Will A Doomsday Cult Buy A New Dishwasher?

Cognitive dissonance.

It’s the discomfort caused by two conflicting thoughts.

It’s the pain of learning something new, which contradicts what’s already accepted as true. And it’s often strongest when a person believes something about himself, but acts in a contradictory fashion.

Dr. Leon Festinger, then of the University of Minnesota, first proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance after studying a doomsday cult lead by a suburban Minneapolis housewife.

Marion Keech was convinced that aliens would rescue her and her followers before a massive flood occured at midnight, December 20, 1954. Many of the cult members waiting for the end of the world quit their jobs, sold their homes, and gave away their belongings and savings.

What does a cult follower do when faced with incontrovertible evidence that his beliefs are wrong? Right. He rationalizes. And interestingly, his belief becomes even stronger.

Rather than admit they had changed their lives on an invalid premise (and rather than risk being laughed at), Keech’s followers chose to believe their faith had persuaded the aliens to save the world.

Dr. Festinger explained that the more important conflicting ideas are to a person the greater the cognitive dissonance they cause. The discomfort also increases when accepting the validity of one idea requires the complete denunciation of the other. If a person can’t rationalize, or explain away the discrepancy, he suffers.

And according to Festinger, when learning the new information forces people to compromise their self-image, they will not learn from their mistakes. Instead of admitting their own fallibility, they’ll continue making the same bad choices. (This denial of the evidence also contributes to confirmation bias, in which an individual picks and chooses among the “facts” he’ll accept as true.)

When it comes to marketing surveys?

One of the least reliable methods of predicting consumer behavior is to ask consumers what they intend to do. And yet, companies keep using “intent to purchase” surveys to determine the course of their business.

Do you intend to purchase a hard drive? A dishwasher? A case of Cabernet Sauvignon? A new home?

Do people really know what they’re going to buy?

In the next year will you buy a digital camera? Shares of stock? An iPhone? A timeshare? A second vehicle?

Does anyone know?

Some do. Most don’t.

Why is that?

When the ideal of “what I want” collides with the reality of “what I can afford,” cognitive dissonance is the likely outcome. We’re a nation of optimists. We all want to believe that next year will be better than this one. It’s painful to admit that we don’t have the power to create the lives we want, even when we only have to admit it to ourselves.

So we deny. We rationalize. We hope. And we don’t tell the researchers what we suspect to be true. We don’t even tell them what we think they want to hear.

We tell them how we see ourselves.

What can you expect when you ask what people want?

You can expect them not to care that you want to know.

You can expect them not to want to do any mental work to help you get to your answers.

You can expect the vast majority to refuse to answer. They don’t have time.

And expect that most don’t truly know what they want. By definition, any of these folks who take your survey are giving an inaccurate description of their preferences.

Those who know what they want, and complete your survey, often provide incomplete answers.

And in those very few cases where your survey does compile a complete and accurate description of your customer’s preferences, what you have is a static picture of a constantly moving target. Over time, those preferences will become stale and less accurate.

And there’s still the question of what you’re measuring. When you ask about intent to purchase, are you measuring stated preferences? Behavioral preferences? Predictive behavior? Are they the same? If not, how do they differ?

Be very careful with intentions.

Frankly, the only reliable data tracks behaviors. Actual purchases. Not what people want, but what they’ve actually paid for.

A recent study of automobile shoppers indicates that 58 percent of those who bought, drove off in a car other than the one they came looking for. And when questioned, a full 42 percent arrived at the lot without having made a clear choice between a new vehicle and a used one. Maybe what they were “just looking” for was a good salesperson.

Regardless, you can easily see that surveying intention to purchase provides pretty much useless data.

Information is moving faster than ever. The rate of change keeps accelerating. And it’s unfortunate that in some industries, by the time changes in customer behavior have become obvious, its too late to adjust and stay competitive.

How can you predict what people will buy?

Even people who don’t know what they want can usually rank their preferences.

Ask them to choose between options.

Ask them for trade offs.

Help them to the decision point. Help them to choose which products, or even features and benefits are worth more to them.

Would they like a cell phone that can give them directions to the nearest Italian restaurant? Sure. Who wouldn’t?

Would they pay an extra $100 for it? Ehhhhhh, maybe not.

If there was only one extra feature beyond basic telephone service, would they give up the ability to play MP3s in order to have those restaurant directions? Absolutely not.

Would they give up the four function calculator? OK, perhaps they would, but they still won’t pay extra for the directions.

