Humanizing Marketing: “Nudging” towards Meaningful Change

How marketing, combined with behavioral economics, can be a powerful force for good.

Jasmine Wang
4 min readFeb 14, 2021

Marketing gets a bad rap.

Marketers are stereotyped as fluffy and deceitful. They capitalize off of people’s insecurities.

They make people feel bad about themselves, and then sell products packaged as magic potions for a picture-perfect life.

I believe in a different vision for marketing.

As someone who’s spent the last few years immersed in nonprofit marketing (with Education For All), learning the craft has been an exercise in sharpening my empathy.

My goal is to build up a community around our cause, by creating content that effectively drives outreach and engagement.

To do so, we experiment with different modes of storytelling to create authentic connections with our audience. We distill and articulate the meaning of what we do in a way that resonates–––and therefore inspires.

So, I see effective marketing as fuel for connection and meaningful change.

This applies to marketing beyond nonprofits.

As Seth Godin, seasoned marketer, prolific writer, and business thought leader puts it:

True marketing is about building trust, creating a connection, enabling an emotional bridge between your solution and the need that someone else has.

Good products solve people’s problems. Good marketing effectively communicates the purpose of the products.

The end goal is to get good products into the hands of people who can improve their lives with them.

Of course, this is not to discount the criticisms made against exploitative marketing. Naming “good marketing” implies that “bad marketing” exists. Bad marketing pressures customers into buying things they don’t need.

By aiming to see and understand customers fully, good marketing can be a positive force in the world.

How can we develop this understanding?

Empathy is powerful (…and difficult) because it’s not about understanding how people would logically think. It’s about being able to understand emotions and irrationalities.

Enter: behavioral economics.

The field of study dedicated to understanding human decision-making processes, assuming that we are inherently irrational.

Whereas neoclassical economics assumes that we are always rational and make choices that maximize our long-term utility, behavioral economics takes into account our psychological blind spots and imperfections.

In essence, behavioral economics humanizes us.

Putting behavioral economics into practice: Nudges & Choice Architecture

There are well-defined, systematic ways in which marketers harness behavioral economics to influence consumer decision making processes.

They involve making deliberate changes to the choice architecture — –the design of the environment in which someone is making a decision.

Nudge theory, fathered by Nobel prize-winning economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, involves using tiny and indirect changes to the choice architecture to influence decision-making in a predictable way. Nudges either prompt or counteract a behavioral bias.

Let’s look at an example first….

….while taking a slight detour from the business world.

By placing a print of a fly in the middle of urinals and therefore subtly encouraging users to aim more accurately, an airport was able to decrease unpleasant “spillage” in its bathroom by 80%.

In layman’s terms, a nudge is a light push that directs someone in the right direction––a choice that is beneficial to them, society, or both.

Back to business, brands can use nudges to make it easier for customers to make positive decisions.

Here are a few practical examples.

  1. Using default options: Presenting one option as the default gives the user a sense of ownership before even purchasing. This increases the chance of it being chosen because we don’t like parting with things we already own.
  2. Leveraging social proof: Seeing that others prefer a product increases our likelihood of buying into it, too. This is why customer reviews play such a large role in digital marketing.
  3. Avoiding choice overload: Having to choose from too many options cause decision fatigue. Consumers have to work harder to find their most preferred option, while turning down more alternatives, feeding into potential dissatisfaction after purchasing.

Much debate remains around whether or not it is democratic to use nudges. There is a fine line between well-intended nudges and profit-driven manipulation.

Addressing this, Thaler emphasized important ground rules.

  • Nudges do not compromise free will because it still gives people the option to choose. Like a GPS, a reminder, or a warning notification, they can be ignored.
  • Choice architecture is inevitable. An important parallel between choice architecture and real architecture is that there is no neutral design. Whether or not the design was intentional, it will influence behavior.

Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I’m excited about what nudging––and more broadly, the increased integration of behavioral economics into marketing––can change for the better.

By embracing our irrationalities and raw humanness, we can make lives better while creating a more connected world.

Thanks for reading!

Feel free to reach out to me on Linkedin! I’d love to chat. :)