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The Unconscious Side of Selling

Daryl Weber

 

How Psychology Can Help You Close the Sale

 

[A version of this article originally appearing Hearing Specialist magazine]

We like to think of ourselves as conscious creatures. We move through the world feeling in control of our actions, our thoughts, and behaviors. But, how much of this is an illusion? We can leave the debate over free will to the philosophers, but most neuroscientists, psychologists, and behavioral economists now agree that we are subtly driven by our unconscious mind in many ways, probably far more than we realize.

Think about how much your unconscious mind is doing at this very moment. It’s holding your body upright, keeping you breathing, your heart pumping, and monitoring your surroundings, all without your conscious awareness. It’s also allowing you to easily read these words without having to consciously “look up” the definition to every word - you just automatically translate the symbols on the page (the letters and words) into the meaning in your mind, without having to think about it or try. Pretty amazing.

But the unconscious can even go a lot further than these mundane tasks. The famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio demonstrated this in his landmark study called the Iowa Gambling Task. In this experiment, respondents were given four decks of cards where each card had a either a cash reward or a punishment where you would lose money. The respondents simply had to flip over cards and try to win as much money as possible. However, two of the decks were rigged to be bad decks that had much worse penalties than the other two.

What they found was that it took respondents’ conscious minds about 80 cards on average before they realized that two decks were bad, and the other two were good. The unconscious mind, however, was able to pick up on this much faster. They measured people’s anxiety level as they did this task, and found that anxiety would go up when reaching for bad decks after only about 10 cards were flipped. This actually caused people to pick from the “bad” decks less often, without them even realizing they were doing so. The unconscious mind and its intuition were far faster and more effective at picking up on the trend than the slow conscious mind, and helped to steer us in the right direction.

Why is it then that we feel so in control? It turns out that the brain may actually create rational justifications for our actions to satisfy our conscious mind, even if it’s not the truth. For example, clever studies were done with “split brain” patients - those who had the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain severed to help control seizures. When scientists exposed a command to only the right half of the brain, such as “get up and walk down the hall,” the person would start to do it. But when they asked the left side of the brain that had not seen the command (and is the side that controls speech) why they had gotten up and started walking, the left side made up a justification that made sense and said things like “I’m getting my jacket” or “I’m going to get a Coke.” Amazingly, these weren’t said as guesses, and they weren’t seen as lies by the patients - they believed it to be true and stated it as fact. It seems the brain can even trick itself.

So in many ways, it seems our unconscious may be in control of our actions more than we realize. Rather than our conscious minds being the computer we think of it as, it may be more like a computer’s monitor, simply displaying the hidden work and decisions that come from the computer.

This also makes us far less rational than we like to think. Instead of consciously evaluating and weighing all of our options, the unconscious tends to fall back on quick assumptions and shortcuts - called “heuristics” - that help guide our decisions and behavior, usually without us realizing it.

This will clearly have implications for marketers and salespeople trying to persuade potential customers. We cannot simply sell to the conscious mind, we must also understand how the unconscious is working, as that may be the real customer we’re trying to reach. So let’s look at a few ways in which we can engage and sell to the unconscious, rather than always trying to rationally woo the conscious mind.

The Power of Metacommunication

As we saw in the Iowa Gambling Task, the brain is constantly scanning and learning from the world even if we don’t realize it. Just like it was able to monitor the cards in the decks, it is picking up on subtle cues in our environment that it can use to help guide our behavior to what’s best. When it comes to sales and marketing, this means that the brain is processing far more than just the conscious message you’re trying to get across. The unconscious mind is also paying close attention to how the message is said.

