It’s day two of event X. As you walk back into the meeting room, you look for a seat…

The thought process that comes next is much the same as when you walk into a shop, a bar, or search Amazon with a buying decision in mind.

…What to go for?

Your first thought is to look at where you sat yesterday. Is it free? Did you like sitting there? Is there any reason not to sit there today? And most of the time, you find yourself sitting back in the same seat. There’s no well-considered rationale behind that choice. You’re not loyal to the seat, it’s not better than other seats, it doesn’t offer an advantage. However, you know it’s not broken, it’s familiar, and chair choice is not something you want to spend much time thinking about.

This is a mild preference for one seat over all the others in the room based on an absence of negatives. It’s simply the easiest choice available at the time. And easy is ever more appealing in a world where we are asked to make lots of choices in a day.

This highlights that one of the best predictors of people’s future choices is what they’ve chosen before and not disliked. And that’s as true for your choice of toothpaste brand as it is for your choice of seat on day two of event X.

So, with that in mind, let’s go back in time to before event X and try to influence the original choice of chair. To do this, we could create tiers of seating with different costs — perhaps the front row is 5% cheaper. We could highlight the benefit of sitting at the front in the meeting’s promotional materials. We could show people having fun sitting near the front as part of the event imagery. We could even use personalized digital ads to promote the meeting from a specific perspective — as if you were always sitting closer to the speaker at the front.

Executed well, we might just be able to persuade a few more people that the front of the meeting room was a little better than the back. However, if you arrive and there are only seats at the back, or your friend is sitting at the back, or you’re late and want to sneak in, then those factors will likely trump our promotional efforts. Additionally, we shouldn’t forget that people’s practical ‘experience’ tends to dominate their impressions of something. If they have been to that venue before and been seated at the front and the view was bad, or the air con was too cold, then they are going to avoid the front at event X regardless of our promotional efforts.

All this chair behavior helps us understand quite a lot about why people choose brands. Familiarity and an absence of negatives mean many brands become our default option because they require minimal mental effort to choose again and again. Good advertising and promotion can help to increase switch inertia and strengthen mild preference for a brand. As the barrier to switching gets higher over time, then you can charge a little bit more than your competitors without losing customers.

Brand Inertia vs Brand Loyalty

‘Brand love’ and ‘brand loyalty’ are two of the biggest talking points in marketing, today. However, in most cases, people neither love, nor are truly loyal to brands. If you go to a bar and ask for a Coke and they say “we don’t have it, but we have Pepsi” you don’t leave to find a bar that serves Coke — and Coke is rated as one of the most valuable brands in the world. That behavior suggests most people don’t ‘love’ Coke, nor are they really ‘loyal’ to it. For example, your dog does not walk off with somebody else if it can’t find you in the park! It charges around everywhere in a blind panic for hours until it finds you — that’s proper loyalty.

What Coke has done is to create a stunning level of brand inertia. When you’re at a shop that sells Coke alongside Pepsi and 50 other fizzy drinks brands, you hardly see anything else. You pick up the Coke. And, unless there is some amazing deal on something else, you don’t even check the cost — you just auto-buy. For this level of inertia to be broken, it would take a major event. Say a 50% price increase or a total change to the product. Which, interestingly, Coke did in 1985. Having lost a bit of market share to Pepsi, Coca-Cola created ‘New Coke’. This was the first formula change in 99 years and it was a total disaster. In effect, the formula change meant people had to think about a choice that had been automatic for many years — and they weren’t happy about it. Coca-Cola very quickly went back to selling ‘old coke’.

What Can We Learn from Chair-Choice Behavior?

For marketers, chair-choice behavior provides some interesting insights:

  1. People’s day-one seat choice is by far the biggest predictor of their day-two seat choice. For marketers, attracting new customers to their brand should be priority number one. Some of the most robust marketing science we have backs up this prioritization — see books like How Brands Grow and Eat Your Greens.
  2. One of the biggest factors affecting people’s choice of seat on day one is physical availability. If you are the only fizzy drink a bar sells, then you are the only choice. This is so often not thought about enough. Where you are stocked (or not), shelf position and point of sale are critical drivers of purchase.
  3. People pick the same seat on day two of an event because it’s normally the lowest burden choice. You don’t have to have the best product, but you do need to ensure there’s an absence of negatives. This extends to loyalty programs — generally, a big focus on loyalty is not as effective as a big new customer push because people are not truly loyal — they just like easy decisions.
  4. Brand-building mostly works by increasing inertia through familiarity — it builds and maintains auto-buy behavior. In turn, that creates the ability to charge a premium over competitors. And, this means the consistency of advertising, promotion, along with the actual experience of using the brand over time, is vital to long-term marketing effectiveness. For example, if when you return to event X on day two to find the blue seat you were sitting in is now red, do you still go and sit there? Probably not, because you have to think about it and it’s no longer familiar.

Image source: Kyle Glenn