Construal level theory

Last week I was speaking to a client who mentioned “construal level theory,” which I had never heard of before. What it comes down to is this: The more distant an object is, the more abstractly you will think about it.  And “distance” can mean temporal distance, spatial distance, or social distance.

This is why we sometimes overcommit to things – when we are planning for events three months from now, we don’t think as much about the details as we do when those events are occurring three days from now.  Also, we tend to have more empathy for people who we perceive as similar to us in some way.

In marketing, if you are able to see in touch a product you become a little bit more likely to buy it because it’s distance from you has been reduced. Or an innovation can seem useless in the abstract until you actually see how it works and how it can affect your daily life.

Construal level theory also explains the fantastic reviews of Peter Jackson’s recent film, They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s a documentary about World War I. Typically film from that war is black-and-white, grainy, and jerky due to the technological limitations of cameras at that time.  Those films also don’t include sound. As a result, the war seems pretty distant. 

Jackson cleaned up those films, colorized them, and added ambient sound – thanks in part to the help of forensic lip-readers. The difference is incredible. No longer are the soldiers just shadowy figures on a screen. They are people who look like us and we can begin to feel empathy for the horrors they experienced.


The timelessness of a good story

Many marketers preach about the power of stories – and they are not wrong. An article in Harper’s goes into depth about stories, their history, and how they work.

The author explains the universal power of stories by discussing “Little Red Riding Hood.”  Cultures all around the world have some version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Clearly, it leverages universal themes even though the details of the story are a little different everywhere because of cultural nuances. 

 Other folktales like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” go back thousands of years for the same reason. As one expert quoted in the article says, the stories can go back further than the language used to tell them. The problems and challenges we face are, in some ways, very different from those of our ancestors. But in other ways, they aren’t that different.

Stories also require tension – “a bad guy.”  Villains in stories, even long-ago, were metaphors for real world threats that people faced. Therefore, they enabled a form of simulation that improved people’s mental and social skills and ability to overcome conflict. In short, stories had tension because they were teaching people how to survive.

The author argues, “A story is really a way of thinking—perhaps the most powerful and versatile skill in the human cognitive repertoire. The increasingly large brains of our ancestors, all the more attuned to the world’s complexity, needed a way to organize this overwhelming torrent of information, to pass the multiplicity of experience through a reverse prism and distill it into a single coherent sequence. Stories were the solution.”

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Eaters Collective

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Eaters Collective

What’s in a succulent, mouth-watering name?

There are numerous reasons we should eat less meat. It’s better for the planet. It’s better for our bodies. And non-meat options also can taste really good.

The problem is meat also tastes good and, furthermore, the way we describe meat and meat-based dishes sounds really good.  A Bison Prairie Burger or a Double Angus Beef Burger sounds lot more mouth-watering than a Vegetarian Burger or a Meat-Free Burger, names which tend to focus on what the product lacks and therefore primes people to think about what they are missing out on.

As detailed in this NPR story, recently featured on the wonderful OZ Twitter feed, the World Resource Institute’s Better Buying Lab recently teamed up with food companies in the UK and US to learn how names affect preference for meatless options.  Names that highlight the provenance of a particular food, its flavor, or its mouth feel make a big difference.

For example, when Panera changed the name of its “Vegetarian Black Bean Soup” to “Cuban Black Bean Soup,” sales rose 18 percent. When Sainsbury’s in the UK rebranded its “Meat-Free Sausage and Mash” as “Cumberland-spiced Veggie Sausage and Mash,” sales skyrocketed 76 percent.

Consumers unconsciously form consumption visions (mental simulations of what the product experience will be like) before they select a meal from a menu or a shelf -- and the way that meal is described seems to have a massive effect on that consumption vision.

As stated in the article, this sounds like Marketing 101.  But apparently it is not, because those who make and market vegetarian and vegan options have long given short shrift to the value of a tasty-sounding name.

This is a great example of a marketing nudge at work. No need to hector people or guilt-trip them into eating better. Just make the healthy food sound tastier.


Photo credit: Business Wire

Photo credit: Business Wire

Old brand, new tricks

Increasingly, brands are trying to reach consumers in ways that go beyond traditional advertising. Tide laundry detergent is pretty good at this.

P&G has announced it is taking its mobile laundry service app nationwide after a successful run in selected test markets. You drop off your laundry in a Tide drop-box at your local supermarket or in the lobby of your apartment complex and then use the app to submit cleaning instructions. A local cleaner will pick up your stuff and the app will notify you when it is ready for pickup – washed, sorted, and folded for you.

