I wrote this paper 7 or 8 years ago. In a sense it was a first step towards www.first-the-trousers.com. I’m re-posting it because I believe that the principles described here are timeless and provide a very simple framework that will make any strategy development process better. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.
The Brand Persuasion Wheel
Six principles to enhance the persuasiveness of your brand
Reaching, engaging, and bonding with consumers is becoming increasingly challenging for marketers.
On one hand, consumers have become more savvy and critical towards brands, have higher expectations towards marketers, are more empowered and increasingly rely on their peers for their brand decisions.
On the other hand, the evolution and increasing complexity of today’s media environment represents new challenges that force brand builders to venture outside of their creative and media comfort zone and in the process reassess their key success metrics. Traditional media outlets are losing their impact while the brand building principles of newer media outlets still need to be discovered and mastered.
The big challenge many brands therefore face is how to weather the storm and navigate through this ever-evolving and ever-changing environment while keeping a clear sense of direction and while meeting their bottom line goal.
The business of human persuasion
The model described in this paper suggest one way to do just that. It is based on the premise that brand builders and marketers are first and foremost in the business of human persuasion.
That is, we build brands by shaping people’s attitudes, beliefs, and feelings towards the products, services, and/or causes we market, with the objective to have them act in our favor by purchasing our brands or joining our cause.
The possibly biggest shift in marketing today is the realization that everything communicates. The old packaged good principle of identifying one functional benefit and “hammering” it into consumers mind with as much media power as possible is not sufficient anymore to really bond and connect with consumers.
The marketing community is finally moving towards a more consumer appropriate form of brand management. The industry is realizing that every aspect of a brand can –and should- be used to create compelling brand experiences and create meaningful and long lasting relationships.
Because the principles of human persuasion focus on people, they can be leveraged by every single aspect of brand communication, from its retail strategy to the way it communicates.
6 principles of human persuasions
The model described below captures the 6 most common principles of human persuasion that can be leveraged by marketers:
- Social Proof
These principles have been extensively researched in the field of psychology and have often times been successfully demonstrated in the field of marketing. They are universal and transcend time and geographies.
While these principles transcend time and geographies, their expression can evolve over time and across geographies.
For example, the source and nature of “Expertise” today is very different than it was 20 years ago. Also, the nature of the threats that might have motivated our ancestors, the cavemen, to take action is very different from the threat a middle class family living in suburbia today faces. The principle however stays the same.
The 6 Principles
The single most important principle is the principle of reward. We are more likely to change our attitudes, beliefs, and behavior if doing so is associated with a reward.
The marketing world usually applies the word “benefit” here, but the notion of “reward” is more useful as it puts the emphasis on the consumer as opposed to the product or service the company is selling.
Benefits all too often get boiled down to the actual product attribute and performance. Thinking in terms of rewards instead forces one to think harder about the added value you want your brand to provide to its consumers, beyond its purely rational benefit.
It also provides brand builders with the opportunity to look at the total brand experience as a way to reward its consumers, i.e. not only “what” it says but also “how” it says it at all the points of consumer interaction, and thus enhance the brand’s opportunity to meaningfully connect with consumers.
A good question to ask with regard to the reward principle is ”does the brand, and its various expressions, provide a rewarding experience for the people it wants to engage?” While the question may sound simple, answering it often isn’t.
The reward can obviously be physical, functional, emotional, psychological, experiential, social or a combination thereof.
Each aspect of a brand can leverage the reward principle, including its communication as demonstrated by Office Max’s Holidays “Elf Yourself” campaign. In fact, enabling visitors of www.elfyourself.com to upload their face onto dancing elves and send the little movie to friends and relatives for the Holidays appears to provide enough of a rewarding experience, as demonstrated by the 26 million plus visitors of the site.
The evil twin of the reward principle is the threat principle. We are more likely to change our beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, if not doing so poses a threat to ourselves or those around us.
Overt or implicit threats are a powerful way to motivate someone to do something.
Threats can often be useful to create relevance for your brand in raising awareness for a problem –real or fictional- your consumers may not have been aware of. For example, thanks to all the soap manufacturers’ efforts to raise our awareness for the subject, we now can’t buy enough anti-bacterial soap to protect ourselves and the ones we love from the millions of bacteria and germs surrounding and threatening us.
Threat can sometimes be a more powerful motivator than reward.
Take Global Warming for example. Global Warming as a catch phrase has actually a pretty nice and positive ring to it. The term itself actually requires an effort to re-construct the argument on why Global Warming is a threat to us, an effort many are not willing to make.
