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How We Are Motivated To Make Brand Choices

That human beings are motivated in complex ways and that rational factors are often subservient to emotional ones, is well known (see my earlier blogs on the subject). The importance of uncovering deep seated motivations has spawned many research techniques which are aimed at identifying these drivers in ways that can shape product and marketing strategy. Get the positioning and message wrong, and your product strategy will most likely fail.

Some qualitative schematics in the market insights industry (such as Censydiam and Needscope) visualize motivation space as comprising four quadrants, with trajectories which are social on the one hand and personal on the other. Others have focused more on metaphors and have devised methodological frameworks for gaining insights based on them (see Harvard Professor Zaltman’s "Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique," or ZMET).

Some time ago, the Harvard Business Review published an article (HBR December 22, 2011) that attempted to simplify somewhat the various possible approaches. It suggested that there is a fundamental dichotomy that marketers need to establish: that between promotional motivation (seeking to achieve a certain gain, be it rational or emotional) and prevention motivation (seeking to avoid loss and to stay safe).

“The nuances in description can be subtle. If you are selling cars, you can choose to talk about "better mileage" (promotion) or "lower fuel costs" (prevention). You can emphasize the "bonus" features customers get if they buy the Limited Edition, or what they'd be missing out on if they didn't buy it. If you are offering a loyalty program at your coffee shop, should you offer 10% off each cup, or tell them that after buying nine cups they get one free? What the customer gets in the end may be the same, but how they get there - through the promotion-focused strategy of seizing opportunities to gain (e.g., better mileage, bonus features, a free cup of coffee) or the prevention-focused strategy of avoiding losses (e.g., high fuel costs, an inferior product, having to pay full price for their morning joe), can be the difference between psychological night and day.”

Another interesting dimension to this debate is that there is asymmetry between these two motivations. As Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman (Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011) has argued we tend to be much more upset by a loss than be satisfied by an equivalent gain.

Kellogg Insight (November 1, 2011) carried an article on the topic of how value is psychologically constructed, through a mechanism they call "value encoding":

“When a decision-maker first sees an option, he or she immediately compares it to a reference point—how much money they have, say, or what the price of an item usually is—and judges relative to that whether it is a loss or a gain. When it is time to make a decision, the person picks the option that, essentially, feels best compared to the reference point, with the sense that they have gained the most, or lost the least…..”

The author goes on to describe another potential mechanism called value construction:

“In this process, people do not just store, or encode, a value for each option right away. Instead, they build up a preference as they learn about the different options available. Decision-makers do not objectively assess their options, however: each new piece of information biases what information they look for next, and what they make of it…People try to find, as soon as possible, something that stands out. And then after they’ve found an option that stands out, they more or less try to confirm it by seeking out supporting information. This can be useful, if they have honed in on the right option early on, or disadvantageous, if they are overlooking something better.”

So, rationality plays second fiddle to emotion when we make brand choices, contrary to what we believed for decades. It is only now that we are beginning to understand the complex mechanisms in which this happens. Once we comprehend these mechanisms, a lot of choices actually become rather predictable!

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