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Heuristics, Ad Psychology & Brand Awareness Campaigns

Every day, we’re confronted by countless decisions, ranging from what outfit to wear to what brand of laundry detergent to purchase at the store.

For every decision, there may be hundreds of inputs that the brain rapidly considers to reach a conclusion. More often than not, this thought process doesn’t follow a strictly linear and logical pathway. There’s too much information to process and not enough time to waste dwelling on each choice.

To help create efficiency, human brains develop mental shortcuts known as heuristics. These cognitive biases accelerate decision-making by simplifying complex questions, thus enabling humans to perform snap judgments.

In the world of marketing, heuristics and ad psychology are tools that savvy brands can leverage to raise brand awareness, influence behavior and simplify purchasing decisions.

Today, we’re reviewing some ad psychology heuristics and showcasing how you can incorporate them into your next campaign and brand strategy.

Heuristics and cognitive bias

Heuristics derives from the Greek word “heuriskein,” which means “to find out” or “discover.” In terms of psychology, these “mental shortcuts” make it possible to quickly discover the answer to problems with a high degree of confidence.

While these mental shortcuts are not always correct, they do save people time. Instead of relying on purely logical reasoning, humans lean on heuristic models, which amalgamate a variety of inputs like:

  • Previous experiences
  • Common sense
  • Intuition
  • Psychological, social and emotional factors

By leveraging heuristics and ad psychology in your brand strategy, consumers can arrive at a decision that may not be perfect, but that’s often good enough. And, in today’s digital world, heuristic modeling becomes an even more useful tool since consumers are constantly bombarded by an endless stream of information, which only further complicates the path to purchase.

To sway potential consumers, the goal for brands is to make it so customers don’t even have to debate between your offering and your competitors’.

Your product or service should be the obvious choice.

But until then, marketers must strategically leverage various types of heuristic models to drive brand awareness and push consumers down the desired track. These include recognition heuristics, availability heuristics and representativeness heuristics.

Recognition heuristics

The heuristic model posits that consumer inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not. This is why branding is a central tenant in marketing and advertising.

Studies show that there tends to be a strong link between brand recognition and consumer preferences. Faced with two choices, people typically select recognized objects over unrecognized ones, regardless of available information.1

Applying recognition heuristics

One of the more conventional ways brands can create this recognition bias is to leverage visual and verbal assets, such as:

  • Logo
  • Typography
  • Music
  • Catchphrase
  • Brand colors
  • Graphic elements

If done properly, when a potential customer identifies these elements, they immediately associate them with the brand and all that it encompasses. For instance, consider McDonald’s golden arches on a red backdrop or the Nike swoosh. Those visual representations have become synonymous with the company they represent. Growing companies must take the time to create and implement a brand style guide that will serve as the blueprint for all visual and audio branding efforts thereafter.

Availability heuristics

Availability heuristics occur when individuals make assumptions or decisions using easy-to-recall information. Oftentimes, this information has been recently gathered or experienced. Another term for this is recency bias—where we emphasize experiences that are the freshest in our memories, even if they’re not relevant or statistically sound.

For instance, Gallup polled tens of thousands of Americans during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and discovered that the majority of people overestimated the risk of hospitalization for people who caught COVID:2

By The New York Times | Source: Franklin Templeton-Gallup Economics of Recovery Study

That’s not to say the risk of hospitalization wasn’t serious, just that people thought the risks were significantly higher due to availability heuristics.

Applying availability heuristics

In marketing, there are several ways to leverage a heuristic model, including:

  • Retargeting—By repeatedly showing potential buyers the same ad—whether through TV, social media or banner ads—they’re more likely to recall the brand at the time of purchase.
  • Samples—If you sell a physical product, offering samples allows customers to familiarize themselves with it and the brand. Later, when the time comes to purchase, they may be more inclined to remember that experience.
  • Present the problem—Problems tend to be easier to recall than solutions. If you give that problem weight, people start to overestimate how big of a problem it actually is and are then more open to finding a solution. This is especially useful for marketing intangible products—like SaaS platforms—where consumers may not even realize there is a problem in the first place.