The sense of urgency to do something to preserve our environment in this country would be heightened, in my opinion, if instead of referring to the issue as “Global Warming” we would refer to it as “Global Flooding”.
“Global Flooding” implies a threat, a sense of urgency, like we should do something about it pretty soon if we don’t want our feet to get wet. “Global Warming” instead sounds more like an invitation to get your flip flops and your sun tan lotion out, especially when you live in the Midwest.
Another ecological buzz word leverages the principle of threat: Acid Rain. The concept that shaped a large part of Europe’s environmental policies in the 80s is more persuasive in my opinion, as it implies an imminent threat and sounds like we should do something about it fast.
Expertise is another powerful principle that can be leveraged to enhance the persuasiveness of your brand’s communication.
According to Wikipedia “an expert can be, by virtue of training, education, profession, publication or experience, believed to have special knowledge of a subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially (and legally) rely upon the individual’s opinion”. The recommendation and endorsement of someone we recognize as an expert is more likely going to change our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.
Expert persuasion can take many forms and shapes: Italians are the experts in pasta and wine, Germans are experts in car engineering, technological innovation is often an expression and demonstration of expertise, people who use the brand or category under extreme conditions (or more often than the average consumer) are often seen as experts, and so forth.
While the principles of human persuasion are universal and transcend time and geographies, their expressions can change over time. This is the case with the expertise principle as consumers are now increasingly turning towards their peers, their friends, and their neighbors for expert advice.
What digital camera or computer should I buy? What sprinkler system is best for my yard? How do I know which baby seat is safest for my car? What wine should I serve for dinner? For many –if not most of- our brand decisions we rely on and trust the opinion of family, friends, neighbors or colleagues especially if we believe that they are more knowledgeable than we are in a specific field.
While the number of principles is limited, their expressions are limited only by the imagination and creativity of those applying them. In fact, there is a huge opportunity for marketers to identify the freshest and most compelling expression of the various principles and thus provide the originality and relevance to their brands required to engage consumers today.
For example, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about experts in the field of pet nutrition are veterinarians (followed by breeders). Obviously not all available brands out there can benefit from a vet’s (or a breeder’s) recommendation.
So what do you do when another brand already “owns” the vets’ endorsement?
You dig deeper and try to come up with a fresh solution. This is what the Purina One marketing team did. In fact, they discovered that dog owning Radio DJs, an apparently unlikely source of influence, were actually extremely persuasive in getting their regular listeners to switch to Purina ONE (by sharing their own experience with the brand) and thus fuel the growth of the brand.
We tend to change our beliefs, attitudes, and actions more easily if we like the person or brand trying to influence us. In fact, I am more likely to do what you ask me to do if I like you than if I don’t like you.
It might therefore be useful to ask the question “do my consumers like my brand and brand experience more than my competitor’s brand?” and/or “what can I do to increase the likeability of my brand and brand experience?” This area is particularly relevant in the service industry.
Liking is not always a prerequisite for a brand’s success, but everything being equal, the brand with the most friends wins. Think about the brands you personally respect or admire out there. Chances are high that you also like them better than their competitors.
There has been a lot of debate in the account planning and market research community on whether “likeability” is a reliable predictor for communication effectiveness. While the debate has still not been fully resolved, social psychology has collected enough evidence to prove the point.
But creating likeability doesn’t just mean being funny or doing funny advertising. Instead, specific elements have been shown to promote likeability. They are:
- Familiarity. Familiarity breeds liking. One of the tremendous advantages Coke has around the world is the feeling of familiarity its ubiquity triggers. Go to any remote place of this world and you’ll most likely be really excited to be able to order and drink a coke, especially if it is cold.
- Positive regards. We like those who like us. When United Airlines launched its low cost carrier TED in Denver, it had to overcome the negative sentiments consumers usually have towards airlines in their hub markets. The answer was a grass root campaign in which a certain TED (the identity of the airline was not revealed at this stage) did a variety of random acts of kindness for the population of Denver: free coffee at the morning hot spots, flowers delivered to the receptionists in the downtown offices, etc., etc., all with compliments from Ted. The result, besides local media picking up the story and creating additional buzz around the brand launch, was a tremendous goodwill towards TED translating into outstanding business results once the brand was revealed.
