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Turn Superstition into Marketing Gold

When numbers are more than just numbers, they can be used to influence behavior, which should have business owners counting their blessings.

If you asked someone to list a few factors that impact business performance, paraskevidekatriaphobia--fear of Friday the 13th--probably wouldn't show up on the list. But perhaps it should. A reported 9 percent of Americans are paraskevidekatriaphobics, and studies show that $800 million to $900 million in business revenue is lost on that ominous date.

Chances are that most people have engaged in some kind of superstitious behavior in a business setting, whether it's by wearing a lucky suit to an interview or scheduling an important meeting in alignment with a good horoscope. Irrational? Yes, but according to Stuart Vyse, professor of psychology at Connecticut College, these actions are understandable, especially in times of economic uncertainty.

"In the business world, there is a tremendous amount of randomness in the market and people seek ways to gain control over these events, even though they can't," he says. "What you wear that day, the coffee that you drink--these things can't affect the outcome of the day's business, but people engage in this [behavior] to feel like they've done every possible thing to manage the outcome."

Although Vyse isn't a proponent of irrational behavior, he acknowledges that there are certain psychological benefits, such as more confidence and a sense of comfort, linked to superstitious rituals. "Crazy or not, you feel better having done [them]."

Good Business in Lucky Numbers
Lauren Block and Thomas Kramer are the Lippert professor of marketing and associate professor of marketing and international business, respectively, at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business. They say businesses can take steps to mitigate losses on Friday the 13th, as well as capitalize on positive superstitions.

In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Block and Kramer point out some successful marketing campaigns based on the number seven, considered lucky in Western cultures. Icelandair, for example, ran a promotion allowing customers to add on excursions for $7 each, provided they booked by 7/7/07. Another was Wal-Mart's "Lucky in Love Wedding Search," which granted seven couples a free wedding ceremony and reception for 77 guests on the lucky date. "That campaign was very successful," Kramer says.

On the other hand, hundreds of millions of dollars are lost on Friday the 13th because humans are naturally risk-averse. Although it's not always done consciously, there's a tendency toward less decision-making, Block says. "People don't do as much shopping and don't leave the house--and there's less flying." But by simply making people aware of superstitious behavior, it can bring out their more rational side, reminding them it's just an ordinary day.

Home store Crate & Barrel, Kramer recalls, ran a "Lucky You" campaign last year on Friday the 13th. "They played off the superstition and got people to come out anyway." Because consumers are not always aware of the extent to which they rely on superstitions, this is perhaps one model that businesses can follow.

And calling attention to the cursed date certainly hasn't hurt the Friday the 13th movies. The franchise just grew to 12 films with its latest release, which came out on Feb. 13--a Friday. The first 11 films have earned a scary $350 million, and five of them have been released on a Friday the 13th. (Click here to learn more about Jason's murderous exploits.)

Superstitious Customers Pay More for Less
Superstition and business don't openly mix in Western cultures, but in Asia, particularly in China and Taiwan, the two are intertwined.

According to research done by Block and Kramer, superstitions can influence the buying habits of Taiwanese people, especially where it concerns lucky or unlucky colors and numbers. "We found, very interestingly and somewhat counter-intuitively, that people are willing to over-pay to avoid an unlucky number," Block says, referring to a study in which Taiwanese consumers often paid more for a package of three tennis balls than four, because the number four is considered ill-omened. In Mandarin Chinese, the pronunciation of "four" is similar to that of "dead."

In another study, the pair found that Taiwanese customers indicated they would be just as willing to pay NT$ [New Taiwan dollars] 342.63 (approximately $10) for a pack of eight tennis balls as they were to pay NT$227.10 for a pack of 10. To put that in perspective, consumers who held positive superstitions about the number eight were willing to spend 50 percent more on 25 percent fewer units--all because in Chinese, "eight" sounds like "prosper" and "wealth."

Kramer concludes that it's important for business owners to be aware of any superstitions held by their target market. "Then they can both capitalize on [this knowledge] as well as avoid mistakes."

Jennifer Wang is a staff writer at Entrepreneur magazine in Southern California.
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