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What Can Cupcakes Teach Us About Persuasion?


Monday morning, Meredith Morgan, one of our Directors of Client Strategy at Brooks Bell sent this email out to the entire team:

Sounds good right? Nothing like cupcakes to start off a work week. And Meredith didn’t stop at just one type of cupcake, she gave us choices:

Choice A: Homemade frosting recipe
Choice B: Standard whipped icing

Meredith later went on to verbally tell the office that her homemade frosting recipe was dubbed the “best frosting in the world.” Any guesses to which cupcakes went faster?

Here’s what cupcakes can teach us about persuasion:

If you dub anything “the best” curiosity will make people try it out just to prove you wrong. 

Sounds like a cynical point of view but it is true. Consider that when pitching your own products and services. Better yet, throw the gauntlet down and claim to be the best and back it up with a guarantee. It may just be the move that opens the floodgates for free trials, subscriber list growth, sales, etc.

People don’t want “standard.”

When given the option, do you think you would choose the standard option? In this scenario, Meredith’s homemade frosting could have been horrible in comparison to the store brand. But the word “standard” just evokes a plain, vanilla, un-sexiness to the appeal. This is incredibly useful when comparing price tiers side by side. Labeling the lowest tier “standard” may just redirect attention to the more expensive offerings.

A word change can skew A/B tests.

Notice in Meredith’s email she labeled her homemade option as “frosting” and the store bought option as “icing?” I had preconceived notions towards the word “icing.” When given the choice I definitely choose frosting every time. Visually I saw both cupcakes had what I define in my head as “frosting,” but by then my mind was made up. Remember this if comparing two headlines or two offers and you change too many variables. A true test in this case would have been homemade frosting vs. store bought frosting.

People want what everyone else is having.

I will resist the urge to link up to When Harry Met Sally but the value of social proof cannot be overlooked. When I saw that the standard icing option had not even been opened, I quickly decided the other option was the way to go. After all, if others chose it, why wouldn’t I? This can be leveraged when you display testimonials and other credibility indicators in your marketing.

People still want what others are having.

Even when all the homemade frosted cupcakes were gone I still wanted one of those over the unopened store bought frosted cupcakes. Why? Because clearly that was the one to choose! Or was it? The reality is the package was never touched in the other option. How do we know that one wasn’t better from the start? We don’t. But we don’t care. This is why items that are “backordered” can generate way more sales in the long run. Supply and demand has worked for products like the iPad or the Wii. People want what they can’t have. It’s called the scarcity principle. Use it to your advantage!

Who knew cupcakes could teach us about marketing?