System One Marketing: Become The Intuitive Choice

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By: Dr. David Bridwell, People Scientist

The brain is organized to make decisions in a quick intuitive way. This applies to minor decisions, like which jacket to wear on a cold day, but it also applies to major decisions like which television to purchase. 

Since marketers are in the business of influencing behavior, it’s critical for marketers to understand how their audiences arrive at quick intuitive decisions. We need to understand the biases and heuristics that the brain uses to distill complicated information into something that is tangible and actionable. 

At Intermark Group, we identified the four important aspects of human decision making that should be considered for effective marketing, and we embed these components within our System 1 Marketing

Habits and Memory

Habits and memory contribute to the majority of decisions that we make. In your morning routine, for example, you might check Facebook, take a shower, brush your teeth, make your bed, make coffee, and prepare a bowl of cereal. Each of these steps of your routine is a decision about how to go about your day, yet you likely made these decisions effortlessly because they’re embedded in habit and memory. That’s why habits and memory are such an important component to behavior–they allow us to accomplish tasks with minimal cognitive effort. 

In addition to morning routines, habits and memories also shape purchase decisions that we make throughout the day. Maybe you formed a habit of ordering a pizza every Friday night or maybe you formed a habit of buying gas at a particular gas station, visiting a particular grocery store or buying the same brand of milk. In each of these cases, you’ve likely made a decision without even realizing it. That’s our quick, intuitive decision making system in action.

So what does this mean for marketers? For one, it means that embedding your product or brand within people’s routines can be very powerful. Marketers need to be aware of the habits that are unique to their customers and how the habits surrounding your product or brand are reinforced or altered. 


The next factor that drives decisions is familiarity. Basically, the more we see something the more we tend to view it favorably. 

The power of familiarity was illustrated by a fascinating experiment that was conducted by Alter and Oppenheimer (2008, Psychometric Bulletin & Review) where they asked people how much of a product they could buy using a normal dollar bill, an altered dollar bill, or a dollar coin. The study showed that people thought they could purchase more items with a dollar bill that was unaltered compared to a dollar bill that was altered or a dollar coin. The dollar bill that was more familiar was perceived to have more value! 

For System 1 Marketing, familiarity means that you have to establish distinct brand assets, and you have to use marketing to make sure that those materials reach your audience. 

Feelings and Emotions

The next heuristic is based on feelings and emotions. And the important point here is that feelings and emotions aren’t just guiding our decisions–they’re a part of our decision making system. This is based on neuroscientist Antonion Damasio’s work, where he showed that participants who lost the ability to feel emotion were unable to make decisions. They were able to articulate the pros and cons of minor decisions, like when to schedule a dental appointment, but they lacked the ability to actually schedule the appointment. 

Because feelings and emotions are a big factor in decision-making, it’s important to understand how emotions influence behavior. For example, ”the scarcity principle” is a behavioral bias where we tend to view items that are scarce as more desirable and valuable. It turns out that scarce items become even more desirable when we’re in a state of fear, so your ability to communicate scarcity depends on the audience’s emotional state. 

We can account for this in System 1 Marketing by considering the emotions created by messages that surround advertising placements (for example, does the advertisement appear within a television show that invokes fear?). We can also ensure that the biases and decision heuristics that are embedded within the ad help lead to the desired changes in perception and behavior. 

Leverage Pre-existing Concepts

The fourth feature of System 1 Marketing is that we process new information by leveraging pre-existing concepts. When Uber first came out, for example, they were challenged with communicating who they are and what they do to an audience that wasn’t previously familiar with their business concept. 

They were able to communicate what they did by describing themselves as “an Airbnb for taxis.” In this case, leveraging our pre-existing understanding of taxis and “service-sharing” apps helps us understand what Uber does. 

Another way to leverage pre-existing information to engage audiences is to attach products to mental landmarks that people repeatedly encounter. One of our favorite examples of this is the Geico “Hump Day” ad. The ad features a camel walking through the office asking everyone what day it is. The employees roll their eyes at the camel until one finally gives the expected answer “Hump Day,” much to the camel’s delight. 

The advertisement created an association between the brand and hump day, giving Geico a boost in search volume every Wednesday. 

In our work at Intermark Group, we’ve leveraged associations between brands and mental landmarks through our “Sun’s Out, Tongue’s Out” campaign with Rita’s Italian Ice. The campaign launched on the first day of spring, so people begin to associate the first day of Spring (and the warm sun) with Rita’s Italian Ice. 

The Babybel example below is one of my favorite examples of System 1 Marketing because it demonstrates how subtle it is. Remember that one of the heuristics that we use in decision making is to relate new information to preexisting information. In the Babybel ad, they were challenged with quickly and efficiently conveying that the cheese was made out of 98% milk. 

This information is conveyed quickly within the ad by leveraging our preexisting knowledge about the shape of a milk carton and our knowledge that Babybel cheese is covered in red material. Creatively combining these two pieces of information helps visually convey this product feature in a quick intriguing way. 

We’ve incorporated this approach in our work for St. Vincent’s Hospital (shown below). Our goal was to communicate that St. Vincent’s provides services for emotional wellbeing in addition to clinical care. Using the principles of System 1 Marketing, we paired these two pieces of information together creatively to efficiently communicate that St. Vincent’s goes the extra length in providing care.

Become the Intuitive Choice

System 1 Marketing helps your brand become the intuitive choice and ensures your audience doesn’t have to think too much in terms of buying your product. To learn more about how we can apply System 1 Marketing to your marketing challenges, give us a call at 800-624-9239 or email us at [email protected].