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What uncertainty can do for your consumer promotions

What uncertainty can do for your consumer promotions

If you were presented with an uncertain set of circumstances, what would you do? Run towards them or run away?

Risk and uncertainty are parts of life. And while we have many mechanisms to help deal with and “solve” situations where they might be present, not knowing what’s going to happen isn’t always sought after in the world of consumerism.

Marketing campaigns that leverage uncertainty are something of a rarity, but they can be very useful in helping brands reach their goals when effective. On Amir, professor of marketing at the University of California San Diego and expert in all things risk and uncertainty, shared thoughts on the psychology of uncertainty and how it can drive consumer engagement with your promotions. 

What does uncertainty look like in consumer promotions?

Often, when we think of uncertainty, the general consensus is that it’s a feeling most people want to avoid. The thought is that we would rather bask in guaranteed pleasure than the fear of the unknown. But appealing to consumers doesn’t always come in the form of safety and security. Sometimes, the appeal is in letting your customers anticipate what’s going to happen.

“While in some situations with uncertainty there might be fear or trepidation, you can also describe situations where there is excitement and curiosity — feelings that are associated with positivity,” said Amir. “A lot of people buy lottery tickets; the probability that they will win is so small, but the excitement of winning is enough to drive people to buy a ticket. It’s the same thing with a [marketing] promotion. If I might get a reward, there’s a motivating component that doesn’t exist if you know for sure.” 

Uncertainty works best when the stakes are low 

If you were a consumer in the early 2000s, you may remember Coca-Cola’s beloved bottle cap loyalty program. It went a little something like this: Coca-Cola would print prizes or numbers on the inside of bottle caps that could then be redeemed for points. Some caps were a part of the promotion, others were not. Part of the fun was uncovering which soda bottle would come with a prize. 

For Coca-Cola lovers, purchasing the product meant one of two things: They were either one step closer to receiving a prize or they were one step closer to a refreshing sip of soda. Either way, they could still feel satisfied with the promotion. 

To put it another way, the stakes weren’t too high. Amir says that in cases like these uncertainty can be exceptionally motivating around consumer buying decisions. It leverages feelings of urgency, excitement and anticipation — all of which can drive immediate action in consumers.

But when the stakes are too high, promotions run the risk of scaring customers away.

“If it’s too large then you start running into the zone where people begin over-thinking, which decreases the allure of uncertainty in promotions and will give you the opposite effect where people prefer not to do anything at all,” said Amir.

So here’s the million dollar question: How do you know when to leverage uncertainty in your marketing campaigns? Sure, there’s the allure of the unknown and that’s partly the appeal for uncertainty in promotions, but can it be pinned down to one specific tactic?

While Amir says the answer isn’t as simple as defining a certain price range or product, your safest bet is providing your consumers with something you already know they’re sure to enjoy, even if they don’t know all the details.

“Suppose you are selling high-end cars and you run a promotion based on uncertainty where your consumers don’t know the color of the car they’ll be getting, but they know it’s one of three really great colors. So even though it’s a high-priced item, what’s at stake is not very high because all three colors are great. That’s exciting to the customer and won’t have a perverse effect,” said Amir.

You can also leverage uncertainty by offering your customers the chance to earn a best-selling mystery product for free or by randomly dropping details about a promotion they’ll be happy to hear about. Just remember: The key is to emphasize positive emotions and avoid those that are not.

Uncertainty isn’t going anywhere, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You can encourage consumer emotions to work in your favor when you understand how they come about and what it takes to best serve your customers. 


Picture of Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener is a brand journalist for Quikly. She covers stories that help to inform and educate consumer-facing marketers.

Picture of Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener

Lindsay Keener is a brand journalist for Quikly. She covers stories that help to inform and educate consumer-facing marketers.