For example, if you were to pass a billboard for a fashion brand, say J. Crew, on the highway, you may very quickly forget the content of the message, and may even forget that you saw an ad for J. Crew at all, at least consciously. However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that your unconscious mind saw the ad, processed it at some level, and while the conscious message may not stay in memory, the feeling of the ad is more likely to. So your brain may have picked up on the modern, cool fonts used, or the bold, vibrant colors, or the sly look on the model’s face. All this will add up to a perception and a feeling towards that brand that is now slightly altered in your unconscious memory. Your gut feeling, or intuition, for the J. Crew brand is now maybe that that brand feels a bit more modern, trendy, and edgy...but you wouldn’t know why. (For more on this, see my book Brand Seduction, where I describe a new model for how brands live in the unconscious based off of this gut feeling, called a “Brand Fantasy.”)

That is the power of metacommunication. Rather than the conscious, rational message an ad or salesperson may be trying to get across, metacommunication is the feeling communicated by all these other details and aspects around the message. And it’s that feeling that might matter more than the rational or conscious message. It’s like how you dress will say something about you, whether you intend it to or not. For a salesperson, how they talk and present themselves may matter more than what they say.

The brain is picking up on all those little details - your confidence, how you dress, the tone in your voice, your posture and body language, and more that all add up to a feeling they have about you and what you’re selling. And science is showing that it is those things that can be more important for closing the sale.

So when it comes to selling, we must realize that everything communicates, so make sure all of those details are saying what we want them to be saying to our prospect’s unconscious mind. Remember, how you say it is probably more important than what you say.

The Six Principles of Persuasion

Let’s now dig a bit deeper into some of the heuristics and shortcuts the unconscious uses to make decisions and see how they apply to sales and marketing. Dr. Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, and the author of the groundbreaking book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, famously outlined six key principles that have been scientifically shown to boost persuasion. While most of these tactics make common sense, the trick is that as consumers we are often not aware of their effect on us. We think we’re in control and making our decisions based on justifiable facts, but as we’ve seen, that may not be the case. Each of these principles tend to work on us unconsciously, without our awareness for how they influence our behavior.

So let’s look at how each principle works, and how they can be used to help improve sales and marketing. It’s important to note that since these are powerful implicit tools for modifying behavior, we must take care to use them only for ethically and morally good causes.

1. The Principle of Reciprocity

When we feel someone has given us something or done us a favor, we have an innate desire to return the favor. We feel we owe them something back. An obvious example of this is the free samples we see in many grocery stores. Even though we often only take a very small piece, we’re now more likely to buy the product, or feel bad when we walk away. In fact, it has been shown that people who receive a free, unexpected gift are more likely to listen to a product’s features, donate more money, or leave a larger tip. These gifts don’t need to be expensive or even physical, information or favors can work as well.

Takeaway: Whenever possible, give something away for free. It makes you look good, makes people like you and want to help you, and makes them want to return the favor.

2. The Principle of Social Proof

We humans don’t like to go out on our own. We feel much safer in packs, and are more comfortable doing something that we know many others are doing as well. For example, when a hotel was trying to get people to reuse towels to be environmentally friendly, no amount of facts or figures made much of a difference. The biggest difference came when guests were told that most other guests of the hotel were reusing their towels. Clearly, we like to fit in. This is also why laugh tracks work on sitcoms.

Takeaway: Reviews, testimonials, endorsements, showing how many sales you’ve had, etc. all show that other people have trusted and gone with you. Use these techniques conspicuously and often.

3. The Principle of Consistency

Once we commit to a certain action, we like to remain consistent to it. We don’t want to be seen as backing out of a deal, or going against our word. That would feel dishonest and disloyal. Importantly, any small initial commitment can lead to larger actions. For example, when researchers asked people if they would vote in an upcoming election and to explain why, 100% said they would vote. On election day, 87% of those asked actually voted, compared to 61% who were not asked. Giving a public commitment to something makes us more likely to follow through on it.

Takeaway: Have your customers commit to something small first, even if that just means agreeing with a simple statement. Getting any kind of “yes” at first makes them more likely to act in agreement with that statement.

