The Ultimate Value Propositions

Dan HillOctober 15, 20105 min

Remember the New Yorker cartoon where two women are talking and one says to the other, “But enough about me. What do you think about me?”

Such solipsistic myopia is endemic to human behavior, so it’s no surprise that such a condition afflicts companies, too. As a client at a big pharmaceutical firm once said, “We’re really good at figuring out what’s in it for us, but not so good at figuring out what’s in it for our customers.”

Obviously, her company isn’t alone. Everybody knows the mantra about how the product isn’t the hero, the customer is, but practicing that mantra is harder done than said. I’d like to suggest how what’s in it for me (WIIFM) relevance can be best established, using evidence from a decade of my company’s research.

Don’t “Lie to Me”

First a note on methodology.

The words “motivation” and “emotion” share the Latin root, movere, to move, to make something happen (as in generating preference, persuasion and, ideally, purchase intent), so it should come as no surprise that my company specializes in using the research tool made famous initially through Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink, and recently through the Fox primetime hit series “Lie to Me.”

The tool is facial coding, which instead of relying on self-reported verbal input extracts the amount and (positive) degree of emotional engagement expressed through people’s facial muscle activity. Because actions do speak louder than words, the reactions your face intuitively reveals are the most accurate barometer of whether solipsistic myopia or genuine WIIFM is achieved in a company’s advertising.

Here is what we’ve found from a decade of studies.

The majority of TV/radio spots and print ads in our database emphasize two of five motivational groupings. Those are enjoyment (39%) and empowerment (30%). In other words over two-thirds of all the advertising we’ve tested involves depicting the benefit of purchasing the offer as a matter of ephemeral pleasure or gaining status, resources and capability. Throw in another motivation grouping, physical well-being and you get 75% of how all advertising is slanted.

The Two Missing Motivations Rule

But what of the two other motivational groupings, and what generates the emotional engagement and preference that drives purchase intent? Suddenly, self-esteem (“me”) and attachment (“we”) rule the day.

Together, these two groupings account for only 26% of the ads in our database. But when you look at the amount of emotional engagement (defined in facial coding terms as what percentage of tested consumers reveal at least one codeable emotional response during exposure to an ad), self-esteem and attachment rank first and second. More specifically, the level for self-esteem is 50%, 45% for attachment.

The other three motivational groupings that record an average engagement level of 38%. Clearly, whether the benefit of the offer is about making me, the consumer, feel better about myself or bolsters my sense of belonging, are the most vibrant ways of ensuring the offer has deep emotional value for the potential end-user.

Next, how about the degree of (positive) emotional engagement?

Facial coding works by noting what percentage of tested consumers reveal codeable emotional responses that,are predominantly positive. Now let me tell you that’s no slam-dunk. Even a person born blind reveals the same emotions that you and I because, as Charles Darwin realized, our emotional displays aren’t learned, they’ve been hard-wired into the brain over the course of evolution.

And of the seven core emotions people reveal happiness, surprise,sadness, fear, anger, disgust and contempt, only one (happiness) is purely positive. One is neutral (surprise), the other five negative because people hear bad news more loudly than good news as a matter of increasing one’s survival odds.

Emotional Displays, The Barometer

Emotional displays, aren’t a matter of “lip service.” They serve as a barometer of what connects for people and makes them feel better about wanting to purchase a given offer. And, while the ways in which self-esteem are depicted in the advertising we’ve tested rises no higher than 49%, roughly in the range for enjoyment and empowerment, the degree to which depictions of attachment as the ultimate benefit of purchasing are positive in nature, reaches an astonishing 83%.

So when it comes to which motivation to invoke “me” (self-esteem) and “we” (attachment) are the most robust. Then when it comes to positive emotional pay-off , attachment becomes a company’s best avenue for fostering preferential relevance. However, three-quarters of the advertising that we’ve tested is off-base, focused primarily on enjoyment and empowerment.

Three Degrees Of Meaningfulness

Should it come as a surprise that the nurturing “we” of attachment, which incorporates the “me” and fosters connectedness, should win? Hardly. Researchers have concluded that happiness resides in finding meaning in our lives and that when it comes to meaningfulness, there are three ever more important degrees of how value gets determined in life.

At the outer ring are the fleeting pleasures of the flesh. Those are the weakest ring of the motivational bulls-eye. Only 6% of the ads in our database that draw on the physical realm reside there. Meanwhile, the next inner ring is a matter of seeking variety and novelty. The motivational grouping of enjoyment fits best there.

As to the innermost ring, the enduring, inner circle of happiness consists of meaningfulness caused by two factors. The first is the warmth and depth of our ties to other people. The second is feeling hopeful about our circumstances, because we control them and/or feel that some reasonable degree of fairness will prevail. Yes, as a motivation empowerment qualifies as having some degree of potential pertinence but self-esteem and attachment carry the day.

How quickly will companies realize that, they have been tilting at windmills for the decade we’ve been building advertising norms? The answer may be a very long time given that the “me” and “we” of self-esteem and attachment, may seem to business leaders too soft when compared to the aggressive, nature of invoking the empowerment motivation.

But not to make the adjustment is in marketing terms, having invoked motivations that don’t resonate as deeply as the ultimate value proposition of looking out for me and mine, is foolish. Here’s hoping that for their brand sake, and the sake of their shareholders, that companies soon endeavor to make an adjustment.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Dan Hill, excerpted from his book “About Face, the secrets of emotionally effective advertising

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