- Similarities: We tend to like those who are similar to us. While in the 60’s and 70’s similarities may have been more of a socio-demographic nature, a shift appears to have taken place amongst consumers. Shared experiences and common interests might be a stronger driver nowadays than socio-demographics. Think Nike and “Just do it”.
- Positive associations. The word in the account planning hallways has it that the battery manufacturer Energizer approached its agency TBWA/CD with the task to find a motivating consumer benefit other than “longevity”, which at the time was already owned by competitor Duracell. The agency, after doing its due diligence, recommended to stick with a long lasting claim as no other benefit really mattered more to consumers in this category. The proposed solution instead, whether consciously or not, was to create a positive association between the brand and the benefit. The Energizer Bunny, arguably one of the most likeable icons out there, was born. Put differently, the agency decided that the solution was not so much to claim a different benefit for the brand, but rather it was to out-execute Duracell by creating a positive association for the brand, the bunny (that happened to be strategically spot on) and in the process reclaim the generic category benefit of long lastingness in a likeable way.
- Aesthetic appeal. Everything being equal (and some times everything not being equal as in the case of Ipod) your brand will be preferred if it looks aesthetically more pleasing than your competitor’s, even more so when the brand’s aesthetics visually reinforce the core proposition and benefit of the brand, as in the case of Dyson or Apple.
We have been “trained” to believe that if something is scarce, it’s valuable. And that if it becomes scarcer, it becomes even more valuable. Think gold, gas, caviar, and even the Burger King Whopper.
Just like the other principles of human persuasion, scarcity can be expressed by a variety of elements of your brand’s communication. Red Bull used to purposefully limit its distribution and availability upon entering a new market to make itself more desirable. A manufacturer might highlight the exclusive ingredients contained in its products, provide special limited editions, or tie its offering to a time limit (offer valid today only, or until stock lasts).
The scarcity principle is so powerful that some companies even use it as their business model. One company thriving on the principle is Woot (www.woot.com) the epitome of the one-day-sale business model. Every day at midnight, Woot, a Dallas based internet-retailer selling electronics offers one (yes one) product for sale on its site. When the product runs out of stock, well the product is gone. If it doesn’t run out of stock within 24 hours, it gets discontinued and replaced by a new one, every 24 hours.
Embedded in the principle of scarcity is another powerful principle of persuasion, what psychologist call “psychological reactance”.
Robert B. Cialdini, probably the most popular scientist in the field of human persuasion describes “psychological reactance” as “whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us want them (as well as the goods and service associated with them) significantly more than before”. Applied to brands this means that when our ability to choose a specific brand is threatened to be severely limited we want this brand even more than before. Burger King perfectly exemplifies this principle with its “Whopper Freakout” campaign. The idea of the campaign was to film, with hidden cameras, actual consumers’ reaction to the (fake) news that the Whopper has been discontinued (the video can be seen at www.whopperfreakout.com or on Youtube). Advertising Age reports that 1.5 million viewers have seen the video two months into the launch of the campaign, leading Burger King to announce double digits sales growth for the Whopper.
- Social Proof
The principle of social proof states that we determine what is correct, whether a behavior or a belief, by finding out what other people think is correct. This principle applies especially when we not sure about what defines correct behavior.
This is why we choose the long line at the cash register even though another cash register might have no line at all (others must know why everyone is standing in this line; otherwise they wouldn’t, would they?).
The principle works best when we are unsure about what behavior is correct and when those we observe are similar or share similar interests to us.
Most popular, best selling, preferred by 80% of consumers, etc. are all claims that try to trigger our innate tendency to emulate the behavior of those around us.
Reward, Threat, Expertise, Liking, Scarcity, and Social Proof are the foundation of persuasive brand communication.
The Brand Persuasion Wheel
The 6 principles can be organized within a very simple strategic framework, that I call the Brand Persuasion Wheel. It enables brand builders to keep the course (staying consumer relevant and persuasive) while navigating through today’s tumultuous consumer and media environment.
The Brand Persuasion Wheel
At the heart of the model, we find the principle of reward, the most important principle. It does not necessarily need another principle to be persuasive. At the periphery, we find the 5 other principles.
The wheel provides direction and easily complements, rather than replaces, existing strategic models and frameworks.
Working with the model
Because the Brand Persuasion Wheel is based on principles of human persuasion, I have found it to be extremely versatile in its application to brand management. It can, when used properly, be applied to every stage of the added value process of a brand’s development.
The Brand Persuasion Wheel can be used as an extra layer of analysis when assessing the current situation of a brand.
