And how to avoid these persuasive marketing mistakes by embracing consumers’ intuitive ways of thinking.
About five years ago, I had a minor epiphany, in two parts. First, I realized that marketing and advertising were starting to bug me. They were becoming more disruptive and intrusive every day, and marketers seemed to be locked in an “arms race” to outshout each other, pull my attention away from whatever else I was doing, and persuade me to buy their stuff. And second, I knew if I wanted to question the belief that the purpose of marketing was persuasion, I would need a boatload of evidence. Because as British marketing professor Tim Ambler so memorably put it in 2000:
“The assumption that advertising equals persuasion is so ingrained in the USA that a challenge elicits much the same reaction as questioning your partner’s parentage.”
In pursuit of that boatload of evidence, I turned to three branches of brain science: neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics. What I found was a trail of findings and insights that seemed to support my vague sense of unease with the role marketers wanted to assign me in their marketing and advertising plans: persuasion target.
In this article, I won’t try to summarize any positive argument for intuitive marketing, but I will try to describe some of the major “collisions” I found between how marketers traditionally think about persuasion and how consumers respond to it.
So, in no particular order, here are
10 Mistakes Persuasuve Marketing Makes
Mistake #1 — Assume That Grabbing Attention Is What Every Marketing Message Must Do
Most marketers assume that grabbing attention — aka “rising above the clutter” or having “stopping power” — is always good for marketing and advertising. But is it? The surprising answer is unambiguous ‘no’ for at least three reasons. First, brain science tells us that when people pay attention to marketing, they may start consciously thinking about what they’re paying attention to. And when they start thinking about it, they may start questioning it. And that can lead them to at least three responses marketers never want to see:
- Persuasion resistance: When people become aware that they’re the target of an unwanted persuasion attempt, their most common reaction is to resist it. Common strategies include discounting the credibility of the persuading agent, objecting to the appropriateness of the persuasion effort, identifying ulterior motives for the persuasion agent, or counter-arguing the content of the persuasion attempt. Marketers too often act like persuasion resistance isn’t a thing. It is.
- Habit disruption: One of the defining characteristics of a habit is its thoughtlessness. You don’t need to think about it; when you find yourself in the right situation, the habitual behavior is automatically triggered. But if you stop to pay attention to what you’re doing, you can easily disrupt the habit. For any product or brand that is lucky enough to be a recipient of habitual buying, the last thing it wants is to disrupt that habit and replace it with conscious deliberation, which may lead to …
- Variety-seeking: Once a habitual behavior is disrupted, people may begin asking dangerous questions like, “Why am I buying the same old toothpaste every time?” This can trigger the bane of leading brands: variety-seeking. Ironically (for the marketer), getting consumers to pay attention to your product or brand can have the perverse effect of causing them to try a different brand.
Second, marketers need to consider that consumers don’t experience marketing messages in isolation, one at a time. They usually come in clumps, whether as incessant ad breaks on TV, annoying peripheral ads and pop-ups online, disruptive “notifications” on your phone, or signage overload in retail stores.
Marketers need to consider the collective effect of multitudes of marketing messages all clamoring for attention on the consumer’s limited attentional capacity.
Marketing designed first and foremost to attract attention can — when surrounded by competing marketing messages with the same aim — contribute to a situation that not only thwarts its own objectives but also trains consumers to become experts at suppressing marketing messages and devaluing the products and brands being offered. There is a kind of tragedy of the effect of the common here. By overgrazing the “attentional commons,” marketers collectively run the risk of making the marketing environment as a whole inhospitable to the very audience they are trying to reach.
Third, as Robert Heath has documented, some of the most successful ads and marketing campaigns appear to work best in low-attention conditions. Brain science explains why this is. The learning that occurs in the absence of attention is implicit and automatic, not explicit and effortful (see Mistake #9 below). What consumers learn is not the informational content of the message, but what brain scientists colorfully call its affective residue — the overall emotional valence (positivity or negativity) of the experience.
Once marketers understand what aspects of cognition are impacted when marketing is experienced with low attention, they can see how it can be at least as influential, if not more influential, than marketing experienced with high attention.
Marketers must learn how to activate attention strategically, not universally.
Mistake #2 — Fail to Follow Consumer Responses Through the Full Consumer Cycle
It’s useful to think of consumers as interacting with products and brands through a consumer cycle — that is, a continual updating of associations and expectations as consumers repeatedly pass through the three stages of the cycle: awareness through marketing, acquisition through shopping, and adoption through consuming.
