Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I've been hoodwinked!

When I first started “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” I felt a little sleazy, like I was being groomed for the fine “art” of conning. However, the further I read the more I realized what a great tool it was. Even though the cover includes a quote from Journal of Marketing Research that proclaims, “For marketers, it is among the most important books written in the last 10 years”, I feel the book is more tuned to a general consumer audience, the author serving as an ally. I clearly saw myself in many of the situations he used throughout the book and how true they are to real life.

It was however relevant to my current studies as well. All the “weapons of influence” Cialdini talks about are tactics used within the marketing industry. I just didn’t know the psychology behind them. I’m not sure if knowing this makes me like marketing more or less. The techniques Dr. C talks about are all ways of persuading people to act. I suppose if I use these proven tactics honestly in my work, I’ll still be able to sleep at night.

The main thing I took from the book was that consumers depend on shortcuts to make decisions. I’ll speak only on purchasing decisions here since it’s relevant to my field of study. Because of the rapid pace of modern life and barrage of products being marketed to consumers on a daily basis, I think two things will become increasingly important. First, branding will become more important than ever, and second, marketing will need to be even more precise and more thoughtfully targeted.

Consumers generally tend to buy brands they are familiar with. However, when it comes time for larger, high involvement purchases people spend more brainpower comparing similar products, pricing, shopping around, etc. Still, the brand(s) they are most familiar with are always in their consideration set. So for a brand they are not familiar with to “out-do” one of the brands they already have positive feelings about, the unfamiliar brand will have to offer up a far superior product at the exact moment the consumer is in the market. In order for the unfamiliar brand to increase its chances of serious consideration, it needs to do most of its image-building legwork far ahead of time. Not only do I think this will become more important as the pace of life continues to increase, but I think it will be in the best interest of companies to build even stronger brand images to accommodate for this escalation. By building stronger brand images, consumers can confidently resort to purchasing shortcuts for even higher priced items simply because they already know most everything about the product short of trying it on for size.

I propose a couple ways of doing this. First, I think companies need to focus extensively on what is unique about their product(s). I realize this is already common practice, but I'm suggesting upping the ante. The uniqueness needs to be so strong and so memorable that it will create a brand association quicker than ever before. For example, many car manufacturers have succeeded in creating single word associations with the cars they produce. For BMW the word is "performance". For Toyota, the word is "reliability". For Volvo, the word is "safety". These are very strong identifiers. If you want a performance car, you automatically think of BMW. If you are concerned with safety, the first car that comes to mind is Volvo, and so on. The more unique, strong, and memorable the brand association, the easier it is to recall.

Companies like Nike and Apple have already built the types of brand images I'm referring to. For someone looking for a pair of tennis shoes, Nike is most likely automatically in their consideration set. Highly resonant Apple users have only one decision to make, "Which model should I buy?" Other companies who don't have the brand strength to compete should rethink their branding efforts, or they could die trying.

The same applies in other industries as well. I think, for example, packaging will become more important in the future. For example, I recently realized I like What-a-Burger because of their cups. I like the texture of them. In a world that is becoming more slick and sterile as a result of the digital tools we use (constantly), I think touch will increase in importance. If we're no longer holding books in our hands as we read them, thumbing through CD inserts to figure out song lyrics, or reading the cardboard movie boxes at BlockBuster to decide which movies we want to take home and watch, the sense of touch will become more pleasurable when available. As I mentioned above, What-a-Burger is a great example. What better way to increase brand recall than by associating the cherished sense of touch with their textured styrofoam cups?

To point two above, marketing will need to be even more precise and more thoughtfully targeted. Marketing is obviously the way in which brands are created. Here however I will address the message strategy. Having a simple and precise message in your advertising and marketing will help create a precise brand image. The shorter and stronger the message, the easier it will be to understand and hopefully recall. Increased recall equals more confident shortcuts for consumers. However the visual uniqueness of the advertising or marketing piece plays an equally important role. For example, most car commercials look pretty much the same, to me anyway. In order for companies to do their due diligence in building a truly unique brand, they must pay attention to every detail both visually and textually. They must truly stand out in the minds of an increasingly busy audience. Companies must present themselves in such unique ways that the audience knows at a glance what company the ad is representing.