Which principles are at work in the category? Which principles would your defined audience (or a segment thereof) be most receptive to? Which principles are used by your competitors and which ones represent white space?
If your competitor already leverages one principle that is relevant to a large consumer segment one can, for example, try to identify another principle as foundation for the brand proposition. Looking again at the battery category we can see that Duracell has effectively leveraged the “expert” principle (trusted everywhere) while Energizer leverages the “liking” principle.
Alternatively one could try to find a better expression and interpretation of an existing principle as in the case of Purina One and its radio DJs’ endorsement.
Formulation of strategic hypothesis
The model can also be used to identify, fine tune, and enhance the persuasive appeal of strategic concepts and hypothesis, whether a brand architecture, a positioning, or a piece of communication messaging.
It can stir the individual marketer’s thinking when developing hypothesis. It is also a great tool for ideation and hypothesis formulation in the context of brainstorming sessions.
Going systematically, with the right group of people, through each principle and stretching the imagination on how to bring to life the various principles is an effective way to create a broad list of persuasive options and hypothesis which can then be fine tuned and validated.
Optimization of executions
The model can be used when assessing and selling creative and executional ideas.
In fact, when exposed to a creative idea, the reader could ask two questions:
- Which principle does the execution leverage?
- How can we amplify, in the execution, the impact of this specific principle?
For example, if you see a creative idea that tries to generate liking through similarities (the very nature of testimonials) one might want to think about ways to enhance a sense of similarities between the characters portrayed in the ad and the viewers through the various executional elements (whether looks, type of language used, type of humor used, context in which they are presented, and so forth).
Assessing new media opportunities
When faced with a new media opportunity, one might want to ask, as part of the due diligence process, what principles could be leveraged and meaningfully brought to life by the media, and how? The richness of the answer (or lack thereof) will point to the potential of a specific media outlet.
Just like any tool, the Brand Persuasion Wheel has its limitations. Its value and benefits depend very much on the way it is being used and on the experience and skills of its user.
The model provides orientation by pointing into the right direction. It does not however highlight the potential hurdles and barriers that may come up in following that specific direction. This is where the experience and the skills of those using the wheel come into play. This is also where the processes and other methodologies used by marketers come into play.
The model was designed and has proven itself in my daily management of brands. However, it is based on the assumption that the main objective of brand communication is to shape and influence consumers’ attitudes and feelings towards a brand, hence their behavior. But this is only one theory amongst many on how communication works.
There are obviously more than 6 principles of human persuasion. However, the 6 principles described here are, based on my experience with dozens of brands around the world, the most potent and operational for marketers trying to engage consumers on a large scale.
Also, the awareness of these principles might lead inexperienced marketers to the temptation to try to leverage too many of them at the same time for the same point of consumer interaction. However, focus, clarity, and simplicity still remain the key success criteria of powerful brands. The risk of diluting a brand’s core by leveraging too many principles prevails. As such, it might be wiser to try to understand which primary principle would have the most traction for a specific brand within a specific competitive context and in light of a specific target group. Once this principle has been identified, it might then be worth asking which other principles could be leveraged secondarily in other elements of the brand expression and the brand’s contact points.
Last, but not least, many of these principles are not suited to be researched through direct consumer feedback, because consumers might not be able or willing to respond to those principles in the context of a focus group for example. Few, if any, consumers would admit that the behavior of others has an influence on how they feel about a brand. Also, most consumers will reject “fear tactics” in the context of a focus group. This doesn’t mean that the principles are not valid. There is plenty of evidence that they are. Rather, it reminds us to be cautious when researching ideas and assessing direct consumer feedback.
The model described in this paper is simple. If applied properly, it can provide a great deal of guidance and focus in all aspects of brand management.
It reminds brand builders what business they are in and provides a sense of direction, making it easier to weather the challenges represented by today’s tumultuous media and consumer environment.
If used creatively, it can also provide a competitive advantage in that it can lead to new and fresh opportunities to engage consumers in a relevant brand experience and brand interaction without losing its persuasiveness.
Illustrations by Helmut Kruse
“Influence: Science & Practice”, Robert B. Cialdini, Allyn & Bacon.
More about the TED case can be found in “Juicing the Orange”, Fallon & Senn, HBS press.
“They’re the little elves that could”, www.advertisingage.com, 01.21.2008
“BK says “Freak-out” drove spike in sandwich sales”, www.advertisingage.com, 01.31.2008