Ah, now you have a way to uncover some truly meaningful information about market demand.

In the absence of actual sales data, identifying the important trade offs they’ll pay for is critical when you’re fishing for customers.

Your Guide,
Chuck McKay

Marketing consultant Chuck McKay

Chuck McKay.

Your Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

Questions about getting meaningful information from your customers may be directed to [email protected].  Or call Chuck at 304-208-7654.


If you know someone who would find this article useful, please share it.

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Bottled Water, Fresh Fruit, and the Price of Gasoline

Are you in retail? Have your sales been affected by gas prices?

I just eavesdropped on a conversation between the managers of two local stores.*

They both noted that store traffic has decreased, and the telephone is ringing much more consistently, since the price of gas passed $3.50 per gallon. People are now calling to confirm inventory before they drive to the store.

There’s no doubt that, as surely as it’s effecting the rest of our economy, the price of gas is effecting retail sales, too.

There’s also no doubt that this is a time of great opportunity for those businesses who recognize what’s happening, and have the courage to take immediate action.

The change in consumer behavior will be short lived.

People will return to their old habits.

How do I know?

Because they always do.

When the Mother Earth News was a fledgling publication, people worried about protecting the ecology. Later they joined the conservation movement, then the environmental movement. Today, they’re enlisting in the green movement.

Roughly every decade the name changes. And every decade new people get involved. The old people are only willing to discomfort themselves so far.

Green is a great promotional tool.

Unfortunately, it runs counter to our consumer-centric way of life.

  • Have you seen the ads from the bottled water company claiming their thinner plastic bottle has less impact on the environment? Do you secretly wonder if people truly worried about the effects of plastic in landfills would drink tap water? They aren’t. They don’t.

  • The Toyota Yaris gets 40 mpg with a standard gasoline engine. The Lexus LS 600h L is a hybrid which gets 22 mpg. Care to bet how many people are so concerned about the price of gas that they switch from the Lexus to the Toyota? They aren’t, and they won’t.

  • For that matter, wouldn’t repairing the existing car rather than buying a new one be the ultimate in recycling?

  • People worried about the cost of gasoline should logically move closer to their jobs, wouldn’t you think? Today the average home-owning family demands another bedroom, another bath, an attached two car garage, and at least 800 square feet more living space than they did 50 years ago. Will they give up those larger suburban homes to economize? They aren’t, and they won’t.

  • Purchasing bedding, draperies, or carpets made of recyclable fabrics reduces the demand for new natural fibers by as much as 15 percent. More than 15 percent, and they wouldn’t be able to make the resulting fabrics fire retardant. Will people risk their families’ safety to recycle? They won’t, and they don’t.

  • Do we really need fresh fruit in January? Apparently we do, even if it’s flown in from the southern hemisphere on giant transport jets with excessive “carbon footprints.” In any economy, some people will pay a premium to get exactly what they want.
  • Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not passing judgment. Frankly, my job is to help sell fruit in January. I’m merely pointing out the realities of human nature. People are willing to accept only a certain amount of discomfort before they revert to form.

    $4.19 a gallon? Drivers will get used to it.

    Some of us remember when gas was $0.25 per gallon. We remember the grumbling when it hit $1.00. This story has been replayed a few times, and people always adjust. They will not change their consumption patterns for homes, bottled water, fresh fruit, or even gasoline… it will just take them a bit to grow accustomed to the changes.

    What’s driving shoppers’ fears today is the speed at which prices are increasing.

    How can shoppers explain what’s happening? Most can’t. And that inability to articulate leaves them simply threatened enough to invoke survival behaviors. People scared (consciously or unconsciously) for their family’s survival look for security. They hunker down and wait for the threat to pass. In the short term, they’ll spend money reluctantly, and only when they must.

    But they will continue to buy.

    Turn this highly-predictable behavior to your advantage. As my dear friend Tyler Engberg told me back in 1971, “There is great money to be made at times of confusion.

    Capitalize on confusion.

    As long as people perceive a problem, you’ll gain market share by offering a solution.

    Ad another body to your payroll if necessary, and cater to your customers survival fears. In your advertising, invite people to save gas by shopping with you.

    Offer to check your inventory in order to be sure you have specific items in stock before your shoppers make the trip.

    Offer order fulfillment and save them the trip. Confirm that you have the goods in stock, then take your customer’s credit card numbers and ship items to them at their homes or offices.

    And, for goodness sakes, learn their names.

