Changing Minds: The Great Resistance

Jack TroutNovember 12, 20074 min

Three news items caught my attention.

One was about how Viacom discovered that kids don’t want their MTV online. It seems that the kids didn’t follow from cable to their online offering called “MTV Overdrive.” Indeed, the numbers tell this tale. They generated less than 4 million monthly viewers as compared with MySpace, which gets 56 million unique visitors, and fast-growing YouTube, which garners 57.9 million viewers. MTV gets 82 million monthly TV viewers.

The next article was about how paper coupons are holding their own against the online competition. One would think that with the Internet’s ability to aim at narrow groups of consumers would easily begin to make progress against those Sunday newspapers loaded with coupons that you have to cut out. It turns out that slow and old is holding its own against fast and new.

Finally, there are the problems of that powerhouse brand called Dell. Among their problems I noticed their inability to move into consumer electronics with TVs and music players. It turns out that their solid brand image doesn’t help in the fast-growing consumer markets.

What’s going on here? Well, dear readers, these three companies have run up against a basic fact of life: Minds don’t change. MTV is something you watch on television. Coupons are something you cut out. And Dell is a business computer that you buy direct. The futility of trying to change minds in the marketplace is a lesson I learned many years ago.

Those were the days when I was trying to drag the perceptions of Western Union into the 20th century. We tried advertising everything from satellite launches to advanced communications services. Nothing worked.

After years of effort, consumers’ perception of Western Union as the old-fashioned telegraph company was as strong as ever. The final advice: Change the company name to Westar, and use the Western Union brand only on the telegraph and money-order services. Anything else was hopeless. While the advice was good, our message wasn’t well received.

Since that time, I’ve watched many others blow a lot of money on trying to change minds in the marketplace. Xerox lost hundreds of millions of dollars trying to convince the market that Xerox machines that didn’t make copies were worth the money.

No one would buy their computers.

Volkswagen dropped over 60 share points trying to convince the market that VW wasn’t just a small, reliable, economical car like the Beetle.

No one bought their big or expensive fast cars.

Coca-Cola blew both prestige and money in an effort to convince the market they had a better thing than the Real Thing.

No one bought their New Coke.

When the market makes up its mind about a product, there’s no changing that mind. As the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

Another finding supports how minds are more comfortable with what they know. A general feeling in the marketing industry has always been that new-product advertising should generate higher interest than advertising for established brands. But it turns out that we’re actually more impressed by what we already know (or buy) than by what’s “new.”

One research organization, McCollum Speilman, has tested more than 22,000 TV commercials over 23 years. Almost 6,000 of those commercials were for new products in ten product categories.

What did they learn? Greater persuasion ability and attitude shifts–the so-called “new-product excitement”–were evident in only one of the ten categories (pet products) when comparing new brands to established brands.

In the other nine categories–ranging from drugs to beverages to personal hygiene items–there was no real difference, no burst of excitement, enabling consumers to distinguish between established brands and new brands.

With thousands of different commercials across hundreds of different brands, you can pretty much rule out “creativity” as the difference in persuasion. It comes back to what we’re familiar with, what we’re already comfortable with.

In the book The Reengineering Revolution, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor-turned-consultant Michael Hammer calls human beings’ innate resistance to change “the most perplexing, annoying, distressing and confusing part” of reengineering.

To help us better understand this resistance, a book entitled Attitudes & Persuasion offers some insights. Written by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, it spends some time on “belief systems.” Here’s their take on why minds are so hard to change:

“The nature and structure of belief systems is important from the perspective of an informational theorist because beliefs are thought to provide the cognitive foundation of an attitude. In order to change an attitude, then, it is presumably necessary to modify the information on which that attitude rests. It is generally necessary, therefore, to change a person’s beliefs, eliminate old beliefs or introduce new beliefs.”

That’s right, you have to change beliefs. And you’re going to do all that with a 30-second commercial?

So my advice to you marketing experts out there? If your assignment is to change people’s minds, don’t accept the assignment.

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