4. The Principle of Liking

People are more likely to be engaged and say yes to people they like, and one of the best ways to build liking in someone is to share similarities. Whenever we feel we have something in common with someone, we feel like they are on our side. Human nature has a deeply tribal sense to it, and we want to associate and do business with others that are in our “in group.” As one study showed, when direct mailings were from someone with a similar name as the recipient, response rates almost doubled.

Takeaway: It’s important to not just build a friendly rapport with prospects, but to find similarities that put you on the same side. Find similar interests, hobbies, sports teams, being from the same places, liking the same restaurants, etc. to help build familiarity and trust.

5. The Principle of Authority

We’re programmed to respect authority. Most people will do almost anything if it comes from what they perceive to be an authority figure. Things like credentials, business titles, clothing/uniforms, even driving a high end car, can all signal expertise and success. In a classic study by Stanley Milgram of Yale University in 1974, respondents were asked to administer electric shocks to a stranger, even when the stranger (really an acting accomplice of the researchers) seemed to be in great pain. Incredibly, these participants continued to give increasingly high current levels at the insistence of their white lab coat wearing researchers. They were torn, but went with what the authority figure was asking of them.

Takeaway: Strive to be an authority in your field, and an industry leader. Look to demonstrate your expertise in many ways, such as displaying credentials, how you act and dress, and using testimonials from recognized authorities in the field.

6. The Principle of Scarcity

If we can’t have something, we often want it more. It seems we never grow out of this childish urge. We also tend to worry more about losing something we already have, rather than gaining something new. So the fear of missing out on an opportunity makes the product much more valuable. This is why you see countdown timers on many offers online, or how they’ll say “only 2 more left!” They’re preying on our worry of missing out. It’s also why the value of paintings go up when the artist dies. The more scarce it is, the more value it has to us.

Takeaway: Create urgency, specialness, and scarcity in your products and services. Show that these items are in limited supply, that they are selling out fast, or that an offer is only available for limited time.

In addition to these six principles, there are many other heuristics that our brains take to quickly make decisions. For example, the “anchoring” effect causes us to evaluate information based on previously heard information. So if you hear one offer at $500, the next offer at $200 will sound much more reasonable than if the initial anchor offered was $50.

Amazon is a master at these principles. On one of their typical sales pages, you can see many of these in action. They give away a sample of the ebook to tempt you, and maybe make you feel like returning the favor. The number of reviews listed acts as social proof. Blurbs from well known authors or from The New York Times give the book authority. Saying “only 4 left” shows scarcity. And by showing the original list price and crossing it out, our anchor is set higher, making the actual retail price seem like a bargain in comparison.

Clearly, there are many things that influence our behavior and decisions outside of our awareness. Our brains evolved to help us make decisions quickly and easily, without too much time or energy spent on deliberation. This works well most of the time, but it’s not perfect, and it means we are not nearly as conscious or rational as we think we are. As marketers and salespeople, we will be in a much better position to reach our customers if we understand how these unconscious processes are working. The conscious mind still matters, of course. It just might be that the conscious mind will care more about finding a rational justification for its actions (like a product feature, benefit, or the sense that it got a good deal), while it’s actually the unconscious mind that’s holding the real power to make the decision. So if you can capture the unconscious, you’re much more likely to close the sale.

Why Budweiser’s New “America” Can Is a Great Idea

Daryl Weber

Note: A version of this article appeared on Research Industry Voices here

You can’t think of American beer without thinking of Budweiser. While in many ways it’s just another massed produced, non-offensive, kinda bland domestic beer, it seems to have a stronghold on being the most American beer there is. Even with now being owned by AB InBev, the massive beer conglomerate based out of Belgium and Brazil, it still manages to feel quintessentially, iconically, American. It has authentic, hard working, blue collar roots that fit right at home at a frat party, 4th of July BBQ, next to a burger, and at the Super Bowl. Add in the majestic Clydesdales horses featured in many of its ads and it just seems as star spangled American as you can get.