The Consumer Cycle (image courtesy of “Intuitive Marketing: What Marketers Can Learn from Brain Science,” Intuitive Consumer Insights, 2019.
The consumer cycle model emphasizes that no stage in the cycle can be evaluated and optimized in isolation from the others. Measuring immediate responses to ads or marketing messages tell marketers nothing about the expectations brought to the experience, how those expectations were formed, or how associations are updated as a result of the experience. It is essentially a snapshot of a dynamic process that continues and evolves — often subtly but sometimes dramatically — outside the frame of the snapshot.
To fully understand how marketing influences consumers, marketers must trace associations and expectations as they evolve over time — often long periods of time — in response to multiple
journeys through the full consumer cycle of marketing, shopping, and consuming.
Mistake #3 — Focus on Novelty at the Expense of Familiarity
Marketers like creating surprises. They have active imaginations. They love novelty. But brain science tells us consumers are not like marketers. They tend to be suspicious of novelty. They are attracted to it, not because they prefer it, but because novelty creates an opportunity for learning. And the purpose of learning is to transform something novel into something familiar. Consumers prefer familiarity to novelty for many reasons: It can be experienced without much attention, it has a calming rather than stimulating emotional effect, it’s processed more automatically than a novelty, it triggers less conscious vigilance, and it’s associated with approach rather than withdrawal motivation.
Traditional persuasive marketing regularly uses novel situations and incidents to attract attention, trigger conscious information processing, change preferences, and get consumers to take action.
But it’s a familiarity that consumers crave in the marketplace.
Familiarity depends on consistency, consistency signals reliability, and reliability forms the basis for trust. Intuitive consumers don’t like to think about the products they buy unless they have to. Trusting a familiar product to perform consistently and reliably means you don’t have to think deeply about your choice. It’s much easier, and much less risky, to go with the brand you trust, not the one that’s new and different.
One important implication follows: Marketers need to be very cautious about making any changes in product, packaging, price, or promotion that might disrupt familiarity and trust.
Mistake #4 — Expect Too Much from Mere Exposure and Processing Fluency
Mere exposure and processing fluency at first glance appear to be silver bullets for marketers. Mere exposure seems to say: “You don’t need to convince people of anything. Just expose them to your product repeatedly and they will automatically come to like it.” And processing fluency seems to say: “If you just make your messages fluent — by using simple techniques like short sentences, rhyming, and readable fonts — people will make all kinds of positive inferences; they will see your message as more likely to be true and your product as more familiar, effective, likable, and risk-free.”
Unfortunately, just as there’s no crying in baseball, there are no silver bullets in marketing.
It’s true that both mere exposure and processing fluency increase liking when properly deployed. But just as these effects are easy to create, they’re also easy to displace. This is because the kind of liking produced by mere exposure and processing fluency is ephemeral, easily manipulated, and easily replicated.
Marketers need to recognize that mere exposure and processing fluency are not ended in themselves, but only intermediate steps along a much longer road leading to lasting and mutually beneficial customer relationships. What marketers need to strive for is not “mere liking” based on shortcuts to immediate preference, but more enduring trust and, through trust, long-term customer loyalty and repeat buying.
Mistake #5 — Rely on Expressed Preferences to Predict Consumer Choices
This is an area in which traditional persuasive marketing has been led astray by the classic economic model of rational choice, which predicts behavior based on assumptions that preferences are stable, consistent, known before choices are made, and known with adequate precision to make the process of choosing among alternatives unambiguous.
Sadly, the economic model of rational choice has been demolished by behavioral economics. And expressed preferences have been found to be poor predictors of future behavior.
Brain science reveals a number of reasons why this is so. Rather than preceding and guiding choices, preferences are often constructed in real-time out of the choice experience itself. They can change radically over time as contexts and goals change. They can be misattributions based on unconscious processes like priming, mere exposure, or processing fluency. They can be implicit and inaccessible to conscious awareness. Brain scientists have even found that people can simultaneously hold implicit and explicit preferences that contradict each other.
Marketing by itself can only build weak and temporary preferences. Lasting preferences come from multiple journeys through the consumer cycle in which marketing, shopping, and consuming experiences all mutually reinforce each other and strengthen a trustworthy product/brand image in the minds of consumers.
Mistake #6 — Put Too Much Emphasis on In-the-Moment Emotions
Traditional marketers have rebranded emotion as an alternative to information in the persuasive marketing model. While not abandoning the idea that marketing is about persuasion, they have identified emotional displays, rather than arguments, demonstrations, comparisons, or endorsements, as the potential mechanism for delivering persuasion in a marketing message.
