Irrational Persuasion

Much of marketing is about communicating a brand’s superiority relative to other brands. It makes sense – the reason for building a brand is to make it price inelastic, for people to have the belief that it offers something worth paying more for.  Superiority is a common objective found in briefs and it’s often a metric chased after in tracking reports.

We want people to believe our brand is better than others.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that.  A strong value perception is what makes a brand, well, valuable.

But there’s still a widely held belief in marketing that superiority is a function of rational persuasion.  A simple assumption that if you can convince people with logic why brand x is better than brand y, they won’t dispute the logic and purchase it next time round.

For decades now we’ve known this isn’t the way the human brain decodes (advertising) information.

We know we don’t rationally evaluate every single choice we make.

We know the brain’s System 1 processes and contexts are the driving force behind decision-making

We know most communication is implicit appealing to the emotional, sub-conscious brain

We know that distinctiveness is more effective than product differentiation

And we know that at the end of the day, brands get bought because of mental and physical availability – fame and ease of purchase are what count.

And yet, the industry still tries to convince itself that people sit at home logically evaluating advertising messages.  Inexplicably, so much of marketing is still geared towards providing rational reasons as to why one brand outperforms another with the kind of cognitively processed messaging that our brains try to filter out as much as possible to conserve energy.

There’s no denying great brands start with a great product.  And by all means communicate the product’s core functionality in order to increase saliency- to make the brand mentally available when it’s most needed to be recalled.

Superiority derives from the feeling people have about the brand, the meaning, relevance and ideas they attach to the brand beyond the product’s physical attributes.

Those emotions and memory associations are buried deep inside the brain, they’re not stored in the effortful, slow and calculating working memory part that rational and persuasion based advertising appeals to. And given an opportunity to conserve it’s energy from cognitively processing things it couldn’t care less about, our brains ignore this kind of rationally persuasive stimulus.  

The intangibles, the memory associations and emotions one has towards a brand are the what makes a brand mentally available when it needs to be recalled from deep within our sub-conscious brain.

Effectiveness studies continually show that we best achieve price inelasticity through creating intangible feelings, emotions, meanings, ideas and associations attached to the brand held in people’s minds. Attempting to rationally persuade people of the product’s physical features relative to other brands will at best be quickly forgotten in the over-worked cognitive part of our system 1 brain, or at worst completely ignored.


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