Clearly, the marketers at Budweiser know this is their strength. Over the past few years, they’ve been playing up their American equity more and more. It wants to be (and arguably already is) the iconic American beer. Since 2011 they’ve released special edition cans that featured the American flag’s stars and stripes, and even the Statue of Liberty. But you probably didn’t hear about those. They didn’t stir up quite the buzz that we’re now seeing with their latest idea - to actually change the name on the can to “America” until the presidential election in November.  

Despite the backlash, I like this idea for a few reasons. First of all, the overall brand strategy of becoming known as the iconic American beer seems to be a good choice. Of course, all of Bud’s domestic beer competition can also claim to be American (maybe even more so), but none have the depth of equity in it that Bud has. Budweiser is uniquely positioned to own that space, and clearly consumers like things that are “made in America” and that can proudly represent their patriotism. This is especially true for the Budweiser target - think middle America, pickup trucks, and country music. They are proudly American, and so is Budweiser.

Secondly, changing the name of such a well known brand is a bold move. It’s going to get a lot of free press and attention, which is already happening. It’s remarkable, and worth talking about, so people are. Sure, a lot of people hate it and are taking to social media to say so, but even that helps solidify Budweiser’s Americanness in people’s minds.

But the real reason I think this name change is genius is more subtle. Most brands of course are not in a position to change their name. They don’t have the recognition and familiarity to do it. But Bud clearly does. You can see a can of Bud from a mile away and know it’s a can of Bud. You don’t need to read the label. Any beer drinker has seen so many bottles and cans of Budweiser around - at parties, on shelves, in ads, even on the side of the road - that it’s easily recognizable...without actually reading the name. So I’d argue that many people who go to pick up one of the new “America” cans, won’t even notice the name has changed. It’ll just be there - a subliminal reminder that Bud is America’s beer.

In psychology this is referred to as implicit learning. It’s the idea that your mind is learning about things in your environment all the time, mostly without you realizing it. So even if you barely notice the name change on a can of bud in your hand, your brain may have noticed, and in doing so it strengthens the idea that Budweiser is the All-American Beer. Of course, if you also hear about this name change in the news or on social media, that brand association further gets strengthened in your mind, both consciously and unconsciously.  

Coca-Cola tried something similar in 2011 when it changed the color of its iconic red cans to white in an effort to grow awareness for a save-the-polar bears campaign. It seemed like a nice idea that would also get a lot of free publicity for being a bold move, but it backfired. It strayed too far from the iconic look and feel of that brand. The red color is core to that brand, and cannot be messed with. Consumers even reported that the soda inside tasted different in the white can, and there is research to support that that would be true. Our perceptions, including taste, are strongly guided by our expectations, and the color of the can is a powerful cue for what we’re about to drink. It just doesn’t taste the same coming from a white can. Many were also confused and thought they were buying Diet Coke.

Budweiser’s can change is much more subtle. It keeps all of the important graphic elements that cue the brand - and all of the equity that comes along with it. Interestingly, it would seem like changing the name - such a core piece of any brand - would be a bigger change, but really, most consumers are so familiar with it that they’re not reading the actual name anymore, they’re just recognizing the whole thing. The “gestalt” as psychologists say - the brand’s whole impression - has stayed the same. In the Coke example, the gestalt, or overall image, became far too different.

So it’s really the combination that is powerful - the bold move Budweiser has taken in changing their name will get them a lot of publicity and buzz in a conscious way. But because the change of the look of the can is so subtle, they’re barely changing anything, so there is no risk of consumer confusion and the mental association of Budweiser as “America’s Beer” can also be built unconsciously. It’s a one-two punch that I think will serve the brand well in the long term, despite what the critics are saying.

Cheers to that, Budweiser.

Startup Branding: Get your brand right from the start

Daryl Weber

5 Ways to Go From Idea to Brand

Entrepreneurs embarking on a new venture have enough to worry about. Between building a great product, wrangling investors, managing cash flow, and the million other things on their to-do lists, building out their brand usually gets pushed to the bottom of the pile...if it's in the pile at all.