Tide also is also known for its “Loads of Hope” program, which brings mobile laundromats to areas that have been devastated by natural disasters. It was an early adopter of the Amazon Dash button. And, in terms of more traditional marketing, its 2018 Super Bowl ads were a big hit.

Tide is an old-school brand in a prosaic category, but it has still figured out ways to keep its brand fresh and relevant for modern consumers.



Caring = healing

Does it matter if you like your doctor? Research from Stanford suggests that it does.

In one study, patients received a pinprick test, like the ones you get when you are tested for allergies. One group of patients was then examined by a doctor who was silent and stern.  Another group was examined by a doctor who reassured them, “From this point forward, your allergic reaction will start to diminish, and your rash and irritation will go away.”

Just this one statement of reassurance led patients to report that their rash was less itchy. The physician didn’t provide any kind of treatment; the words alone did the job.

In a similar study, patients were again given a histamine pinprick.  One group got a warm, friendly doctor who was confident and worked in a clean office.  Another group got a slob in a messy office who made hardly any eye contact and seemed unsure of himself/herself.

All patients were given a placebo skin lotion. Patients with the warm, confident doctor reported that the lotion decreased their itching. The patients with the less engaging doctor reported no change.

As the authors conclude in their New York Times column, “To really help people flourish, health care works better when it includes caring.”


Going green? Specifics, please.

Many advertisers talk about their commitment to sustainability and the environment and, in turn, many consumers have grown skeptical of those claims. If you are a marketer, how can you make your green advertising more believable?

A new study in the Journal of Advertising Research suggests that the more specific the green claims, the more believable they are – and this holds true across a range of product categories.

In other words, the research found that a claim such as, “This battery is free from toxic heavy metals and is 98 percent recyclable” was more credible than something like, “This battery is kind to the environment and to the planet.”

 As the authors point out, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been urging consumers to think this way for 25 years. (For example, when a brand says a product is recycled, that could mean the product, the packaging or both. It could mean that only a small percentage was recycled. It is also important to understand where it was collected from.)

One limitation of the research is that study participants were simply exposed to green claims in isolation, not in the form of real consumer-facing ads. The study doesn’t take into account other aspects of creative execution, so making an emotional connection with those claims, supporting them with appropriate imagery, and embedding them within a suitable narrative is still important.  However, all else being equal, the research says specific is better when it comes to green messaging.

If you don’t have access to JAR you can read about the study here.


Perfect imperfections

Jerry Olson is fond of saying that the value of a handmade rug comes as much from its beauty as from its flaws. Small imperfections suggest something made by hand and, ironically, with care. And that is worth a premium.

Research recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests he is right. Imperfections can be a positive attribute for consumers, especially when they are interested in finding something unique.

We see this with collectibles sometimes. Baseball cards and stamps that contain printing errors often are worth much more than the corrected versions of those items. In the study, Taly Reich and her collaborators found that consumers have an extra longing for a batch of chocolate left in the over five minutes too long, which created a new flavor of chocolate, compared to chocolate that was cooked properly.

Photographs that were blurry or partially obstructed by a finger received a premium on eBay versus those with no such negative qualities. (That is one I found extremely counterintuitive.)

Also, artwork that contained a blemish was valued higher when they blemish was described as unintentional versus when it was described as intentional.

The researchers hypothesize that “intentionality bias” makes these flawed works seem unique. “That is, people assume that others to what they intend to do, and thus deviations from intention (or mistakes) are deemed more improbably.”

I am really struggling to think of brands that proudly advertise their mistakes and take advantage of this kind of a creation story.  Maybe part of Bob Ross’ brand was/is built on this. (“There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.”)  Perhaps UGG and Crocs do this, to an extent, by making their ugly appearance a part of their appeal, but that isn’t quite the same. 

Can you think of any examples? I am sure there are some.


The perfect speech

I get chills every time I hear the “I Have a Dream Speech.”  It’s more than just the message, which is extremely powerful in its own right. It is something about how Martin Luther King, Jr delivers the message.

This Fast Company article describes some of the unconscious factors that made that speech so moving:

  • King’s references to the historical importance of the location in which he was speaking, which put the event into a larger context.

  • His direct references to The Gettysburg Address, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation appealed to the head.  While his references to the Bible, “My Country Tis of Thee,” and an old African American spiritual appealed to the heart.

