Opinion

Marketing’s Least Loved: Availability bias 

In her regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling looks at the impact of the mind amid marketing.

Do more words in the English language start with the letter ‘k’, or have the letter ‘k’ as their third letter? Got your answer? More on that later, but first, some context… 

What is the availability heuristic, or availability bias? 

It’s the human tendency to think that examples of things that come readily to mind are more representative than is actually the case. In Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist and economist Daniel  Kahneman described it as the tendency “to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory”.

For example, air crashes tend to hit the media headlines, often as vivid and dramatic stories, which makes them spring easily to mind; this might lead us to fear an air crash, and behave accordingly – whereas the facts would tell us that statistically car crashes are a lot more common.  

Why did it evolve? 

Your brain knows that remembering facts and making decisions is hard work. So it made a shortcut: if something can be recalled easily, it must be important. When you’re making decisions, especially risk assessments, at speed, this heuristic can be the difference between life and death, or just between a hard time and an easy one. Like all the human brain’s ways to cut itself some slack, it can also lead us to some very strange decisions. 

Start with sharp – how brands grow, and the importance of mental availability 

Brands are shortcuts in people’s minds: the more mentally available your brand, the more it comes to mind first in a buying situation, the better. This we know from Sharp’s How Brands Grow and other works since. So it’s clear that availability bias is crucial in marketing, because it suggests ways our brand will come to mind more easily in a buying situation. 

There’s a holy trinity with the Availability bias or heuristic: something is more likely to be ‘available’ in the brain if it is recent, vivid, or familiar – or all three.  

First, the two R’s: Recent and easily retrieved 

We heavily weigh our judgment on information we’ve come across more recently, because that is what the brain throws to the surface first. We also tend to focus on that which can be easily recalled. 

Let’s go back to the letter ‘k’ challenge at the start of the article. This was one of the experiments that Amos Tversky and Kahneman used to explore the availability heuristic. 

Admit it – your brain first decided there are more words starting with the letter ‘k’, didn’t it? There are actually far more words in the English language with ‘k’ as the third letter than as the first letter. However, it’s much easier for your brain to recall information about words that start with ‘k’, whereas for third letter ‘k’ your brain really has to some hard work – and so this information is pushed down the ranking, and the judgment call is made. 

Second, if you want to be available, be vivid 

We talk a lot about ‘emotional’ advertising, but that doesn’t mean reflecting emotions back to people. It means being vivid, visceral, conjuring feelings not just displaying or montaging them. This kind of vivid can build mental availability for a brand by making memories and associations easier to access. 

Take Volvo and the Van Damme splits ad, for example. There is no emotion displayed – this is JCVD we’re talking about – but you wince just thinking about it, and while you may not attach precision reverse steering to that association, it probably has increased the availability Volvo has in your mind. Try using ‘vivid’ as a tone word, for tone of voice, tone of visual and tone of action, and see if that helps spur a different kind of emotion. 

Familiarity breeds… ease 

The human brain also tends to upweight information that feels familiar or personal to us. This makes availability bias a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we see information it is of course recent, we then become more familiar with it and start to see it everywhere – termed the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.  

However, there is an interesting edge to explore here on what familiarity with brand usage can do for attention and recall. A 2019 study (Journal of Business Research 2020, Simmonds et al) found that “…if heavier brand users have more accessible favourable attitudes towards the advertised brand, this “attitude availability” may improve encoding of the brand even at low levels of attention to advertising”. And if advertising can attract light and non-users’ attention, this attention has a stronger influence on their brand recall than attention from heavier users. This suggests two areas for further exploration: how might we make CX even better at encoding for brands, and how might we build a feeling of usage on fast-forward for non-users, to encode more mental availability more quickly? 

While the Availability Bias or Heuristic can lead us to some questionable decisions, it is an important bias to navigate in marketing. Understand the holy trinity of ‘Recent, Vivid, Familiar’, and explore how to use them either to build availability for your brand, or perhaps to raise the rational mind to its reliance on this heuristic and find ways to disrupt it.  

Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.

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