Fair Warning: this post explores some not-so-noble aspects of human nature and how you could (maybe even should) get them to work for you when planning your advertising strategy.
If you’re not comfortable with that, skip this post, OK?
So let’s start with two “givens” most of you already know:
- All real persuasion is actually self-persuasion, and hinges on Identity & Self Image
- Decisions are made emotionally, not logically
Now connect the dots:
The only emotions that reliably inspire action are those that affect self-image.
Joy is a wonderful emotion, but since it doesn’t touch on self-image, it won’t reliably inspire action. Happy, satisfied people don’t buy much.
So what actions do touch on self image? According to Aristotle, they are:
- Anger & Fear
Fear comes from the threat of loss or damage, and Anger is basically a defense against ego threats. If you threaten a person’s identity, you’ll get fear and anger — emotions which can be channeled towards action aimed at defending against that threat. When one “adds insult to injury,” it’s the insult which provides the greater ego threat, and therefore provokes the retaliation.
Patriotism (AKA, Tribalism) acts on identity through group membership. People routinely buy things to proclaim their membership in this or that tribe. Or sacrifice to protect their family, tribe, country, etc.
Emulation (AKA, Aspiration) touches on what we wish we were and hope to become. One buys Air Jordan’s because one wants to “be like Mike.” Similarly, we use the products our gurus use in order to become more like them.
Obviously, tribalism and emulation can overlap quite a bit. One can certainly buy an Apple laptop as much to emulate the creative crowd that tends to prefer them, as to signal one’s own membership within the Apple tribe.
The Karmic Counter-Balanced for Honest Business People
But how do you use this for small business advertising?
First, I think these things work best when used for premium (and premium priced) products and services.
Heck, I’d even venture to say that they’re a sort of a karmic counterbalance to the uphill battle most honest-goods, premium-priced business people face when it comes to human nature.
Trying to convince people to pay more now because it’ll pay off in the future is a hard sell.
That desire for immediate gratification is human nature too, and it works against the honest business man. The same thing can be said of our desire to compare things based on easily compared and quantifiable numbers (like price) rather than a nuanced appreciation for overall quality.
So let’s say you are the high quality and premium priced option in your market. How do you counter-balance those biases of human-nature that push prospects toward low priced options?
Is it enough simply to talk about your own high quality standards and product (or service) advantages?
Well, if you’re a fan of Ogilvy’s “Positively Good” theory of advertising, you might think so. And perhaps that option would be partially effective.
But taking that approach falls short if your ads aren’t fully engaging prospects’ self-image and evoking action-oriented emotions.
A straight claim of features and benefits frames the buying decision in terms of cost vs benefit instead of identity.
Leveraging the Power of Us vs. Them
If you’re going to make a play for identity then you have to show that those product advantages are there because you, the owner, INSIST on them. And you insist on them because of the values you hold and the kind of person you are.
The other companies’ owners don’t insist on them because of the values they don’t hold and the kind of people they aren’t.
So while I understand that it’s not nice to urge business owners to take shots at the competition, the reality is that if you want to create limbic-level contrast between you and the low-priced competitors, this is the strategy to use.
Those competitors already have human nature working for them in the form of instant gratification and decision-making bias.
And they’re already busy claiming to be “just as good, but cheaper” (or 90% as good for half the price).
So either you’re going to let them successfully make that claim, or you’re going to counter their attempt to leverage human nature against you by tapping into the greater power of identity-based emotion.
Meaning that your best defense is to brand those competitors as morally tainted. “Those people don’t share our tribe’s values, and their product suffers for it.”
If moving from “they don’t make the same decisions I make, therefore they have a lesser character” seems like a bit of a stretch, don’t worry, humans are hardwired to think that way. Social scientists even have a name for it: the fundamental attribution error.
And when you do it right, not only will that cognitive bias allow you to play on identity, it will evoke the necessary emotions of tribalism/patriotism — are you like me, or are you like those other guys?
Simply divide the world into people like you, who identify with your values, and those who aren’t and don’t; Us vs. Them.
Increasing the Limbic Contrast
Now here’s how to put this strategy on steroids (while also getting a bit closer to “the dark side of the force” that I warned you about): bring in Anger.
See, it’s not enough to simply point out that the competition uses lower quality materials, cheaper manufacturing methods, and shoddy shortcuts. Hey, what’s wrong with having a lower priced option on the market, right?
You have to give motivation to those acts — motivation that would threaten the ego and identity of the customer.
In other words, you have to provide the insult to the potential injury that your competition would inflict on the unsuspecting buyer. That is, you have to provoke anger.
Those competitors aren’t doing those things to lower costs. They’re doing them to screw you, the customer, over. And they’re laughing about it all the way to the bank.
They know that their product or service is less likely to give you, the customer, the end benefit you want — the benefit you are rightfully paying for. They know that their product or service might fail you in the worst possible way. And they don’t care. Because if you’re stupid enough to be fooled by them, then (as they see it) you’re their rightful prey.
So do you want to take a chance with those assholes who are laughing at you behind your back? Or do you want to invest in the sure thing, provided by people who believe what you believe, and who genuinely care about doing right by you?
See how that works?
A Word About Ethics
Obviously you ought not to demonize an honest business who is simply aiming to sell at a lower price point than you.
Not only is that wrong, it’s bound to backfire in relatively short order.
