You might not know it but you have probably already experienced cognitive dissonance multiple times today. Buying coffee. Watching an ad on TV or online. Passing a billboard on the way to work. Whether you are aware of it or not, your actions may have been motivated, guided and rewarded by brands with offer structures crafted to modulate cognitive dissonance (up and down). When done correctly, an offer that leverages cognitive dissonance will deliver a desired behavior for the brand. This desired behavior is usually the purchase of a brand’s product or service, coupled with the post-purchase satisfaction necessary to engender a deeper sense of loyalty towards the host brand.
Regardless of the transactional environment, industry or brand, you are presented with offers that are purposefully positioned to turn up or down the volume on your cognitive dissonance in an effort to secure your business and resultant loyalty. Good brands leverage that “voice” (or in some cases voices!) in your head during a purchase to initiate an internal debate on the pros and cons of an offer and the behavior needed to sublimate that noise. For brand marketers, the desired behavior output is two-fold:
- The purchase of their product or service by consumers
- The customer’s satisfaction with their purchase decision and the attendant loyalty it generates for the brand in an effort to mitigate “buyer’s remorse” (post-purchase dissonance)
So, what exactly are brand marketers tapping into to drive a purchase decision their way while simultaneously ensuring your happiness after the fact? And, just as importantly, how can you as a marketer leverage this for your brand and its loyalty efforts?
The Science and its Applications for Loyalty Marketing
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory that has been around for 60+ years (initially written about by a social psychologist named Leon Festinger in 1957). Festinger posited that humans strive to maintain internal consistency and alignment between their beliefs and behaviors. Due to the disharmony that dissonance can generate, people avoid having their behaviors run counter to their beliefs. As a result, we all make efforts to ameliorate any inconsistencies or conflict between the two in an effort to maintain internal harmony and happiness both during and after a purchase (or any other) decision.
Eating at a fast food restaurant is a good example. Most folks know that a Big Mac or Whopper and fries aren’t the healthiest of menu selections but damn they taste good. To help quiet the internal dysphoria this equation can create (great taste but not the most healthy of choices), restaurants utilize a “health halo” to mitigate your dissonance during the purchase decision by promoting photos of salads, bottled water, apple slices, milk, etc. on its menu (take a peek next time you’re in line or at the drive-thru). Studies1 have shown that with images of healthier selections available, consumers will perceive the entire menu to be healthier so they do not feel as much internal conflict when ordering their value meal #1 – large of course!
In his 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger stated, “Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction.”2 Not sure if he was thinking of a burger, fries and a shake at the time! Nonetheless, what does all of this mean from a customer loyalty and brand standpoint? How can a marketer use the powers of cognitive dissonance for the good of their brand and most importantly for the good of their customer?
Subscription+Premiums – Generating Conversion
The first magazine subscription in America (The General Magazine) was introduced in 1741 by Benjamin Franklin (another publisher actually beat Franklin by three days but who’s counting?). As Philadelphia’s Postmaster at the time, Franklin saw an opportunity with this new model to distribute news and culture (only wealthy colonists could afford the hefty subscription price) while generating a new revenue stream for his post office and the crown at the same time. The subscription model hasn’t changed too much during the intervening 278 years. In fact, of late subscription offers have become more ubiquitous due to improvements in technology, logistics and billing vehicles making it easier to subscribe, deliver, receive and pay for products and services delivered in subscription form.
From firsthand experience, both as a consumer and marketer of loyalty subscription offers, when a premium (e.g., first month free, risk-free trial, gift card included, etc.) is presented at the point of purchase it starts the cognitive dissonance engine. A premium offer can put our beliefs (I am smart with my money) at odds with our behavior (should I spend the money to subscribe/will I use it?) thus generating cognitive dissonance around the purchase for the consumer. As Festinger postulated, these feelings are the antecedent condition which leads to the action (purchase hopefully) that quells the dissonance in the consumer’s mind. With subscription loyalty offers at the point-of-sale in retail, experience shows that a premium attached to a subscription offer will generate 5-7 times the conversion rate vs. a hard (no premium) offer. The key for the brand is to ensure both the premium and the offer are relevant and “on-brand” for their customer in order to generate a higher attachment rate.
The Right Offer – Generating Loyalty
Most brands rely on our innate desire to be perceived favorably as an opportunity to generate some level of dissonance and a purchase of their product. As an example, a consumer visits a new car lot when they spot a more expensive model than originally contemplated. The salesperson says, “Many customers aren’t sophisticated enough to realize why this car is actually a great buy.” The statement seems innocuous enough on the surface but internally the dissonance level spikes. If the consumer decides against purchasing the more expensive model they are admitting that they might not sophisticated enough to appreciate the value. If they agree with the sales pitch, they’re heading down a purchase path for the more expensive car because their beliefs (I’m sophisticated and smart with my money) are at odds with their behavior (buying a more expensive vehicle).
The challenge for marketers is how to modulate and balance this dissonance on both the front-end and back-end of the purchase decision to ensure the customer is happy. How does the car manufacturer ensure the customer is happy with their purchase vs. being disgruntled they paid too much? By providing an exceptional auto buying and ownership experience. It’s the only way to diminish post-purchase dissonance (buyer’s remorse) and ensure long-term loyalty for the brand.
Think of the various marketing strategies and brand messages that leverage our desire to be viewed favorably as knowledgeable, hip, sophisticated, affluent, cool, good looking, socially acceptable, etc. These aspirational attributes many of us strive for are salves for our soul as we try to secure a favorable view from ourselves and by those around us. When brands help bridge the gap between beliefs and behaviors they have a winning offer which will keep the customer engaged and loyal for a longer period of time. 3
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2 – Festinger, Leon, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford University Press, 1957
3 – https://hbr.org/2002/09/pricing-and-the-psychology-of-consumption