FEATURE1 November 2011

Behavioural economics for breakfast

Behavioural science

Helen Nuki of Monkey See looks at how behavioural economics can help reveal the hidden influences on people’s choice of breakfast cereal.


Traditional market research focuses on what we know or think. Our approach, which uses behavioural economics, is different. The focus is as much on what consumers actually do, and the reasons underlying that. Why? Because consumer behaviour is more often instinctive than rational. Our aim is to uncover and understand the invisible behavioural mechanics of the marketplace.

Take a famous brand like Weetabix. On conventional research measures it’s a winner – fantastic awareness, high stated preference, superb values, amazing loyalty. In short, consumers love it and there is not much to be done to make it better. Right?

Wrong. Using research products designed to look beyond the usual brand questions, we uncovered a host of hitherto unseen behavioural insights that could dramatically affect Weetabix’s market performance. These tools allow us to observe and better understand what consumers really do at breakfast, revealing their intuitive tendencies and biases, the context of their behaviour, the influence of others and the power of the social norm.

The data revealed that while Weetabix was one of the brands most likely to be found in people’s kitchen cupboards, it was also one of the cereals least likely to be removed from the cupboard and eaten on a given morning. This unexpected behaviour had the power to hold back sales. What was causing it? We highlighted and measured a number of hidden issues:

  • The influence of what behavioural economists call the ‘default option’ (the quick, easy, familiar one) was very marked. People choosing cereal in the morning tend to reach for the product that is easiest to get into a bowl. And in this respect Weetabix’s inner packaging placed it at a distinct disadvantage. Corn Flakes and most other cereals can simply be tipped into a bowl, but with Weetabix you have to first tackle the inner wrapping – which is that bit more fiddly.
  • Counterintuitive aspects of behaviour were also evident. Consumers who had bought into Weetabix’s branding at the supermarket would often throw away the outer packaging when they got home to save cupboard space (something we didn’t see with other cereals). This leaves only the plain inner lining, bearing none of the branding. As a result these people were less likely to notice and choose Weetabix when taking a cereal from the cupboard.
  • The influence of others around the breakfast table was also important. Only 18% said they were influenced by others in their breakfast choice, but in our analysis we found that 40% of adults followed the choice of their children and 57% ate the same as another adult. The products that were most ‘contagious’ in this respect were those with a high sensory or ritual appeal, such as porridge (because of its smell) and Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut (which is nice and noisy).
  • The social norm is another driver of intuitive behaviour. We like to conform with how we perceive others to behave. The perceived norm was that others make healthy cereal choices and buy from companies that ‘do the right thing’. On this score Weetabix emerged as the epitome of what consumers perceived the norm to be. This may help explain why the product does so well on supermarket shelves, and why there was such controversy recently when Weetabix signed up children as brand ambassadors.

Overall, the hidden influences we identified accounted for the majority of influence taking place, even in this low-involvement category.

The insights that emerge from this sort of study can be applied not just to strategic issues but also to new product development and tactical nudges. Hidden influences exist in every sector, and should be on every brand owner’s breakfast menu.

Helen Nuki is a partner at research agency Monkey See


13 years ago

I'll be honest with you. I have worked with economists for many years and I think I understand their perspective. Behavioural economics sounds more like sociology and psychology. I think we are looking at norms, values and roles. Instinct is normative driven. Society dictates a lot of behaviour. Did u take the same car, same route to work? Do u drink "favorite" drinks again and again? Do u sit in the same chair at home? Do u check your e-mails at the same time every morning? How predictable!

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13 years ago

For me there's a real danger of hoisting on trendy behavioural economics topics such as "I'll have what the others are having" onto any situation whatsoever, and then use BE as the rationale. Bit like Marxist interpretation to history - make the facts fit a pattern. Just saying. ;)

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