create and leverage a sense of obligation

2000% increase in sales after free sample

This is the seventh of 20 daily THOUGHTS examining emotions in marketing.It might seem entirely irrational, but human beings are not rational beings. Indeed, up to 80% of all human decisions are made almost entirely without rational input and many of the other 20% are influenced by emotions – often despite us thinking that we are being very rational.

A significant emotional driver of consumer behaviour is ‘obligation’ – where the consumer feels an obligation to make a purchase, such as in the case of a child selling a school raffle ticket, a disabled person selling badges to raise money for their cause, a friend starting in a new job, or responding to positive behaviour towards them. The latter is often referred to as ‘reciprocity’.

One US study found that giving away free samples of a product can generate almost immediate sales – and can boost overall sales by as much as 2000%. Having tasted a sample in a supermarket, many buyers feel obliged to buy the product. Indeed, when it comes to food, the offering of samples in supermarkets and shopping centres is one of the most effective marketing tactics.

Another study in the US, replicated on a number of occasions, found a significant increase in the size and number of tips given to wait staff in restaurants that place a free chocolate on the table before the account is settled. The research found that a simple thing like a 10-cent chocolate can create a sense of obligation. A free port, coffee or desert can have an even greater effect.

The other emotions associated with obligation and reciprocity are guilt and shame. Very often, consumers feel an obligation to make a purchase because they feel guilt or shame.  Indeed, flowers, wine, chocolates and the like are often viewed as going well with an apology, for a guilt or shame causing action that has occurred or is perceived to have occurred.

In my case, it is always perceived to have occurred.

Guilt and shame, in addition to being a driver of purchase behaviour, can also be the result of purchase behaviour, with some consumers:

  • Feeling ashamed of the purchase of pornography for example, or
  • Guilty about the purchase of a chocolate that might put on weight
Buyer’s remorse – feeling sorry that a purchase was made is often a reflection of guilt or shame.
A number of luxury brands now actively reinforce purchase behaviour by providing information that helps the customer rationalise a purchase after it has occurred. This can reduce buyer remorse and increase repeat purchase rates and referral rates.Like all emotions, obligation (and reciprocity), guilt, and shame are complex. This complexity is reflected in the way they impact human behaviour and purchase decisions. They have the potential to significantly impact purchase decisions. For this reason alone, they need to be understood.


Human behaviour can be significantly impacted by emotions such as obligation (reciprocity), guilt and shame. Marketers need to understand how these emotions influence the behaviour of members of their target market.

Equally, thought needs to be given to the impact that purchase behaviour can have on emotions like shame and guilt, which, in turn, can impact on future purchase behaviour and the propensity to refer. This is why some business have strategies in place to minimise buyer remorse and maximise positive rationalisation of a purchase.


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