Brain science has identified a flaw in this strategy.
When people focus on highly emotional events, they tend to remember the emotional incident itself but not the details surrounding it.
They mentally simulate and internalize the emotional display, but the intensity of the display narrows what they commit to memory. They strongly and vividly encode what triggered their emotion, but not when or why, or in what context, or with what consequences.
This discovery that emotion-related experiences “narrow” memory encoding implies some dangers for marketers who want to wrap their products and brands in emotionally saturated narratives. When emotional content is deployed in advertising or marketing to capture an audience’s attention and direct that attention to an emotional-persuasive message, emotional memory researchers warn that while the emotional event may be successfully transcribed into memory, the associated details may not. If the product or brand is not deeply embedded in the emotional moment, it’s likely to be seen as peripheral to the central emotion, and therefore unlikely to survive the transition from sensory impression to lasting memory.
This highlights another important brain science finding. Memories, not immediate feelings, are the primary mechanisms by which marketing and advertising influence consumer choice and behavior.
Mistake #7 — Emphasize “Liking” Over “Wanting” and “Needing”
Brain science tells us that “liking” is overrated in the marketing world. It’s overrated because it’s unreliable and untrustworthy; it can be induced in too many ways that are independent of any properties of the “liked” object itself.
- The comfort and sense of safety produced by familiarity can be interpreted as liking.
- The mere exposure effect can induce a feeling of liking based on repetition alone.
- Processing fluency can induce a feeling of liking based on ease of mental processing alone.
- According to Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, unconscious or barely conscious affective residue can be interpreted as liking in a choice or decision-making task.
Like preferences, “likes” are fragile, contextually dependent, constructed in the moment, and tend to follow behavior rather than precede it.
Persuasive marketing assumes that emotions like “liking” directly influence consumers and impact their subsequent behavior. Emotions do impact behavior, but not directly. Before an emotion can trigger an act, it must be translated into a want, need, or goal.
It is motivation, not emotion, that drives consumer behavior.
Mistake #8 — Ignore Consumer Aspirations and Identity Needs
Persuasive marketing assumes that marketing must change attitudes because it’s only by changing attitudes that you can change behavior. This makes a kind of sense, because an act of persuasion is, by definition, an effort to convince someone to think or act in ways they don’t currently want to. Persuasion assumes, often implicitly, that human motivation can only be activated by external sources, such as a reward, threat, or punishment.
Brain science — specifically, the branch of psychology called self-determination theory — says this is not the case. Humans aren’t passive vessels waiting to be filled up by marketing messages aimed at imposing marketers’ preferred shopping and consumption goals on them. Instead, we’re all naturally motivated actors who are constantly pursuing our own intrinsic goals — from immediate to lifelong — driven by three universal psychological needs identified by self-determination theorists: autonomy, competence, and belonging.
Pursuing and achieving our intrinsic goals is far more central to our identities and aspirations than embracing the extrinsic goals imposed by persuasive marketing. When a persuasive message tries to grab our attention and change our attitudes and behavior, it’s not just providing a motivation where none existed before — it’s asking us to interrupt whatever goals we were previously pursuing to begin pursuing new goals provided by the persuasive messenger. Marketing doesn’t need to work this way.
What if, rather than trying to disrupt and divert consumers’ internally driven motivations and intrinsic goal pursuits, marketers positioned their products and brands as facilitators of those motivations and goals, as allies in people’s pursuit of better, more enriching lives?
Connecting to aspirations and identity doesn’t impose motivations on consumers — it focuses on the motivations and goals they already have. It provides a narrative as to how products and brands can help consumers achieve those goals. Brands that signify the aspirations and identities of their consumers can be positive influences in people’s lives. Such brands seldom resort to the tactics and pressures of persuasive marketing. Instead, they present themselves as partners in consumers’ aspirational and identity-affirming goals — goals to improve one’s life, to be a better person, to be welcomed and accepted by others, or to do something good in the world.
Mistake #9 — Misunderstand How (and What) Consumers Learn From Marketing
Traditional persuasive marketing is built on a partial and outdated view of human memory and learning. It’s partial in the sense that it assumes marketing messages get committed to memory primarily through conscious processes of intentional learning. It’s outdated in the sense that, while it does acknowledge that learning can sometimes occur through implicit memory processes like conditioning, it assumes that what gets encoded through these processes is essentially the same information — semantic and episodic memories of a single object or event — that gets encoded through conscious learning. Neither assumption stands up in light of the latest findings from brain science.