Representativeness heuristics

Similar to availability heuristics, representativeness is used for calculating probabilities when faced with an unknown situation. It tends to leverage past experiences where we create associations (stereotypes or prototypes) as representative stand-ins.

The Nobel Award–winning psychologists and economists who first proposed the concept described it as:3 “The degree to which an event is similar in essential characteristics to its parent population, and reflects the salient features of the process by which it is generated.”

For instance, consider this example they used:4

You see a man wearing glasses and a tweed jacket who is reading The Journal of Psychiatry on the D.C. metro. Which of the following is more likely to be true about this man?

  • He has a postgraduate degree.
  • He does not have a college degree.

According to representativeness, you may assume that the answer is A because that falls in line with the descriptive stereotypes. But, statistically speaking, far more nongraduates than PhDs will ride the subway, so the likelier answer is B.

Applying representativeness heuristics

In marketing, representativeness has been used to create associations between the brand and the people who use it. The Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” ads leveraged this principle to build one of the most successful brand awareness campaigns in recent memory.

In a time when U.S. beer sales were flagging, Dos Equis enjoyed massive success due to a series of clever and humorous ads that linked drinking their lager to being a suave, successful, adventurous, Hemingway-esque gentleman. Since this ad campaign’s introduction, Dos Equis sales have experienced a total growth of 34.8%.5

Marketers can use representativeness to convince consumers that the products they sell are representative of the typical person who buys them, even if that’s not the case. Or they can highlight features of a new product that share similar traits to another popular product that the target demographic has likely to have previously seen or bought.

Anchoring heuristic

This form of heuristic occurs because people tend to lean heavily on the first piece of information they receive (the “anchor”) when making a purchasing decision. It’s an ad psychology tactic that’s especially popular when it comes to price-setting.

For example, a car salesman may ask for a higher-than-average price, knowing that the buyer will use that as the initial anchor to barter the price down toward a fair value. The salesman knows this will occur, so they purposefully set the anchor high.

Or, if you see two products in a store that are next to one another, the first one listed at $1,000 and the other at $250, the anchor effect will create a comparative price association where the second product seems like a deal in relation to the more expensive option. But had you seen the cheaper product by itself, that sticker tag may seem too high.

Applying anchoring heuristics

A significant aspect of the purchasing decision comes down to the question of whether the customer is receiving a fair deal. Marketers can use anchoring strategies to make an offer seem more attractive, such as:

  • Setting buying limits
  • Showing limited availability
  • Offering time-based deals
  • Offering multiple-unit pricing discounts
  • Disassociating premium products from lower-priced options
  • Arranging items on the website from high prices to low

Leveraging heuristics to build your next brand awareness campaign

There are dozens of heuristics that consumers will use to act as shortcuts in the decision-making process, ranging from those examples discussed above to other forms of cognitive bias like the halo effect, buyer’s regret, the bandwagon effect or the power of free.

Being able to successfully leverage such heuristic and ad psychology strategies in a brand awareness campaign boils down to your ability to understand your target audience and the underlying psychological factors that drive them to make a purchase.

Put simply, beliefs dictate how and why people connect with your brand.

At Liquid Agency, we can help shape those beliefs. We’ll partner with you to create a brand awareness campaign, built on the foundations of consumer behavioral psychology and designed to foster a brand experience that stays top of mind.

If you want to turn your brand into a no-brainer, let’s chat.


1 SJDM. The devil you know: The effect of brand recognition and product ratings on consumer choice.

2 Gallup. U.S. Adults’ Estimates of COVID-19 Hospitalization Risk.

3 APsychology. The Representativeness Heuristic.

4 Kahneman, D. (2011): Thinking, Fast and Slow.

5 Why Dos Equis’ ‘Most Interesting Man’ Ad Campaign Was So Successful.

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