But if your competition really is selling an inferior product, cutting corners, and engaging in false advertising — and relying on some of the downsides of human nature to get away with it — then this is the best way to:
- Level the playing field,
- Call them out on their shenanigans, and
- Stomp their low-priced butts into the ground.
Just remember: with great power comes great responsibility.
And harnessing peoples’ anger, tribalism, and emulation — their emotions of Us vs. Them — provides a great deal of persuasive power.
Because it’s your business, it’s natural to see the drama surrounding what you do from your perspective — as if your business is the star of the show.
It’s natural, but it’s also a huge mistake.
You are NOT Cinderella. You’re the fairy godmother.
You’re not even in the picture for most of the film, except when your customer desperately needs you. Then you swoop in, save the day, and exit stage left.
That means your business will never be so loved as in that one magic moment, immediately after you’ve saved the day.
That’s the Bippity-Boppity-Boo moment.
And unfortunately, you’re probably letting that moment slip by unrecorded, un-leveraged, wasted.
Here’s what you should be doing instead:
- Recording a testimonial (along with permission to use it)
- Getting a picture of the happy client with the finished product or service
- Getting before and after photos
- Posting the testimonial and/or photos to Social Media, with the client tagged in them.
And that last item is especially important for what I typically call “unsexy” businesses attempting to use Social Media.
Sexy businesses are the kind that touch on customers’ passions and addictions: fashion, food, drink, sports, hobbies, etc.
People want to talk about wine and chocolate and skiing and gourmet cooking even when they’re not in urgent need of them.
Unsexy businesses are typically about lights and pipes and maintenance and cleaning.
The Social Media mistake for unsexy businesses is to try to “engage” people in the fascinating world of transmission repair, plumbing, HVAC, roofing, etc. They want to pull people into their social media circle and then tell them stories where the business is the star attraction.
It almost never works because your business isn’t Cinderella and unsexy businesses have no star attraction (aka, sex appeal).
Remember, the customer is the star; you’re the fairy godmother. So co-opt your customers’ social circles by making the story about the customer during the business’s Bippity-Boppity-Boo moment.
People don’t care to read or hear about unsexy businesses, but they DO care about their friends.
When you make their friends the star, that creates interest, lets you showcase your fairy godmother powers, and harnesses the power of social proof at the same time.
If your customer’s Social Media friends are exposed to enough of this, they’ll come to think of you first and feel the best about you when they need those same services.
When you hog the spotlight, you lose. When you make the customer the star, and own your roll as the fairy godmother, everyone wins.
You have at least one late night host that you probably feel as if you “know,” even if you’ve never met them.
The time you spend listening to that person’s voice as they interview others, tell jokes, and discuss their thoughts makes them feel as familiar and comfortable to you as a friend.
And it’s not just you; it’s all of us — we all have this one-sided relationship with at least some celebrities.
Psychologists even have a term for it: Parasocial Interaction. And if you really want to understand it, and how it’s important to business, watch this video:
For the record, no, I’m not recommending you adopt a Kardashion-esque strategy for influencing your customers.
I am suggesting that being your company’s spokesperson in your ads, and having people hear your voice on the radio or tv, multiple times per week, week after week, and year after year, will develop an effective amount of parasocial influence.
People will come to feel as if they know you, and have a good sense of what it would be like to buy from you.
That means they’ll be more comfortable doing business with you than anybody else.
And over time, that can add up to a lot of money.
But only if you’re on the air doing something other than incessantly pitching the customer, or (even worse) screaming “sale, sale, sale!”
If you do that, they might still feel as if they know you — they’ll just want to avoid you.
Turns out the Radio Mercury Awards created a pretty cool video no this very topic:
Yup, Theatre of the Mind: because you can’t sell “the sizzle” without sound effects.
Radio people talk about theatre of the mind a lot. And they should!
It would be better if they used the strategy as much as they talk about it, but it’s an important concept nonetheless.
Here’s the late, great Stan Freberg’s explanation:
And if you’re interested, compare these two scenes, one as a radio drama, the other as a Hollywood production and tell me which engages you more fully:
But is theater of the mind limited to radio?
Here’s a current print ad campaign making excellent use of Theatre of the Mind:
And since this campaign came straight out of Mad Men, I’ll let Don Draper explain it:
Got any Theatre of the Mind in your ads?
“A woman asks little of love: Only that she be able to feel like a heroine.” ~Mignon McLaughlin
I like this quote not so much for what it says about women, per se, but what it says about human nature and advertising.
We want companies and products that make us feel and let us be seen the way we want: heroic, smart, hip, sexy, caring, etc.
And how we want to be seen usually has as much to do with temperament and tribe as gender.
- Guardians/Methodicals/SJs want to feel and be seen as dependable, respectable, and judicious
- Idealists/Humanistic/NFs want to feel and be seen as benevolent, creative, growth-minded, and inclusive
- Rationals/Competitives/NTs want to feel and be seen as masterful, self-directed, and ingenious
- Artisans/Spontaneous/SPs want to feel and be seen as lively, high-impact, courageous, and worthy of attention.
If your advertising and products help scratch that itch, you’ll find customers that love you for it.
How does your advertising and product help people feel?
P.S. Mignon McLaughlin has lots of great quotes. Here are two more with advertising lessons baked into them:
“Even cowards can endure hardship; only the brave can endure suspense.”
“No matter how brilliantly an idea is stated, we will not really be moved unless we have already half thought of it ourselves.”