Operant conditioning in marketing

Although the term may be new to you, the chances are you have been exposed to operant conditioning on many occasions. By the way, operant conditioning is also known as instrumental conditioning. Terminology aside, as far as sales promotional strategies are concerned, operant conditioning has enabled many companies to achieve astonishing success.

This article will not probe into the finer details of operant conditioning in terms of psychology. Instead, it will explain the concept in simple terms, as well as illustrating how many businesses can use the process of operant conditioning to significantly grow their business.

Conditioning demystified

Conditioning is a form of behavioural learning. In the context of marketing and advertising, it’s not surprising then, that marketing managers do their best to modify and influence consumer buying patterns… in their firm’s favour, of course.

Marketing and advertising professionals use two types of conditioning – operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Let’s briefly look at what distinguishes the two types from each other.

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning, although not the primary focus of this article, is the most extensively used type of conditioning that companies engage to influence our buying behaviour. Classical conditioning differs from its counterpart in the sense that liking a product comes before trying it. As crazy as this sounds, this actually happens all the time, usually resulting from stimuli-rich advertisements that we’re constantly exposed to.

By way of example, let’s imagine you’ve decided to go to the cinema with friends. We’ll say it’s a late night session, screening at 10.30pm. Although you have popcorn in hand, a pre-session cinema advertisement jumps to life on the big screen. The ad relates to the Pancake Manor, and broadcasts the most delectable, fluffy pancakes you’ve ever seen. Smothered in maple syrup and topped with a creamy dollop of ice cream, your mouth starts salivating. All of a sudden your popcorn looks less enticing.

Bringing the ad to your friends’ attention, you all agree that that’s where you’ll be going after the movie. The interesting thing is: you like the advertiser’s pancakes – all without having tasted them!

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, differs from classical conditioning, in the sense that trialling the product precedes liking it. Let me explain.

The fundamental idea behind operant conditioning is that the marketer applies great effort to encourage potential consumers to actually try their product. They do so by giving away large quantities of the product, completely free of charge. The end result – the marketer hopes – is that people who try the product, like it. And so much so, they become motivated to purchase the product at full price on an ongoing basis.

To illustrate how operant conditioning can be applied, let’s presume you’ve just launched a new brand of chewing gum . You know from market research that it’s a great product. It’s Australian made, tastes fantastic, is available in a range of flavours and is affordable. The question is: being a new and unknown brand, how are you going to get encourage consumers to buy it? After all, consumers already have developed brand loyalty in favour of the well established household names.

You contemplate spending $20,000 on a TV ad campaign. However, because this form of communication cannot convey the stimuli of taste, you question the likely return on investment (ROI). With this in mind, your line of thought shifts to operant conditioning.

You decide to invest the $20,000 into a large scale OC campaign. You know your cost of goods sold (COGS) to retail outlets will be, say, 50 cents a packet, but each packet only costs 10 cents to produce. You quickly calculate that at 10 cents per packet, you’ll be able to physically distribute 200,000 packets. Your thinking broadens even further. If only 10 per cent of people continue to buy your gum, but the lifetime value of each consumer is just 200 packets, you’ll be directly selling 400,000 packets from this campaign. And all of this without taking into consideration word-of-mouth referral sales.

Instrumental in their success

Despite fierce competition and increased health concern scrutiny, the global energy drink market continues to flourish. Red Bull and Monster Energy remain market dominant forces, with both companies occupying a massive market share, globally.

A major contributing factor to both companies’ success has been their supreme commitment to unleashing a full-scale operant conditioning campaign – both financially and in terms of intensity. And, they do this in every geographic segment in which they operate.

Red Bull’s operant conditioning in motion

Is operant conditioning suitable for all goods and services?

In a word, no. Let’s consider the following businesses. All four businesses are service providers. It’s unlikely that the first three businesses would benefit from an operant conditioning marketing strategy. But, what about the fourth business?

  • Due to the time that’s needed to clean a house, a provider of Carpet Cleaning services in Brisbane would soon realise that it’s not feasible to give away free carpet cleaning.
  • Similar to the previous example, a company, such as ours, that offers a one day WordPress online training program, is unlikely to benefit from providing a free, online training course.
  • Clearly, a Motorhome Conversions Company could not possibly afford to give away a free motorhome.
  • What about a Gold Coast Bathroom Renovation company? Could a business of this type afford to give away a free Bathroom Renovations, in hope that it results in on-going work?