Just Give Them the Facts and You Won’t Sell a Thing

Marketers and product developers spend a great deal of time talking about why the thing they’re selling matters, why it’s better than the next guy’s thing.  They quote facts and features and minutia to make their point because, as all good business people know, people respond to fact.  Here’s how things would work in a perfect world: You and your competitors are pushing soap, or tires, or TVs, or, well you get the idea.  To prove your superiority, you pull out a piece of information so precise, so compelling, so perfect, that the consumer is swayed and decides to buy your goods.  They become life-long devotees and advocates for you. You and your team make millions for your company and become the saviors of the day.

And this probably has happened in some cases, as long as it was a product  that neither consumer nor the person buying it cared that much about.  Think toilet bowl cleaners.  But if it is a product or service that has deeper, emotionally charged components, then it probably hasn’t.  We like to think that our facts are enough to sway people because if they’re shopping for, say, a television they are shopping for technology.  But the TV is much more complex than that – it is status symbol, it is entertainer, it is baby sitter, it is the digital hearth around which the family gathers much as it did around the campfire in the not so distant past.  Facts are a necessity, but they are not the most compelling element when trying to persuade someone to buy your things.  Regardless of our belief that we’re all wonderfully rational, the truth is we are not.

Why is this the case?  Well, according to one theory (and they are indeed competing theories about this), we didn’t evolve communication skills just to improve our skills at the hunt.  We evolved to build arguments as a form of verbal bullying rather than a method of spreading correct information.  And competing marketing messages are just that, a form of argumentation.  They are a means of bending others to your way of thinking.  In other words, there are two reasons for a company trying to persuade a consumer to pay attention to them, 1) because they actually want to get you to buy the right thing and 2) because they’re trying to establish dominance over you. Not surprisingly, we understand this at a gut level and interpret leading with a series of facts as a way of establishing control.  We don’t react negatively to it, but we tune it out.

Think about the way people treat the two sides of a political debate like teams.  People are aware that much of what they have to say and what they support is simply absurd dogma.  But they embrace otherwise extremist ideas with remarkable vigor.  Now, note how may of the positions debated involve people jumping into an issue in which they have nothing at stake.  They are tribalizing, joining a team. That is know as confirmation bias. We read a news article that supports what we believe, and we add it to the “I’m right about this” column. Frequently this same model applies to the products we buy and the brands we love.  For example, I once had a friend swear that he could hear tones with his Bose speakers he couldn’t hear with other brands.  The problem was that the tones to which he was referring were literally impossible for the human ear to detect.  It was no more possible than it would be for me to say I can details of the Crab Nebula through my binoculars.  But, rather than recognize this fact, he created ways for dismissing the science – the brand had a different appeal than just functions and features.

What this means for anyone tasked with developing a marketing campaign, it doesn’t matter how much you talk about the thing your selling in terms of facts and figures.  We are hard-wired to remain entrenched in the brands and products that speak to deeper emotion bonds, cultural norms and psychological triggers.  If you don’t understand the more visceral side of your consumer, then all the facts in the world won’t do a thing. In fact, they may come to resent you.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. Great article! The facts may get you a foot in the door but the emotional bond will gain you complete entry.

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