  • His language was vivid and metaphorical. The article describes one long metaphor about cashing a check that was central to his thesis.

  • He sharpened his ideas through contrast. For example, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

  • His use of repetition. The words “I have a dream…that one day” are the obvious example but he repeats language many times throughout the speech and they drive his messages home.

  • A clear call to action.

  • He ends on a hopeful note – which is the repetition of his various “dreams.”

If you want another fascinating rhetorical analysis of the speech, check out this video from Nancy Duarte, a presentation expert who had written a couple of great books about PowerPoint presentations. Ironically, she says, “It would have ruined it if he would have had slides” because his metaphors were so vivid that an actual image would not have done them justice.

(On a historical note, one of the things that is amazing about this speech, to me, is that the last several minutes of it were unscripted. Imagine being able to speak like that off the top of your head!)

Our presentations will never rise to the level of historical significance of the “I Have a Dream” speech but there are rhetorical devices we can borrow that can make our more workaday presentations more compelling.

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“Mathematics is the Art of Giving the Same Name to Different Things”

Chicago’s Booth School of Business is discussing some new research about the ways in which we misinterpret data. — the results of which explain why the Henri Poincare quote above has some truth to it.

In sum, we tend to overestimate the likelihood of something happening when the likelihood is framed as a statistical probability, and underestimate the odds of it happening when the likelihood is framed as a percentage-point difference.

The authors of the paper ran this experiment in contexts that included political polling and sports betting.  If you tell people that the Warriors have an 84% chance to beat the Wizards, they are much more likely to think the Warriors will win than if you tell them the Warriors are 10-point favorites. (Even though being a 10-point favorite and having an 84% chance to win are the same)

Similarly, before the 2016 election….people who saw that Hillary Clinton had a 74% chance to defeat Trump were more confident about her chances than people who saw that she was estimated to receive 53% of the vote – even though the 74% number was extrapolated from the poll that put her at 53% of the vote.

(Nate Silver has harped on this constantly at his fivethirtyeight website and he is absolutely right. Although he also echoes the arrogance of many statistical modelers, who seem to insist that as long as you say something has even a 1% chance of happening, you can always crow that you were “correct,” no matter what the actual outcome is.)

 The findings intuitively make sense – in these examples the statistical probability is the larger number so we probably shouldn’t be shocked that the larger number seems more powerful. But if nothing else it is a warning about how one conveys information, especially numerical data.



The Best of 2018

Welcome to 2019.  AdAge took a look back at the year gone by and compiled its list of the Top 10 ads of 2018.

At the top of the list is Nike for its Dream Crazy campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick. Nike did what the NFL could not do -- or didn’t care to do -- which was to frame Kaepernick’s kneeling as a courageous assertion of principle rather than an anti-police or anti-American tantrum.

 Also on the list, an ad from 7-Eleven Norway billing the country as “The Land of Chlamydia” and urging tourists to purchase condoms at 7-Eleven. And a Tourism Australia spot, which used a Crocodile Dundee theme to promote the wonders of that nation.

Others featured include Libresse’s singing vulvas, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s “Welcome Home” video, and a hilarious takeoff on Super Bowl advertising from Tide.


Think Different

This week is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, which was the first NASA mission to orbit the moon.  It also produced the photograph above, called “Earthrise,” which revolutionized the way many people think about our planet. Thus, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss the interaction between climate change and behavioral science.

Climate change is difficult to counteract on both a political and personal level.

We have seen, for a variety of reasons, that most governments lack the political will to take the drastic action required to stave off the worst effects of our warming planet.  But even at a personal level, many of us don’t act in ways that are congruent with our beliefs.  I am worried about out changing our climate, but I still drive a lot, waste too much food, and generally squander more resources than I should.  I worry about the planet, but I don’t do much about it.

This article from discusses ways to spur people like me into action. Negative messaging generally doesn’t work – it just makes people feel hopeless or defensive. However, positive messages that tap into the emotion of pride can make a difference.

 When we see our country as old and mature, when we are prompted to think about our personal legacy, and when we hear less politicized language (e.g. “carbon offset” vs. “carbon tax”) – these things all can promote climate-friendly choices.

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Banned in Britain

An ad that is banned from TV has been rated one of the best this holiday season.

