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Whitbread, owner of Costa, Premier Inn and Beefeater amongst others, has beaten profit expectations in their interim results published today, reporting a pre-tax profit of £216.1m, £3m over analysts' predictions.

You could blame the sheer ubiquity of its coffee branches, the powerful draw of a roadside steak or the sight of Lenny Henry’s beaming face for this success, however Whitbread’s head of customer relationship management (CRM) & loyalty, David Oliver would have you believe differently.

David Oliver believes that it is principles from human behavioural psychology that are driving customers through its doors. In particular, the art of social proofing.

What is social proof?

Social proofing is a combination of behavioural psychology and peer pressure. David Oliver states that...

Humans are configured to be lazy and make the quick, easy decision. We are all open to influence and one of the key sources of that is how people around us behave.

Social proofing helps to capitalise on this human weakness. Notice how I skillfully avoid the word 'exploit' here.

For example: nightclubs purposefully leave queues of people outside the building, despite the building itself being far from maximum capacity. The patron walking past will see the queue and think "that place looks popular, it must be good”. 

Although if you’re over thirty you’ll just be grateful you don’t go clubbing anymore.

This is a video from a 1962 episode of Candid Camera, showing social proofing at work at the most basic societal level:

Amazon is the undoubted king of social proof, with links to products other customers have bought or recommended all over every web page. Take a look at our article on other ways ecommerce sites use social proof.

Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, developed a theory where he wanted to see how new ideas and technologies were spread through society. This resulted in the innovation adoption curve.

Here you can see that trying to market a new idea to the mass majority is useless. Concentrate on convincing the innovators and early adopters first, that way word of mouth will spread and marketing will take on a continually snowballing life of it’s own. Well that’s the theory. 

David Oliver suggests that Apple utilised this strategy in marketing their iPhones back when they were just a niche brand with only a few early-adopters at their mercy.

[Apple] harnessed the enthusiasm of early adopters, creating hype around product launches and using current customers’ reactions to convince new customers they should make a purchase.

The proof of... uh... social proofing is certainly apparent to anyone who has witnessed the pre-launch queues outside any Apple store. Although it should also be noted how Apple uses rhythm to create a consistent marketing experience, so there's is a complex stategy.

So how does Whitbread use social proof?

Costa runs a fairly robust social media campaign on Facebook, posting daily pictures of well photographed pieces of cake, however it's amongst these Instagrammed delicacies that you can find some hidden examples of social proofing - 

Here Costa has shared a photo of some 'celebrities' drinking a Costa coffee on the streets of Leeds. It's saying "here, normal people of Facebook, you could be like Little Mix too if you just buy one of our caramel lattes".

I'm not sure this paparazzi style of marketing is terribly on the level, but the link reveals that at least it wasn't Costa hiding in the bushes waiting to snap.

The Costa Coffee website however shows very little example of social proofing. Perhaps with customer reviews, or even just a live Twitter or Instagram feed, they could improve their customer engagement.

Premier Inn's website also shows little sign of social proofing, with no customer interaction, recommendations or social media links. The same with Beefeater Grill's website and the various other subsidiaries under Whitbread's belt.  

In terms of ecommerce, Whitbread aren't exactly practicing what they preach.

However it's notable that on Facebook, Premier Inn has 76,220 likes, Beefeater Grill has 127,000 likes and Costa Coffee has over 1m likes. These are huge numbers of already engaged customers that surely won't take much cajoling to help push these brands even further along the innovation adoption curve.  

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 22 October, 2013 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (1)

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Nick Garner

nice article and ties in with a lot of work were doing around the consideration flow i.e. have social proof on certain search results on google and you will accelerate the velocity of the conversion process.

about 3 years ago

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