    But if you intend to do these things, move quickly.** As soon as shoppers adjust to higher gas prices your competitive advantage goes away.  You need every advantage when you’re fishing for customers.

    Your Guide,
    Chuck McKay

    Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

    Got questions about retail strategies for to counter high gas prices? Drop Chuck a note at[email protected]. Or call him at 304-523-0163.


    * One of those managers was my wife. She, the other manager, and I were all having lunch at the same table. As much as I find a certain appeal in assuming the James Bond persona, I wasn’t sneaking around spying on my retail brethren.

    ** Need help crafting such ads? Come to the Boom Your Business Seminar in Nashville August 1 and 2, and catch Chris Maddock’s Ad Writing 101. Can’t make it to Nashville? Call me.



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    Marketing P.A.I.N. – Part 2, What Do People Want?

    Originally published March 8, 2008

    Maslow's hierarchy

    Illustration of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs.

    They want you to make it stop hurting.


    Remember Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs? Maslow described “deficiencies” that cause an individual discomfort when her needs are not being met.

    In other words, deprivation causes some degree of pain.

    Making that pain stop is the motivation for nearly all purchasing decisions. People buy to lessen the physical or emotional pain; pain of loss, of disappointment, of longing.

    The decision to purchase isn’t instant. People naturally hope the pain is temporary. They will continue to do things as they’ve always done them, at least at first, because change is painful, too. The second level of Maslow’s pyramid is Safety Needs, which include orderliness and predictability.

    But when the growing pain of postponing action becomes greater than the pain of change, people will make a purchase decision.

    Usually an event brings the new pain to greater focus and finally prompts the sufferer to act. We call this event a trigger.

    Triggers occur at every stage of pain.

    At each stage some prospective customers actively seek relief. At deeper stages, the triggers become both more predictable and more frequent. And, regardless of the business you’re in, there are only four stages of pain your customer can feel.

    Stage 1: No Interest, No Need. – The vast majority of the public has no interest in what you sell. (A good reminder that no message can possibly reach “everyone.”)

    Stage 2: Initial Awareness. – At this stage, your message should help early stage buyers to understand you can help them, even if they don’t have the vocabulary to ask the critical questions.

    Stage 3: Sorting Options. – Stage three shoppers are dealing with constant pain, and considering the perceived value of options to make the pain stop hurting. At stage 3, your customer will listen carefully to testimonials of people who have eliminated her exact problem.

    Stage 4: Ready to Purchase a Solution. – Stage four shoppers are no longer willing to suffer. They will make a purchase. They’ll do it within hours.

    These four stages can be used to describe every retailer, every not-for-profit, every service business.

    Let’s look at a few.

    The Stages of Pain for Plumbing.

    Stage 1: “Wash your hands.

    Stage 2: “Be sure to turn the knob tightly. It tends to drip.

    Stage 3: “I could buy the washer kit at Wal-Mart. I hope I don’t have to replace the whole faucet. Do I have any friends who know anything about plumbing? I wonder what a plumber will charge?

    Stage 4: “You grab the Yellow Pages. I’ll get the mop.

    The Stages of Pain for Accounting.

    Stage 1: “Put it in the payables pile. I’ll get to it.

    Stage 2: “I really need to get organized.

    Stage 3: “Why can’t I get the checkbook to balance?

    Stage 4: “The IRS wants me to bring my records.

    The Stages of Pain for Appliance Sales.

    Stage 1: “Its in the ‘fridge. Help yourself.

    Stage 2: “The milk doesn’t seem to stay cold enough anymore.

    Stage 3: “Who’s got a good selection of refrigerators?

    Stage 4: “Can you deliver this afternoon?

    The key to effective marketing (critical point).

    Most models of effective advertising list getting attention as the first step. Doesn’t it stand to reason that your communications will become powerful when your prospect recognizes that you’re talking to her?

    Match your marketing message to the pain your prospective customer already feels.

    But, if people experience a triggering event and are ready to buy at every level of pain, which pain level do your prospective customers feel?

    Your customers will go through all four stages, just like everyone else. You choose to address them at the stage which brings you the most profit. It’s a value judgment.

    Targeting people in the early stages of pain will help them to know of you weeks, months, or even years before they recognize a need for what you sell. The largest number of people will be exposed to your message. This is the concept behind Top-Of-Mind-Awareness and building your “brand.”

    But since you’re advertising your goods or services for so long before they’re needed, you’ll have to continue advertising for a longer period of time. That makes it more expensive. Choose early stages if you have the resources to stay the course, and the ultimate ability to handle huge numbers of customers.