But that's a mistake. A strong brand can bring a jolt of energy and life to even the best business plan or idea. A great brand can excite investors, inspire employees, attract great talent, and help focus your company - even before your consumers ever see it. It's also much easier and cheaper than having to rethink it and rebrand later.

And don't think you need to hire a fancy agency to get started. Building a strong brand foundation only requires getting some clear thinking setup properly from the start. And thinking, it turns out, is free.

1) Your business is your brand.

Your brand is way more than a logo. I think of brands as a collection of associations in consumers’ minds. These are both conscious (what your product or service is, your ads, your people, etc.) and unconscious (the underlying feelings connected to your product or service). This means every interaction and touchpoint that people have with your company adds another association and shapes how they feel about your brand. So make sure every detail of your business - and I mean everything - communicates what you want it to and strengthens your brand in the right way.

2) Find your quarter inch hole.

The Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said “People don’t want to buy a quarter inch drill. They want a quarter inch hole.” Entrepreneurs often get so caught up in their love for the product or service that they forget the real reason people might buy it in the first place. Make sure your brand speaks to the job your consumers want done, not the product you have.

3) Don’t mix up your what with your why.

More so than just buying what you are selling, people will buy into why you are selling it. Be clear on what your ultimate goals are, why your company exists, and what change you hope to make in the world. It may sound fantastical and far out now, but it can imbue your team, customers and brand with a sense of vision and direction.

4) What’s your blue footed booby?

When the eyeglasses company Warby Parker set out to build their company and brand, they had long debates on what the brand should look and feel like. They knew it had to feel much richer and deeper than just the functional attributes. So the founders created a moodboard of images that included a blue footed booby bird (for its humor), a fixed gear bicycle (for its elegant simplicity and eco-friendliness), and many more seemingly random images that helped mold the image, style, and feel of their now strong brand. Try to build out your own brand world by finding imagery, movies, celebrities, music, or anything else that can help you capture the mood and feeling you want to imbue your brand with.

5) Consumers are people too.

Make sure you go beyond simple demographics and look for the real motivations behind why consumers would want your offering. Try to understand their broader lives - what their dreams and goals are, why they really buy what they buy, and what emotional need your product might satisfy. Paint a rich picture of your target as more than just consumers of your product but as a real person, and you’ll be better able to see how your brand fits into their lives.

Take the time to think each of these through, and really envision what you stand for and what your brand feels like. If you can bring all these pieces together into one coherent whole, you'll be well on your way to creating a solid brand to stand on.

 

6 Ways to Hear What Consumers are Really Saying

Daryl Weber

For Better Market Research, Read Between the Quotes

A version of this article appeared in Fast Company here.

For decades, market research was based on a simple premise: listen to your consumers. The idea was that if you paid enough attention, and spoke to enough consumers, you would understand what they want. You would uncover their needs, desires, and frustrations, so that your products and communications could answer them.

 

But times are changing. We’ve become much smarter about what drives human decision making, and the science increasingly shows that much of what influences us is unconscious - which means consumers can’t talk about it directly.

Traditional focus groups have their own set of problems, but even more natural research methods (e.g. ethnographies and one-on-one interviews) and projective techniques (e.g. brand personifications, mood boards, storytelling, etc.) can fall prey to relying too strongly on what respondents say. Consumers just can’t tell you much about how they decide or why they buy. After all, we know what happened with New Coke, right?

Despite this shift in thinking, we still love consumer quotes. We want to hear it straight from their mouths, and research agencies still hand us reams of quotes from surveys and interviews. While neuromarketing techniques that peer directly into the brain continue to gain traction, in-person qualitative research still has its place. The key is to use it wisely by reading between the lines to get at their real (and often hidden) intentions, motivations, feelings and beliefs.

Here are six tips to get more out of your research by looking behind and around what consumers say:

1. Read body language

Are their arms crossed? Are they hunched over? Does a new idea have them sitting up and gesturing more? These clues can lead you to true excitement or disinterest in an idea. Sometimes I think you can learn more in a focus group backroom by having the sound turned off and just watching the respondents carefully.

