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Behaviorial Psychology

Why Being Interesting Isn't Enough: Emotional Triggers in Advertising

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party. You don't know anyone. Maybe a friend invited you to their after work gathering. If you’re like most people, you’re a little uncomfortable. You make small talk as a way to fill the gaps in conversation. But small talk is more than filling space. The topics we choose and how we talk about them say something about ourselves.

For example, we might bring up books we've read because we want others to think that we are intelligent and well-read. We mention a new fancy restaurant around the corner because hoping to come across as sophisticated and cultured. We look for amusing anecdotes or observations because we want people to think we are funny.

Advertisers want to be interesting too

If you want people to think you are interesting, you try to think of interesting things to say. Advertisers do this too, and some go to lengths to make their product interesting with surprising or engaging advertising. They dress people as food items and have them dance about. They feature family sedans in high octane car chases. High budget, high concept, high impact.

Consumers are constantly bombarded with promotions, so it makes sense to do everything you can to make your product more interesting and more exciting than anyone else. When it’s done well, it’s an effective tactic. But a product doesn’t have to seem interesting for a campaign to be effective.

Correlating impact advertising with effectiveness

Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, researched the correlation between the “interesting-ness” of product positioning and campaign effectiveness. He wanted to measure the effectiveness of advertising designed to make a product seem interesting or unique versus advertising that didn’t.

To do this, he worked with a word of-mouth marketing firm. Such firms work by creating networks made up of thousands of “agents” who agree to talk about a product in exchange for free samples. No money is involved, and the agents are free to say anything they like whenever they like about the product.

Agents periodically file reports about the conversations they had. These reports give insight into the level of word-of-mouth engagement a product enjoys. When you compare word-of-mouth engagement about a product with the product’s campaign, you can measure the correlation between advertising style and effectiveness.

Berger took hundreds of products and asked people to measure how interesting they found each product on a scale of 1 to 10. He then compared the interest scores of the product with the product’s word-of-mouth engagement. The result? He found no correlation. Interesting products didn’t receive any more word of mouth than everyday products.

Puzzled, he thought that “interesting” might be too vague a concept to be meaningful. So, he asked people to rate how novel or surprising they found the products. Same result: there was no correlation between product novelty and word of mouth about the product.

He repeated these tests over and over, using sets of people from different background and demographics, and with different sets of products. Again and again he got the same result.

Context in advertising

Berger looked deeper and found that he was combining data from two campaign styles. On the one hand was the “impact” style of advertising. This style emphasizes the unique qualities of the product, attempting to make it seem interesting and valuable.

The other style didn’t focus on the unique or interesting qualities of the product at all. Rather, it worked to associate the product with a trigger. A trigger is a context, like an activity, event, or a circumstance. The idea is to associate the trigger and the product in the consumer’s mind such that when a consumer enters the right context, the designed behavior is triggered.

Context is everything

The connection between context and behavior is well established in marketing literature. Researcher Adrian North showed that the style of music playing in a grocery store  will impact sales. French wine sales increased if the PA system played French music, and German wine sales increased when German music was piped in. A study by Michael White showed an increase of space related items correlated with the Rover mission to Mars – including an almost 5% increase in sales of Mars bars.

Context matters in all sorts of ways, including how people vote. A different study by Jonah Berger showed that people whose polling place was in a school were more likely to vote in favor of education initiatives versus people with polling places elsewhere. Marketers use this insight to build campaigns that have resonance over time by artificially connecting a context to behavior.

Marketing to context

Unlike impact campaigns, trigger campaigns aren’t designed to impress the consumer with a product’s fantastic qualities; rather, over time they build an association in the user’s mind between an emotional trigger and a product. This makes trigger campaigns particularly suited for commodity products that are difficult to distinguish.

  • Corona used a relaxing time at the beach as a trigger for their beer and grew market share by 8%
  • Hershey’s used the coffee break as a trigger for a Kit Kat bar and grew market share by 5%
  • Kodak used family get togethers as a trigger called the Kodak moment. They didn’t publish the impact, but 30 years later it’s still a campaign that immediately comes to mind.

In every case,the campaign didn’t focus on the unique qualities of the product. It didn’t make an effort to make the product seem exciting or interesting. Instead, they established a trigger in the consumer’s mind that associated the brand with a context.

Three things that matter most for triggers

When you consider extending your position to include triggers, keep in mind that not all triggers will work equally well. The important things to consider include:

  • Frequency: If users aren’t triggered very frequently, they won’t buy very frequently. Michelob’s campaign from the 70s focused on holidays: “Holidays were made for Michelob.” The problem is, holidays aren’t a particularly frequent event. Changing the message to “Weekends were made for Michelob” increased trigger frequency and associated buying behavior.
  • Strength: The other side of the coin for frequency. If a trigger is ubiquitous (or dominated by another brand), it becomes dilute and loses its ability to be tied to a particular product.
  • Context: A trigger within the context of the desired behavior is more effective than out of context triggers. A message on a grocery cart promoting a child immunization program will not be as effective as the same promotion in a pediatrician’s office.

If you thought this post was interesting or useful, please share it! If you'd like to read more about Johah Berger and his research, check out his book Contagious: why things catch on(