Brand Marketing Shift: Attitudes Follow Behavior

Walker SmithSeptember 27, 20126 min

The debate over which comes first, attitudes or behaviors, has been going on for a long time. But a lot of recent evidence seems to be tipping the scale in favor of behaviors, which is to say that, people act, then form attitudes after the fact consistent with their behaviors. If true, much of what brand marketers do needs to be seriously reconsidered.

Probably the best-known theory lending support to the notion that behaviors cause attitudes is Leon Festinger’s classic theory of cognitive dissonance. Strictly speaking, Festinger’s focus was on dissonance between attitudinal beliefs, but his theory helps explain things like the shifts in consumer attitudes typically observed after big-ticket purchases. People actively seek to assuage buyer’s remorse through a process of post-purchase rationalization in which they come to like the product they have already bought even more, boosting their attitudes about it relative to competition and downplaying concerns or perceptions of defects and shortcomings. It is the behavior – the purchase – that causes attitudes to change.

Another well-known empirical result showing that behaviors change attitudes comes from research into brainwashing techniques used on American POWs during the Korean War, as explained in detail by former Arizona State University psychologist Robert Cialdini in his highly regarded bestseller, Influence: Science and Practice. One technique was to force prisoners to sign essays denouncing the U.S. irrespective of the fact that these prisoners did not believe a single word of what they were being forced to sign. But despite the duress and divergence from beliefs, this technique worked to increase the likelihood that a prisoner would voluntarily engage in later acts of collaboration with his captors. The dynamic at work is one of consistency. Having made a small behavioral commitment, even under pressure, subsequent acts and attitudes seek to maintain consistency with this small first step. Over time, such small steps can add up to very big changes in attitudes.

Commitment and consistency is a well-practiced marketing technique. When brand marketers run contests for people to send in testimonials, it is to induce a small act of commitment that can lead to big changes in brand attitudes. The same principle is at work anytime a brand marketer asks a consumer to put something down in writing. This is often the only purpose of people collecting signatures for petitions on public issues. More generally, this is known as the foot-in-the-door technique, and it is all about behaviors causing attitudes.

Nevertheless, despite this long-standing body of research and practice, much of what brand marketers do is focused instead on changing attitudes first, not behaviors. The most influential concept in the history of modern marketing, other than Procter & Gamble’s brand management innovation, is the hierarchy of effects model. This model is almost too well known to need repeating. Simply put, the idea is that attitudes must go through a sequence of shifts before a purchase will be made. The practice of brand marketing is thus one of moving consumers down this path, from awareness to knowledge to liking to preference to conviction, and only then to purchase. This is all about attitudes causing behaviors.

But recent discoveries in neuroscience are harbingers of the end of giving attitudes causal priority in marketing practice. A recent essay in Neuroscience News reviewed some of the growing body of research calling into question the notion that people “make rational economic decisions.” This is particularly true in the face of risks, especially risks never encountered before, when people must make decisions under stress. In such cases, the emotional centers of the brain kick in, dominating decisions and guiding choices. Only in the aftermath of these actions do other areas of the brain then begin working post hoc to rationalize or justify what has already taken place. Indeed, it is only after the fact, that people are even cognizant of needing to have an attitude about what they’ve done.

Another recent essay in The Chronicle Review reviewed neuroscience findings about emotional reactions to value propositions in order to pose a pointed rhetorical question to economists. The core essence of economics is the study of scarcity – how people make choices in the face of scarcity. Thus, economics is largely about how people make judgments about value propositions. If such judgments are deeply rooted in the brain, then perhaps economists need to study more neuroscience.

Not all economists are convinced, and the debate spurred by their rebuttal speaks directly to brand marketers. Most economists would argue that the relevant issue for their discipline is not the inner workings of the brain but the results of their models in the real world. If they can make good predictions without neuroscience, then neuroscience has nothing useful to add.

Similarly, brand marketers might argue that as long as advertising boosts sales, then it’s academic whether attitudes or behaviors come first, or whether emotions trump rationality.

The problem with the rebuttal offered by economists is that it depends upon the performance of their models, and these often fail in spectacular ways as seen in the financial crisis of 2007-2009. In fact, there is much room for the improvement of econometric models, particularly by reexamining the basic assumption that economic decision-making is driven by higher-order cognitive processes. The work of behavioral economists has cast doubt on the rationality of such cognitive processes; neuroscience is casting doubt on whether people are cognizant of how they make these decisions at all.

As reported in this Chronicle Review story, at a neuroscience conference last year, Yale economist Robert Shiller talked about how “adding some understanding of how the brain reacts to particular kinds of uncertainties or ambiguities in supply and demand…might avoid [the 2008 housing crash] and other costly misfires.”

The same is true of brand marketing. The tired old cliché about half of my advertising doesn’t work but I don’t know which half is an uncomfortable truth of brand marketing that belies the confident face brand marketers put on what we do. The fact of the matter is that most marketing fails. Marketing is hard to do, and successful marketing is exponentially harder. But maybe the biggest reason why it’s so hard is that we keep putting the cart before the horse.

Certainly, all the usual reasons for marketing failures are true. Competition is tougher. Clutter is worse than ever. Consumer resistance to marketing is growing. New technologies are crowding out people’s attention and making it easier for consumers to shop around. But the one thing we have yet to really consider as a profession is the more fundamental issue of which comes first, attitudes or behaviors.

One nuance that should not be overlooked is that even as neuroscience is bringing the causal priority of attitudes into question, it is validating the priority of emotional reactions over rational decisions. In one sense, emotions could be thought of attitudes, but much of the work in neuroscience finds that direct emotional stimulation triggers behavioral reactions well before people recognize or understand these emotions as attitudes. Thus, at least one brand marketing trend is on track with advances in neuroscience, and that is the increasing emphasis on emotions as a core aspect of a brand’s value proposition to consumers, not just a brand’s advertising message.

Ultimately, all that matters in brand marketing is sales, so these questions of causal priority and the prominence of emotions can be definitively resolved by seeing what happens in the marketplace. But the only way to put these issues to the test is to raise them to begin with, and that’s where brand marketing is still running behind the curve.

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Walker Smith


  • Anthony Olszewski

    September 29, 2012 at 6:57 am

    William James’s theory of emotions long ago looked at a very similar phenomenon. We are sad because we are crying and are happy because we are smiling. The unconscious, autonomic response precedes the emotion. The conscious interpretation of the automatic behavior generates the mental state. Sitting in Starbucks, your mind might be racing and heart fluttering not because you’re falling in love. It just might be that the barista served caffeinated coffee instead of the decaf that you ordered.

    Abraham Maslow’s explanation that we first do things because we HAVE to and then continue because we WANT to also applies.

  • Darren Coleman

    October 2, 2012 at 1:57 am

    Great post. Well written and informative. Thank you.

    A lot of neuro-scientific research aligns with previous research around the affect heuristic i.e. We make decisions primarily on emotional grounds then justify them rationally.

    This is why brand marketers must understand the primary emotions that drive their target market and build ther proposition around it. Very few do. Focusing on rational features is the norm. Bad times.

    Keep up the good work.

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