Zeroing in on a smaller target audience will also help gain the attention of today's on-the-go consumer. By narrowing your audience it is easier to develop creative strategies that quickly grab their attention. Like Cialdini discusses in his book, people respond better to things they are familiar with. They respond equally as well to people who seem to have similar interests, lifestyles, values, etc. The smaller the target audience, the more focused, relevant, and personal the creative strategy can be. Admittedly, target audience specialization works more cost effectively online. I'm always amazed when I'm shopping for something online and an ad appears promoting the exact type of product I'm looking for. This will only continue and I would imagine in an even more fine-tuned fashion. That is after all the beauty of the Internet for marketers.

Of course the above is all speculative. I haven't done any consumer focus groups or research to support the trends I have proposed. However, it is a fact that the pace of modern life continues to increase while the number of products entering the market each year is astounding. Factor that together and what you have is more products competing to grab the attention of an increasingly preoccupied consumer population. What this boils down to is a split-second of time to subconsciously stamp a brand impression on as many people as possible. Product placement has become popular in movies and TV shows. Jennifer Lopez sits on the judging panel of American Idol with a large cup shouting out Coca-Cola - Stamp. But not all companies have the brand recognition that Coca-Cola enjoys. However the "stamp" part is the important part, I believe. Marketers will have to become quicker and wiser in the ways they market their brands. A snapshot will have to tell the story, and using what Cialdini calls the "weapons of influence" will have to be relied upon more than ever to tell those stories...but the really short versions. The more brand stamps a consumer has on his/her subconscious mind, the more brand associations and the more likely they will rely on their preferred shortcuts toward purchase. It's all a matter of psychology.


  1. You did a great job of anticipating my question. I was about to note that I wanted to ask you how companies should up the ante on their branding, when I read the next paragraph.

    Very interesting impressions about the importance of the uniqueness of the brand. There are certainly other cars that perform well, are reliable, or are safe, but it would seem that consistency plays a key role here.

    I wonder how you would compare these companies to Apple or Nike? Do they have a similar uniquely identifiable characteristic? Or does hype play a role in their popularity?

    Also, I love your thoughts on touch. I bought this book last year but still have not gotten around to reading it:

    I do have to ask though, do you think the tactile quality of the Whataburger cup could really become the touchstone of its branding strategy? How can a quality like this be utilized?

    And finally what do you make of Cialdini's choice of the term 'weapons of influence"? How does this signify differently than, say, "tools" or "techniques"?

  2. You are correct about there being other cars that perform well. That's why it's all about the brand. BMW may not perform any different than say Toyota, but because the word "performance" is branded so closely with BMW, that's what car company comes to mind when you hear the word "performance". If Hyundai had branded themselves as a high end car company instead of a budget car, they wouldn't be trying to change everyone's perception of them right now.

    I don't think What-a-Burger should use touch as their branding strategy. They have a really good one now. I was just using that as an example. Cup texture and their ketchup are two of the reasons I go to What-a-Burger. I don't really even like their food...isn't that crazy, but I like their cups and their ketchup containers. Oh, and their milkshakes. I was just noticing one day (as I was drinking a What-a-Burger drink) the texture and how nice it was to "feel" something besides a hard, cold computer. So I was throwing the idea around in my head that touch could very well serve as a brand identifier in the future.

    Another example on brand associations, I associate "good french fries", "yellow arches", "the color red", and "cheap cups and crappy drinks" with McDonald's. It's all about associations. The more brand associations (nodes) you have in your brain, the easier it is for them to connect, forming greater brand awareness.

  3. It will be interesting to see the role of touch over the next few years, certainly!