Kantar Millward Brown has assessed 22 UK holiday campaigns using social media listen, qual research, and facial coding to determine which was the most effective.  This ad for the supermarket Iceland Foods was banned from TV in the UK. It was created with the cooperation of Greenpeace, which made it a political ad forbidden by the country’s 2003 Communications Act.  However, it has been viewed 65 million times on social media and scored at the top of KMB’s rating metrics, on factors such as “involvement,” “brand love,” “enjoyment,” “persuasion,” and “different from others.”

Other top-scoring ads included those from Amazon, Marks & Spencer, and Aldi’s holiday ad featuring their beloved spokesveggie, “Kevin the Carrot.”

This year’s John Lewis ad, which UK consumers eagerly await each holiday season, fell a bit flat, according to the research.


Baby got branding

Sometimes companies in the B2B space dismiss the importance of branding under the assumption that customers purchase just on price and quality and nothing else.

Big Ass Fans has a different approach.

This article discusses how Big Ass Fans has built a unique brand and unique company.  Yes, they have great products and they innovate relentlessly; their R&D facilities are second to none. However, they supplement that with an employee-friendly culture and distinctive branding.

This AdAge article specifically explores the company’s brand identity, which has helped it “build the kind of loyalty and word of mouth rarely seen in the normally staid industrial b-to-b marketplace.”  Across all touch points, Big Ass speaks with a consistently quirky brand voice, which really sets it apart.

As Alex Reed, the director of consumer product marketing, says, “Sometimes it is content that shows we're a fun company, that we like to enjoy what we're doing, and that we'll share some of that joy with you.”


Fear or Hope? How about both?

Thanks to Olson Zaltman’s Joe Plummer for sharing this article on a new study from Wunderman Health that discusses how best to promote behavior change among people who are stuck in “health inertia.”  (In other words, people who have bad health habits like smoking but have resisted changing those habits).

It is a common question from many clients – not just those in the healthcare sector – do you more effectively motivate people with fear or with hope?  This study suggests the answer is, “yes.”

The research indicates you need a blend of the two and that they each have a role.  Fear-based messaging can spark immediate action.  More hopeful messaging makes people reflect more deeply on their behavior change, and thus encourages them to stick with it long-term.

You can read the report in its entirety. It is relatively short, but is rich with food for thought.


Founded in 1919. Still cool in 2018.

The global brand consultancy Prophet recently released its list of the Top 10 brands most relevant to Millennials.  The list contains a lot of the usual suspects such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Nike.  But there is one brand that jumps out – KitchenAid.

KitchenAid obviously isn’t a tech brand.  In fact, it is nearly 100 years old.  However, it has been quite skillful in how it has appealed to urban Millennials.

  • Product innovation. It’s Artisan Mini mixer is 20 percent smaller and 25 percent lighter than regular KitchenAid mixers. This enables Millennials to experience feelings of nostalgia (using the same kind of mixer that they might have grown up with) via a product that also fits sensibly into their urban apartments, which often don’t have the space for a bulky, old-fashioned mixer.

  • Design. Starting in 2018, KitchenAid launched its Color of the Year. (This year is “Bird of Paradise,” which is kind of like coral.)  The color of the year has created some valuable PR, but even before that KitchenAid was known for its eye-catching, multicolored hues.

  • Social Media. KitchenAid has built its social media engagement by 85%, with a 143% leap in social interactions in one year.  The brand is highly interactive with consumers across its various social platforms, its content on YouTube is well-produced and engaging, and its photos on Instagram are eye-popping.

Kitchen appliances may not seem like a cool or cutting edge category, but KitchenAid has used some common sense principles to stand out among younger consumers.


When you are your own worst enemy

This may sound like a political issue but it is really a marketing issue.

Many of us have read George Lakoff’s research on framing, metaphor and persuasive communication.  Elizabeth Warren apparently has not.

Our president has been taunting Warren for years about her claim of Native American ancestry, and this week she fell right into his trap and publicized the results of a DNA test that showed her to be, apparently, 1/1,064th Native American. 

  • Lakoff cautions that in political debate, one should never accept the opponent’s framing of an issue. Warren has done exactly that and has made a non-issue (a childish taunt) into an issue.

  • 1/1,064th Native American blood sure doesn’t sound like much

  • She has upset many on the left, and the Cherokee Nation, who argue that the results of a DNA test don’t mean you can truly claim to be Native American or to understand the Native American experience.

  • In a moment in history when Democrats should be focusing on our similarities and the things that unite us, Warren is shifting the conversation to things that divide us, like race, religion, and ethnicity – territory where Donald Trump thrives.