    Marketing to later stages pays off much more quickly, since the triggers to purchase occur more frequently, but the pool of available prospects is much smaller. Effective marketing at later pain stages must be much more specific.

    In other words, when there are fewer fish biting, make very sure you’re using the right bait as you fish for customers.

    Your Guide,

    Chuck McKay

    Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

    Questions about determining the most effective pain remedy to offer your customers may be directed to [email protected]. Or call Chuck at 304-208-7654.

    If you know someone who would find this article useful, please share it.


    Marketing P.A.I.N. Series

    Part 1, Relationships
    Part 2, What Do People Want?
    Part 3, Advertising the First Stage of Pain
    Part 4, When People Realize They’re Hurting
    Part 5, Testimonials and Comparisons
    Part 6, Make It Stop!
    Part 7, Tie It All Together
    Part 8, Message Frequency, Media Choices, and Tracking

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    Marketing P.A.I.N. – Part 1, Relationships

    Vacuum Cleaner

    Vacuum Cleaner

    Assume John sells vacuums. He feels he needs to advertise.

    Does he…

    1) Explain to people why clean floors are important?

    2) Explain how vacuums remove dust, allergens, and pollens to keep your family healthier?

    3) Announce that his store has vacuums with HEPA filters in stock?

    4) Announce a big sale on vacuums this weekend?

    At one time or another John will be advised to do each of these things. Is any of them a valid strategy? Truthfully, each can be, but not to the same potential markets, and not at the same time.

    As you might imagine, those people looking for a vacuum today would probably respond better to appeal #3 – vacuums with HEPA filters in stock; or perhaps appeal #4 – big sale this weekend announcement.

    On the other hand, people who wonder about the effect of pollen on their family’s health are probably not yet ready to commit to any purchase.

    And no matter which appeal he selects, it will work better against some segments of the potential vacuum cleaner market than against other segments. It logically follows that some appeals will lead to greater profits.

    In a series of posts we’re going to discuss how to determine which segment of the potential market is most profitable, how to attract their attention, and how to craft a message which appeals to them. Finally, we’ll discuss how to choose a medium to deliver your message.

    Before we start, let’s look at John and Marsha.

    Consider John. John has just spent $200 taking Marsha to a very nice restaurant for dinner. Its their first date. John tries to impress Marsha. His shirt is unbuttoned down to the fourth button, so as to better show off the collection of gold chains he wears. Through dinner John tells Marsha all about himself: that he owns his own company, which he expects to take public in a couple of years; that his other car, the Porche, is in the garage again, at his vacation home, in Boca Raton. That a local political party has approached him about running for his state’s House of Representatives.

    Show of hands, who believes Marsha will accept a second date with John?

    Now, let’s consider John’s company. They just spent $2,000 on an ad which runs in American Idol on the local Fox affiliate. John’s Vaccuum ad states, “We’re an end-to-end solution for the wholesale purchase, shipping, warehousing, display, retail advertising, and financing of residential vacuum cleaners.

    Show your hands again. Who believes that Marsha will drop buy John’s Vacuums to shop for a vacuum cleaner?

    What’s the problem with the ad for John’s Vacuums?

    There are two, actually.

    The first problem is that the ad talks about the company. Frankly, customers don’t care about your company. They care about what you can do for them. If its so obvious that bragging about yourself is a terrible strategy to build an interpersonal relationship, why do business people insist on doing it to try for a professional relationship with a customer?

    Why would you want a relationship with a customer?

    Primarily because you don’t want to sell one item to one customer one time, and then start all over. You’ll make a lot more money with referrals and repeat sales.

    The second problem with the John’s Vacuum ad is it describes what the company does, from the company’s viewpoint. “An end-to-end solution for the wholesale purchase, shipping, warehousing, display, retail advertising, and financing of residential vacuum cleaners,” may be how those people who work for John’s Vacuums view their duties, but it’s not the way customers describe what they want.

    Next time we’ll discuss what people want, and why, for successful fishing for customers, your advertising should address those wants.

    Your Guide,
    Chuck McKay

    Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

    Questions about focusing on the issues your customers care about may be directed to [email protected]. Or call Chuck at 304-208-7654.

    If you know someone who would find this article useful, please share it.


