer’s mind.” Whether it’s positioning, building associations or refreshing memory structures — the focus has been on owning precious ‘mental real estate’ to be thought of and chosen in the moment of truth!

While it is nice to be Kleenex or Coke but in today’s society, the reality is we no longer need to be “top of mind” or “always accessible” to be consistently chosen. With technology at our fingertips, our reliance on the brain to make brand choices is diminishing. This is good because our brains can’t keep up with an overwhelming number of options. As brands have increased 10-fold in the past 20 years, our brains information storage capacities have not increased to accommodate.

Our brain’s fascinating solution to overcome information constraints has been our creative mental ability to cognitively offload information.


Cognitive Offloading: The Future of Marketing

Have you ever counted on your fingers? Used Google Maps for directions? Or googled a movie review? This is cognitive offloading. Cognitive offloading is not relying on your brain for processing, remembering, deciding or acting. Instead we ‘offload’ cognitive functions to the external world — mainly technology, environment, or social.

My ex-girlfriend used to get furious at me for never remembering our anniversary date. I never felt the need to remember when I could simply store the date in my iPhone and automatically be reminded — no memory needed! What’s interesting is that I still remember the phone number of my first high school girlfriend. We all can relate to how we used to remember information which now we have the technology to outsource our memory. For example, we use Facebook to offload remembering friends’ birthdays and use Google maps instead of remembering directions. With the rise of technology, we no longer have to remember information, and it’s actually quicker, more efficient and easier to outsource cognition.

The times have changed, things we once had no choice but to remember are now being transformed by our brain’s creative capacity for offloading cognitive functions to phones and the environment.


How Brands can help Customers Cognitively Offload?

In my recent AMA talk, I highlighted the 3 key opportunities for outsourcing cognition. Outsourcing is accomplished by looking at the activities in the customer journey and seeing how we can 1) reduce information processing, 2) simply decision-making and 3) making easier to act. Outsourcing mental activities can be achieved by using technology, environment or people. Let’s look at some brilliant execution of each of these…


Reduce Information Processing

There are many ways marketers can help customers offload cognition but one of the most powerful is the social proof of customer reviews. If 10,000 people like it, I must like. We all are familiar with making decisions for Amazon purchases without even looking at the product, but just reviews. 5 stars signals the safe choice. Another example is with taking pictures of our food. Customers are less looking to menu’s and outsourcing information from photos (think yelp or stored photos in our smartphones. Infusing customer reviews into our websites and on packages is a powerful shortcut to outsource cognition to others helping short-cut our decision time.

Simplify Decision-Making

The rise of the Dollar Shave Club and other subscription services are powerful examples of making decisions easier. Instead of dealing with choosing amongst 40 variants of razors on a weekly basis, the Dollar Shave Club put the razor business on auto-pilot. It removed the cognitive burden of remembering to buy and having to choose a razor. Sharp move!

Make Easier to Act

Disruptive businesses like Uber and Door Dash are not growing because of superior “products” but by removing the unnecessary burden of having to move. They simply remove (exerting energy) physical action from the equation. Call it outsourcing action. Consumers want to move less and businesses that capitalize on helping customer be more efficient are reaping massive benefits. Think about it — Uber is removing steps, Amazon is removing clicks, Apple is removing eyeball movements. How are you appealing to our biological need to conserve energy? Make customers move less = business win!

For more on “Making Effortless” be sure to check out The Emerging Customer Value Proposition is Shifting from Price…to Easy & Effortless.

In an increasingly complex information environment offloading cognitive processes and painful parts of the customer journey is rapidly becoming the key to marketing success. Should we discount the value of building memories? Absolutely not! But we should consider our relative focus on making information, choices and behaviors easier for customers.

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2 responses to “Offloading Cognition: The New Behavioral Science Approach to Winning Customers

  1. Cognitive off-loading is an idea that should be off-loaded, just as quickly as you can, because thinking about it can only hurt you. First, this assumes no new neural pathways can be created, so let’s free up some existing space for something more interesting – that’s not true. Second, sentient species have been using habits, built up from successful stimulus-response pairings, since forever – so there’s nothing new here. Third, we’ve been using assistants to remind us of things for as long as I can remember. The secretaries physical calendars/diaries, and Daytimers may have been replaced by my phone and Facebook – but I’m still having something remind me of who-what-where-when.
    The most amazing thing about people touting behavioral science is how little they realize that it is nothing new to anyone who has taken an Intro Psych course – stop acting amazed.

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