Crafting a compelling message can be one of the biggest challenges in marketing. How can you motivate your customers with only a few words in an ad or just a few phrases in a product description? While there are countless approaches, one universally useful tip comes out of the study of the psychology of goal pursuit: to make a strong appeal, you need to match how consumers expect to use a product to the “direction” of their motivations for using it.
Suppose you are marketing athletic apparel, and you want to appeal to customers’ desire to go to the gym. The average person wants to go the gym for weight-loss and/or fitness reasons, but they may think about their goal(s) in different ways. On one hand, a customer may want to get fit, while on the other hand they may want to lose weight. These may be effectively the same thing, except one of them is presented as gaining fitness, while the other is oriented towards avoiding fatness.
This distinction is based on the long-running research of Columbia University’s E. Tory Higgins (this paper from 2000 offers a nice overview), who has suggested that people tend to be motivated either through a Promotion-focus (e.g. “how can I achieve a good outcome?”) or in a Prevention-focus (e.g. “how can I avoid a bad outcome?”). The endpoint of these two approaches is the same (for example, “to go to the gym”), but the motivations are opposite (to “be fit” or to “not be fat”). Basically, if customers are hoping to reach a positive outcome, then they are in a Promotion-focus (“I want to win!”). If they are concerned about getting away from a bad outcome, they are in a Prevention-focus (“I don’t want to lose!”).
Higgins refers to the adoption of a Promotion- or Prevention-focus as a person’s Regulatory Focus, and when a product or advertisement fits with a customer’s Regulatory Focus, they are more interested in it and more motivated by it. For example, if people want to “get fit,” then they are more motivated by ads that are phrased in terms of potential achievement, while people who want to “not be fat” will be more motivated by ads that emphasize worst-case scenarios.
When there is a mismatch, consumers tend to be more skeptical or otherwise less interested. For example, if someone thinks about going to the gym as a way to “get fit” (or is accustomed to athletic wear ads that are inspirational or otherwise Promotion-focused, such as Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign), they may be confused or even offended to encounter a Prevention-focused ad that stresses “don’t be fat.”
Promote or Prevent?
What determines which Regulatory Focus a customer will have? In general, some people are more inclined to think about their goals with a Promotion-focus while others naturally tend to adopt a Prevention-focus. However, more often their Focus is context specific, either because people tend to think about certain products in a certain way, or because you can actually influence how they feel.
Angela Lee and Jennifer Aaker (co-author of The Dragonfly Effect) demonstrated that if you know whether your customers tend to view your product as Promotion- or Prevention-focused, then you can increase engagement by tailoring your message to fit their perspective. In one of their studies, for example, they had participants read about the benefits of drinking grape juice. Half of the people read about how juice provided a boost of energy that helped you do whatever you wanted (a Promotion-focused attitude towards the product), while the other half read about how juice helped prevent cardiovascular disease to keep you healthy (a Prevention-focused attitude). When asked to evaluate an ad for the juice that was phrased either as “Get Energized!” (Promotion) or “Don’t Miss Out on Getting Energized!” (Prevention), people liked the ad a lot more when it matched their current focus. In other words, if they were led to believe that the juice was meant to energize them, they wanted to “Get Energized!”, but if they thought the juice was meant to keep them safe and healthy, then they didn’t want to “Miss Out on Getting Energized!”
Just about any product goal can be presented as achieving something positive or avoiding something negative, and both can be strong motivators. For example, products as diverse as acne medication to clothing can be billed as “Look beautiful” or “Don’t miss out on being beautiful!” Product or app upgrades can be described as “improving performance” versus “fixing bugs.” Cell phone carriers can claim to have “More coverage!” versus “Fewer dropped calls!” Even a microwave could be sold as “Hot food in seconds!” versus “Never eat cold leftovers again!”
Determining how how your customers tend to think about your product (or how you want to present your product to them), and then matching their expectations in your product’s presentation, can help you increase interest and engagement.
You’ve got to Focus!
The first step to applying Regulatory Focus is to simply ask (either yourself or your customers): what does this product do? More specifically, you want to know what is the most natural (or most common) way to describe the effect of the product.
Does it make the most sense to think about the product as helping customers get something positive or good? Do they want it in order to achieve or to fulfill a goal? If this is the case, then using a Promotion-focused message (that emphasizes approaching or reaching positive outcomes) will resonate better with your customers. For example, people tend to buy junk food because they want to gain the enjoyment of eating it, not to avoid some consequence of not eating it. This may be why Coca-Cola sticks to slogans like “Open happiness” or “Life begins here,” while not mentioning anything Coke might help avoid or fix (such as “thirst”) since 1939 (“Coca-Cola has the taste thirst goes for”).
Alternatively, does it make sense to think about the product in terms of helping customers avoid negative outcomes or pain points? Do they want it in order to avoid or resolve a problem? If this is the case, then using a Prevention-focused message (that emphasizes avoiding or counteracting negative outcomes) will resonate better with your customers. For example, people tend to buy medications while sick or injured in order to get rid of an unpleasant feeling, so it is no surprise that Tylenol has the slogan, “Feel better.”
Identifying how your customers think about your products (or perhaps how you want them to think about it) can inform how you promote and advertise. Aside from slogans, product features can be rewritten in order to reflect or appeal to the target Regulatory Focus, and advertisements can be worded to reflect this as well.
Recall that Regulatory Focus can be context specific. A more risky idea might be to actually use your Promotion or Prevention descriptions to create your own psychological manipulation. According to a 1998 paper by James Shah, E. Tory Higgins, and Ronald Friedman, Regulatory Focus interacts with Loss Aversion: if you have a Promotion-focused message, suggest that the customer is getting a great deal because they are gaining the quality or the value of the product, whereas if you are using a Prevention-focus, suggest that the customer is getting a great deal because they are saving a lot of money or reducing a lot of risk.
- People are either motivated to achieve positive outcomes or to avoid negative outcomes. Match your message to your customers’ motivation to increase interest.
- If customers are in a mindset to achieve positives or avoid negatives, this focus carries over to how they evaluate your ads, your products, and your deals.
Guest post by Stanford’s Alex DePaoli
Follow him @AlexDePaoli.