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Telling isn’t the same as learning. 

In the world of #trends, it’s easy to get consumed by the latest fad and lose sight of your goal. As marketers, we want consumers to learn our brand name, values and story. Conveniently, psychologists have been polishing their tools of human understanding for decades! You can use principles such as behavioural learning in your communications to help customers identify and understand what your brand has to offer.

Behavioural learning

Firstly, what is behavioural learning? Generally, it’s accepted that behavioural learning takes place as a result of a response (from consumers) to external stimuli (marketing messages). These responses then become learned associations with the stimulus. There are two branches of behavioural learning, classical and operant learning. We’ll now take a tour of their meanings, significance and applicability to your communications!

Classical learning

Classical learning is a process of pairing a neutral stimulus with a response. Think Pavlov with his dogs, who learnt to associate food with the ring of a bell, so much so that they salivated even when only the bell was present. In marketing, this means consistent choices with your messages, such as tone, colour and wording will be learnt to be associated with your brand. Internationally, yellow arches have been associated with Big Macs and fries. Would this have happened if the marketing team was feeling creative, deciding to turn the sign upside down and making it blue? A planned integrated marketing campaign with consistency across communications will capitalise on the gains to be made from classical learning, as your audience will learn to associate the cues of your consistent messaging style with your brand itself. Think like McDonalds, consistency is key!

Operant learning

So, we’ve covered how to make associations become learnt, but how as marketers can we encourage (or discourage!) certain behaviours? That’s where operant learning comes in. Operant learning assumes that behaviour can be taught through positive and negative reinforcement of behaviour. If we take the example of a child, good behaviour could be rewarded with a new toy, or a pat on the back. This would in turn encourage the good behaviour in the future. In marketing, brands like Zara use a pleasant shopping environment as positive reinforcement to come back again, and Tesco use their loyalty cards to reward us for buying groceries with them. Good store music and money off are examples of extrinsic rewards, meaning they are tangible benefits for the consumer. Where possible, see what tangible benefits you can offer your customers, be that money off or a more sleek website design, to positively reinforce repeat purchase.

Intrinsic rewards

Everyone loves to feel like they’re getting a good deal, which is why extrinsic rewards work. But let’s explore another avenue, intrinsic rewards. This is the motivation that comes from within your consumer, brought about by the benefits they perceive from your product/service. You can provide customers with samples of your shampoo (extrinsic rewards) but if it doesn’t improve their hair and make them feel more confident (intrinsic reward), then they won’t learn to keep coming back to your brand. If you rely on extrinsic rewards, the learning effects won’t be as meaningful, positive or strong. You should focus on getting your customer to respond positively to your offering, with extrinsic rewards as the cherry on the top of your already benefit-busting cake! By doing so, you tap into your consumers deeper motivations, encouraging more thorough positive reinforcement with your brand. So, before offering a money off coupon, see if you can offer your customer something they really care about, something intrinsically rewarding.


Behavioural learning is learning through association, and marketers can use this to increase the effectiveness of communications.

Classical learning can be used by planning consistent messaging across your platforms to build your brand image.

Operant learning can be used to associate your brand with positive rewards, both external and internal.

Internal rewards are the most important for learning, you should maximise the internal rewards from your offering as the foundation to positive associations with your brand.

Now you’ve learned how to use learning theory in your communications, it might be useful to get some tips on getting your message across in a simple way. Check out our blog on writing in plain English here.