    Marketing P.A.I.N. Series

    Part 1, Relationships
    Part 2, What Do People Want?
    Part 3, Advertising the First Stage of Pain
    Part 4, When People Realize They’re Hurting
    Part 5, Testimonials and Comparisons
    Part 6, Make It Stop!
    Part 7, Tie It All Together
    Part 8, Message Frequency, Media Choices, and Tracking

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    Expectations Drive Word-of-Mouth

    Customer Expectations

    Customer Expectations

    Your friend is raving about a movie his wife has dragged him to. He says he’s glad she insisted, because it turned out to be the best crime drama he’s seen in years.

    He’s so enthusiastic that you decide to see it, too. But you find the film is only so-so. The plot is predictable. The acting flat. The dialog stilted in places.

    Why did you and your friend have such differing reactions to this film? Probably because of your expectations.

    Your friend, having been coerced into attending, began with negative expectations, and was surprised to find the film entertaining. You, on the other hand, were expecting “the best crime drama in years.” This film couldn’t live up to those expectations.

    Customer service comes down to expectations

    It’s the reason better than average service turns new customers into evangelists for your company. As this new, higher standard of service becomes their norm, they come to expect it. It’s the reason evangelists frequently become less vocal over time.

    It’s also the reason you should never advertise the little extras. Use these to surprise and delight your customer. Otherwise, they aren’t special. They’re merely what she expected.

    And on those off days when everything goes wrong, and a new shopper’s expectations of average service are shattered by your lacklustre performance, it’s the reason she becomes a vigilante. (Unfortunately, people who feel they’ve been wronged seem to hold grudges for a long time).

    So here’s your reality:

    Every day you do business with people for the first time. If they get what they expect, they won’t be commenting to anyone. It’s violation of expectations, for good or bad, that drive word of mouth.

    Make your violations positive, extremely positive, when you’re fishing for customers.

    Your Guide,
    Chuck McKay

    Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

    Ready to bat around some ideas about exceeding your customers’ expectations? Call Chuck at 304-208-7654, or drop him a note at [email protected].

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    Emotions VS Logic

    You’ve no doubt heard that people emotionally decide what to purchase, and then use logic to justify that purchase.

    Can a product be sold on emotion alone?

    Yes. Usually to children.

    Children desperately want to fit in. The easiest way to entice a child is to present your product as the one purchase that every other kid is getting.

    Truthfully, does anyone need shoes that light up at each step? They don’t even flash a light in the direction the kid is traveling. Instead, they light up to show where he’s been.

    When I was a kid, everybody had streamers – long strips of colored plastic attached to the plastic grips on bicycle handlebars. They flapped in the breeze and were absolutely useless except to show all of the other kids that you had ’em.

    And if it weren’t for other kids owning them, could there be any justification for Pokemon cards?

    Bigger kids, even sixty-year-old kids, still feel this pressure to belong. They’ve just become much better at justifying their purchase choices. As I said, they’ve learned to use facts as if the facts were how they came to the decision. It’s seldom the case.

    But, for a minute, let’s consider the other extreme.

    Can a product be sold purely on logic alone?

    Yes, it can, if it’s a commodity.

    Commodities are interchangeable mass-produced, unspecialized products like gasoline, rice, airline seats, and pork bellies. Since they’re all virtually identical, one buys them from a strictly transactional mindset: by dividing benefits by price. More benefits, lower price, better deal.

    But, for everything else we buy, emotion plays a major part in our decisions.

    Emotions, or Logic?

    So, which is better?  Should you use emotion or logic to sell your products and services?

    It’s a trick question. You need both.

    Your ads should provide emotional appeal to help shoppers to choose your offering; and then back the decision up with solid facts they can use to explain their purchase to anyone else.

    A Fictitious Example

    Nothing warms and protects you like genuine leather. And nothing else will look so good on you, either. Ajax Leather jackets are exceptionally flattering. They can be worn for business, but you’ll find them equally comfortable for causal wear. The first thing you’ll notice as you slip into a lined Ajax Leather jacket is the weight. This jacket won’t wear out in a lifetime of use. Secondly you’ll admire the strong zippers and snaps and the quality of the stitching. But you’ll probably choose it because it looks so good on you. Step in to the Ajax Leather store and step out in style. Ajax Leather on Bovine Boulevard.

    More will take the bait if you give them the intellectual rationale they need to justify the decision they wish to make emotionally. Help your customers to buy when you’re fishing for customers.

    Your Guide,
    Chuck McKay

    Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

    Got questions about combining logic with emotional appeals? Drop Chuck a note at [email protected]. Or call him at 760-813-5474.

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