2. Look for micro facial expressions

Many facial expressions are involuntary and immediate, and often display our real feelings. It can be easy to see if someone’s face lights up at a new idea, but there are many more nuanced expressions as well. Called microexpressions, they can reveal true feelings before our conscious mind and social judgement cloud our response. There are even training courses available to learn to spot and interpret these fleeting expressions.

3. Listen for tone, not just content

Often if I am doing research in another language, I’ll ask to hear the people speaking in their own language (in addition to the interpreter). Hearing their voices, and the changes in pitch, volume/intensity, and speed, can give you important clues as to their real excitement and interest, or lack thereof, than what their words may be telling you.

4. Look for the context around the words

When you hear a quote, think, “why might they be saying this?” If you can, get to know the person more deeply - their lives, their goals, their dreams. Look around their homes. All this can help put their words into a much richer and more meaningful context.

5. Watch out for social pressure

Always be aware of social pressures that may be at play. What might this person want you to think, or want to think about themselves, even if it’s not the whole truth? We are very good at lying - even to ourselves - to maintain the image we want, so good research should look to break down these barriers.

6. Actual behaviors never lie

When possible, look at what the person actual does rather than what they say they do or will do. This can be done through journaling, shop alongs, or just looking at previous purchases and buying behavior.

The more you can use these tools to understand the motivations behind people’s words, the better equipped you’ll be to interpret and use your consumer research.  

The Unexpected Downside of Super Bowl Ads

Daryl Weber

How focused attention may actually make ads less effective

Despite what advertisers may want to believe, we rarely give TV ads our full attention. If we’re not fast-forwarding them, we’re picking up our smart phones, going to the bathroom or doing just about anything other than focusing on the commercials.

But not at the Super Bowl. Oh no. On this sacred day, commercials are king. They can even outshine the game itself. This is the one time that when the commercials come on, the crowd hushes, puts down their chicken wings, and waits to be amazed.

Sounds like an advertiser’s dream, right? Not so fast.

Normally we watch TV - and especially TV ads - in a passive, low attention state that Dr. Robert Heath of the University of Bath in the UK calls low-involvement processing. We’re relaxed, partially paying attention, but probably also thinking about and doing other things.

Here’s the kicker: low-involvement processing, in some ways, may actually be the best way for advertisers to reach their audience. Studies by Dr. Heath and his team suggest that when we process TV ads in a low-involvement state, we often let our guard down, allowing marketing messages to seep into our subconscious. Heath believes we’re more open and accepting of messages since we’re not giving enough conscious attention to rationalize it or argue back.

This is called implicit learning - we learn without realizing we’re learning. Since our brains are constantly bombarded with stimuli from the environment, we’ve evolved to filter out most of it and only pay conscious attention to what’s really important. And not surprisingly, brands don’t usually make the cut. So when faced with marketing messages, especially with repeated exposures, our minds relax, and we end up receiving and accepting the message without giving it a second thought.

But that’s not what happens on Super Bowl Sunday. Here, we’re amped up, waiting to see what the next blockbuster ad will bring. We’re in a high-involvement processing state, and are more likely to give the message conscious thought and attention. This can be a good thing for marketers - if we like the ad we’re more likely to remember it and think fondly of the brand. But it can also backfire. In this type of high arousal state, Heath believes we’re more likely to consciously argue and defend ourselves from ads, and less open and accepting of the message.

This idea can be applied beyond Super Bowl advertising, of course. It suggests advertisers shouldn’t worry as much about capturing people's conscious attention, but rather accept and embrace their audience's laid back, low-involvement attitude towards ads. This would mean focusing more on consistently building the implicit and emotional associations you want connected to your brand, rather than trying to push the more rational arguments, especially when they are highly engaged. That type of hard sell could get you into a mental battle with your viewers, and this research suggests they’ll be armed and ready.

Now back to the chicken wings.