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How to use science to get customers addicted to your brand

How to use science to get customers addicted to your brand

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Imagine a mobile game that’s been a hit for an entire decade. According to SimilarWeb, this game ranks 12th in its category in Canada, 27th in the US, and has over 675,490 reviews with a 4.2 average star rating.

Keeping a mobile game popular for ten straight years is nothing short of miraculous, especially when most games last just under three months, with users dropping off within the first three days.

How did this brand manage to captivate millions of players worldwide and keep them hooked for so long?

Here’s how PopCap Games turned casual mobile game players into sunflower-slinging, pea-shooting addicts and how you can apply these principles to your biz.

Unlocking the Key to Addiction

Back in 2013, PopCap Games released Plants vs. Zombies 2 (PvZ2). This game ingeniously combined strategy, action, and humour, making it an instant hit. But what truly set PvZ2 apart was its approach to in-game rewards.

At the time, most game developers relied on in-app purchases and gating upper levels behind paywalls.

Players had to pay to win.

PopCap, however, employed a different tactic that kept players engaged, committed, and eager to play more.

Riding the Dopamine Rollercoaster

PopCap used “intermittent reinforcement” to get players hooked.

This technique involves sporadically delivering rewards following a behaviour, leading to prolonged and persistent responses.

While most games awarded points every time a player completed a level, PvZ2 used randomly generated access keys that players could receive after beating certain levels or opponents. These keys weren’t just ordinary rewards; they were potent tools of intermittent reinforcement.

Each time a player defeated a level or opponent, there was a chance of obtaining one of these coveted keys.

The unpredictability of the reward created a rollercoaster of emotions, inducing excitement, anticipation, and even minor frustration in players.

Will the next round yield the elusive key?

Or will the thrill continue to build?

This effect is powerful. ResearchGate backs this up, stating: “Intermittent reinforcement leads to more persistence and higher total effort, while participants in the continuous condition exit as soon as payment stops or decrease effort dramatically.”

The randomness of the access keys meant players couldn’t predict when they’d get their next dopamine-induced reward hit. It’s the same principle that keeps us hooked on slot machines, social media feeds, and even games where you kill zombies with plants.

Beyond Addiction: The Psychology of Achievement

Humans are naturally drawn to challenges and the satisfaction of achievement. Out of the nine different emotional motivators that drive purchasing decisions, achievement is a powerful one.

By setting up keys as rewards for overcoming levels or opponents, PvZ tapped into this aspect of human psychology.

Players weren’t just chasing random rewards; they were pursuing a sense of accomplishment, overcoming hurdles, and progressing through the game.

Applying These Strategies to Your Business

Let’s look at how you could use these principles to captivate your customers.

Choose a Reward That People Want

Ensure that the rewards you offer are highly desirable to your target audience. The closer your reward aligns with your customers’ biggest desires, the more effective it will be.

    For example, GrabOne, a popular daily deal site, offers limited-time deals on a wide range of products and services. The variety and appeal of these deals keep customers coming back.

    Set the Stage

    Create a system where rewards or special offers appear randomly. Avoid announcing these rewards in advance; let customers discover them on their own to maximise the impact.

      For instance, The Warehouse could implement a system where random discounts or bonus items are given at checkout without prior announcement.

      This unexpected reward can delight customers and encourage repeat visits.

      Give Customers a Reason to Come Back

      Keep your audience engaged by regularly changing the rewards or deals you offer. Set up a rotating schedule of special offers that changes weekly or monthly.

      This not only keeps things fresh but also gives customers a reason to return frequently.

        A great example is Hell Pizza, which occasionally offers surprise deals or limited-time special menu items. By not always revealing these in advance, they create anticipation and excitement, encouraging customers to check back often.

        Case Study: GrabOne and Real-Time Scarcity

        GrabOne’s success in using real-time scarcity can be seen in its continued popularity and customer loyalty. By providing daily opportunities, unpredictable rewards, and repeatable actions, GrabOne has created a compelling and addictive experience for its users.

        Create an Opportunity

        GrabOne creates daily opportunities for customers to get what they want at a discounted price. This simple yet effective strategy encourages daily engagement and keeps customers coming back.

        Make the Rewards Unpredictable

        The variety and unpredictability of GrabOne’s deals keep customers on their toes. By not knowing what deals will be available next, customers are motivated to check the site regularly to avoid missing out.

        Keep Them Engaged with Repeatable Actions

        The daily refresh of deals ensures that customers have a reason to return to GrabOne frequently. This quick repeatability maintains interest and drives continuous engagement.

        Implementing These Strategies

        To implement these strategies in your business, start by identifying what your customers value most. Create opportunities for them to receive these rewards in a way that feels random and exciting. Keep the experience fresh by regularly updating the rewards and offers.

        Restaurant Based Example

        Let’s say you run a café in Auckland. You could introduce a loyalty program where customers earn points for each purchase. Instead of a fixed reward system, you could offer surprise rewards at random intervals, such as a free coffee, a discount on their next purchase, or a complimentary pastry.

        By keeping these rewards unpredictable, you’ll keep customers engaged and eager to visit more often.

        Online Retail Example

        For an online retail store, consider setting up a secret landing page that only opens with your highest-priced bundle. Offer a free product, guide, or gift on this page, but only run it for two weeks.

        Then change the trigger and reward for the next two weeks. This creates a sense of exclusivity and excitement, encouraging customers to return and explore new offers regularly.


        Brands that use real scarcity by providing opportunity, unpredictable rewards, and repeatable actions are the ones that grab attention and keep it.

        Real-time scarcity works because it taps into our deeply ingrained survival mechanisms, creating a sense of urgency and value that drives action.

        By understanding and implementing these principles, you can significantly boost your sales and keep your audience engaged.