Warren follows in the inglorious tradition of rhetorically challenged Democrats like John Kerry, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton. It is a party with an undying belief that if you just give people the facts, they will come to the correct and rational conclusion – that being “right” means you don’t have to worry about being persuasive.

(Even Obama fell into this trap. Although he was a brilliant communicator of his personal story and his vision for the country, he struggled to create a narrative around his administration’s accomplishments.)

The result -- the majority of Americans agree with Democrats’ policies and yet the party is powerless across all branches of the federal government and in most states. If you want to see a Democrat win back in the White House in 2020, Elizabeth Warren’s actions this week should give you pause.

Hacking packaging

Adweek recently discussed four ways Millennials and Gen Z are disrupting brands’ approach to packaging. In summary:

  • Packaging that reflects my values: Smirnoff’s “Love Wins” bottles celebrate LGBTQ pride and have been on the market now for two years. This year, the brand highlighted 34 real LGBTQ couples on its labels.

  • Brands that recognize me as an individual. In the UK, consumers can create personalized Kit Kat packaging and have the candy bars delivered to their door in a customized framable box.

  • I want brands to be playful and fun. Oreo’s Colorfilled initiative allowed consumers to create personalized cookies.

  • I want authenticity. Brands can now watermark packages so people know they are buying the genuine article and apps can bring packages to life, and offer evidence of the brand’s authenticity and uniqueness.

The article links to an Adweek webinar that talks more about how digital innovations have revolutionized packaging.


Can crayons make you cry?

Crayons aren’t all that cool anymore. They used to be a staple of childhood and still are, to an extent. But they have been crowded out a bit by markers and pencils and by other forms of media, such as games and iPads.

At the Association of National Advertisers’ 2018 Brand Activation Conference, Crayola’s Director of Marketing Communications, Josh Kroo, discussed how experiential marketing has helped the brand overcome those challenges.  (The article is behind a paywall at WARC.)

Of course, it hasn’t just been experiential marketing.  Crayola has a seemingly never-ending stream of innovations – including products that leverage augmented reality and a line extension into lipstick, via a partnership with Clinique.

However, they also used storytelling to create an emotionally compelling brand experience. The story was built around how Crayola was planning to retire one of its iconic colors. The discussion about which color would be sent to the curb created all kinds of social media buzz, and the brand elicited 90,000 submissions from consumers who wanted to vote on the name of the new color that would replace it.  Some of the colors were given characters and personalities, as well, which amped up the emotional engagement.

The campaign was supported by high-profile out-of-home placements and significant earned media, including Jimmy Fallon and Good Morning America. Ultimately, the campaign was successful in dramatically reversing declining sales of Crayola’s iconic 24-count box.


Judge me by my questions, not my answers

Harvard Business Review recently published an article called “The Surprising Power of Questions.”  (Thanks to Olson Zaltman's Joe Plummer for sharing).

It focuses on the unconscious effects that asking questions (and HOW you ask questions) can have. Among the highlights:

  • People like you better when you ask questions.  Even something as simple as, “What am I not asking you that I should?”
  • Closed questions can be quite problematic and elicit a very different set of responses than open-ended questions.
  • Open-ended questions can elicit negative feedback successfully. (“If you were to play devil’s advocate, what would you say?”)
  • Successful sales people ask more questions – but not too many questions.  And they sprinkle their questions throughout the conversation.
  • Ask the most sensitive questions first.  Subsequent questions will feel less intrusive.

The article also has a few tips for how to respond to difficult questions.


50,000,000 people can't be wrong

If you don’t follow Richard Shotton on Twitter, you should. Every day he posts thought-provoking ideas about our field.

He recently published an article outlining three mistakes to avoid when applying behavioral science to advertising.

1. Negative social proof. We are social animals. If you try to guilt me into donating to public radio by telling me, “95% of listeners don’t support their local public radio stations,” you’ve probably lost me.  Generally speaking, people like doing things that others are doing.

2. Pratfall Effect. Few brands do this. In short, people are attracted to other people (or brands) that are relatable, and flaws make you relatable.  The Domino’s Pizza campaign in which they confessed that their pizza was terrible and they needed to do better is a recent example of this. The VW Beetle “boasted” of its ugliness, which gave it a voice that broke through the clutter.

3. Following the Herd. It isn’t an act of courage for a brand to do something unconventional.  It’s common sense. All marketers say they want to break category norms, but very few do because there is a misleading feeling of safety in following the herd.

Shotton’s book, The Choice Factory, expands on these and other ideas from behavior science.