Persuasive marketing assumes learning is conscious and deliberate because persuasion can only be experienced consciously. This is self-evidently true. You can’t persuade someone if they’re unaware you’re trying to persuade them. And they can’t be persuaded if they have not attended, understood, and agreed to the terms of your case, whether logical or emotional. Remembering your persuasive message at a later point in time requires an act of “declarative” memory retrieval — a person must deploy explicit memory recall to access and “playback” a semantic memory of your case for behavior change.
Most marketing, however, does not enter and exit memory in this way. If we begin with the assumption that marketing is most often experienced with low or no attention, it follows that most learning from such exposures can’t be a function of explicit memorization. Unlike “declarative” (consciously accessible) memories, implicit memories aren’t “brought to mind” as recollections of facts or episodes.
Implicit memories can only be experienced indirectly and observed retrospectively as invisible influences on preferences, attitudes, habits, moods, choices, and actions. They’re not just hidden from conscious access; they’re also different in kind from explicit memories.
What consumers take away from most marketing and advertising aren’t memories of individual facts or events; they’re memories of patterns of association between multiple facts and events. Implicit learning helps us classify a product or brand, determine its probability or frequency of occurrence, establish its emotional valence or affective residue, estimate its motivational relevance, and calculate its potential reward value (given our immediate and long-term goals and purposes).
All these learnings develop unconsciously and incrementally over repeated — not single — exposures. They update the associations we attach to a product or brand, and they alter the expectations we bring to bear the next time we encounter that product or brand in our ongoing journeys through the consumer cycle.
Mistake #10 — Misuse Covert Persuasion in Behavioral Designs
Behavioral designs, also called choice architectures or behavioral interventions, are powerful tools for shaping consumers’ choices so they align with marketers’ desired outcomes. But marketers have a choice of their own. They can use these powerful tools to help consumers pursue intrinsic aspirations to be “happier, healthier, and wealthier,” or they can use them as “weapons of influence” to get people to do things that are good for the marketer, but not good for the consumer.
Each of these paths is governed by a different mindset on the part of the marketer. The mindset underlying behavioral design for consumer well-being assumes it’s OK to “nudge” people toward one choice rather than another, as long as that nudge will help them make better, welfare-enhancing decisions.
The mindset underlying the other path, which might be called behavioral design for covert persuasion, is different. Practitioners of covert persuasion see the purpose of behavioral designs to be the control of consumer buying behavior, not the enhancement of consumer well-being. As a marketing strategy, covert persuasion exploits the heuristics and biases discovered by behavioral economists to help marketers achieve the overriding goal of persuasive marketing — to get consumers to do what marketers want them to do.
The problem with this mindset is that it tends to be accompanied by a dehumanizing attitude toward the targets of the proposed persuasion techniques — a tendency to view people as easily manipulated and controllable. Searching for a “persuasion methods” book on Amazon, for example, brings up over 300 titles. All of these books offer surefire ways to lure others into doing your bidding, whether for the purpose of making a sale, winning a negotiation, or just maintaining an advantage in any interpersonal exchange. As one successful persuasion methods author declares, “This book will teach you how to successfully (and ethically) become a puppeteer in a world full of human marionettes.”
Viewing humans as simple “puppets” waiting to have their strings pulled is about as far as one can get from viewing them as self-motivated agents pursuing their own goals and interests in a complex world.
Covert persuasion designed to manipulate, and control others are unethical. Specifically, it’s unethical to the extent it disrupts, disregards, or attempts to displace a consumer’s existing goals with new goals that benefit the seller but do so by damaging the health, wealth, or happiness of the buyer.
If consumers were as easily manipulated as the persuasion methods literature implies, marketing would be the world’s easiest profession. But it’s not. Consumers are not push-overs, easy marks, or puppets. Marketers who fail to see consumers as autonomous agents who want and need to be treated with respect and dignity will be unable to build the long-term relationships of trust and repeat business they crave. Marketing that maneuvers people into doing things they don’t want to do — or buying things they don’t want to buy — seldom leads to a second transaction.
As these 10 mistakes illustrate, persuasive marketing can rely too much on disruptive attention-grabbing, it can be overly transactional, and it can expect more from persuasive arguments and emotional displays than our cognitive miser brains are ready to provide. But the biggest mistake persuasive marketing makes is its tendency to treat consumers as passive recipients of marketing messages, ignoring their deeper motivations and goals, and expecting them to be ready and willing to do whatever marketers want them to do.