Advertising and marketing techniques get thrown around a lot. Often we see things on TV, Pinterest, the internet and copy those ideas, without necessarily knowing the research behind it. This is why being a psychologist with a keen interest in consumer psychology - and a graphic designer - is really handy. I like to read the research, and then I can share it with you :)
Yesterday I read an article about a really common advertising technique that can actually damage a brands relationship with their customer. It is so common, I think I’ve even used it myself! And while it can be helpful to attract new customers, it can actually turn away your best and most loyal customers. Can you guess what that technique could be?
The answer is assertive ads. The ads that direct customers toward certain behaviours. You know the ones - the ads that say “buy now”, “visit us”, “get in quick”. They are considered assertive ads, and they can also even include “like us on Facebook” or “follow us on Instagram’, and they could be damaging your relationship with your most loyal customers.
A recent article about this (see it here) discusses why.
Reactance is something that we do without really thinking about. It is something fundamental to human behaviour - it helps us protect our own freedom and freedom of choice. We tend to react to being told what to do, even if sometimes that could have negative consequences for us. For example “don’t eat that, it’s not healthy”, we might react to being directed in that way, and so we eat what we are being told not to.
I know this certainly has happened to me in the past. When people tell me “you must watch this show, it’s amazing”, then I don’t want to! And the more people tell me about it, the more strongly I react, and the less and less likely I am to comply. This might also be why I won’t go back on Facebook - too many people trying to convince me I should!
This doesn’t mean the thing people tell us to do is right or wrong, it simply means that when we are being assertively directed to do a certain behaviour, we are likely to experience reactance motivation without even meaning to.
This can also mean that when ads are creating pressure to comply, by using assertive language like “just do it”, it can actually backfire, as the consumer can react negatively.
A committed consumer-brand relationship occurs when there is “a strong connection between the consumer and the brand”. A strong relationship might mean we like the brand, we buy more from them, and can even mean we trust them, and can feel obliged to support them.
Can you think of any brand you might feel like this about? I know for me I feel like this doesn’t happen often - and perhaps it doesn’t, or perhaps I consciously think it doesn’t, but subconsciously actually act in ways that are aligned with this… But there are a few conscious examples I can think of - like the little coffee shop in town. A new shop opened recently that is totally beautiful, but it’s really close to another cafe that I haven’t visited in a while. Every time I consider going to the new one I feel bad, because I feel obliged to visit about the old one. Even though I logically know “that’s business” and I think “it doesn’t matter, this happens all the time”, the feeling is not that easy to shake.
Uncommitted relationships, however, are the opposite. We might have had some interaction with the brand in the past, but we have no emotional connection. And therefore when we see assertive ads from that brand, we don’t feel that same level of reactance, because we aren’t really emotionally affected by them.
Normally when we feel guilty about not doing something, we seek to make amends. Especially in human relationships. If someone does us a favour, or does something nice, we feel guilty (sometimes at a more subconscious level) and we try and return this nice gesture.
Marketing used to assume that this also happens with brands - give away free things and customers will feel obliged to spend money or support the brand. However it might not work the same way with brands as it does with human relationships. This might be because we know the brands ultimately want profit, and so the guilt can make us suspicious of what the brand wants.
What the new research found:
This article basically showed that assertive ad’s make customers feel pressured to comply, which then makes them feel guilty, and this guilt then actually provoked the reactance motivation. So the assertive ad “buy now” actually had the opposite effect. This even occurred even when the ad was slightly less assertive- for example saying “please buy now” or even when it was more general such as “like us on Facebook”.
I found it so interesting that this article said that it was already known that assertive ads decrease compliance - I definitely didn’t know that! From a lot of the articles I read about writing good copy, or advertising, it seems to say that you should tell customers what to do - to help direct behaviour. While in fact this can do the opposite!
I also found it really interesting that even not very assertive ads had the same affect as the more direct ones.
However possibly the biggest point of interest, and what this article really was focussed on, was that the relationship of the customer to the brand made a big difference. The more committed the customer, the more they experienced guilt, the more they exhibited reactance. The less committed the customer, the less guilt, the less reactance. It makes sense.
What this means is that the assertive ads that try and direct behaviour might actually be making your most loyal customers - the ones that frequently buy from you and trust your brand - react negatively to your business.
While it might still work to have assertive ads for non- committed customers, it doesn’t seem to work well for committed ones.
A couple of ideas around this:
There was a couple of ideas about how to get around this. One was to direct behaviour without using assertion. So the example in the study was copy such as “now is a good time to buy”. Some other examples could be things like “for a limited time only”, “new products added daily” or “for more information check out our website”.
Another idea is to help reaffirm the relationship with the brand in the copy. So help remind them why they like you, and what you have to offer them. When customers are reminded about positive things about the brand and their relationship it can help to lower the guilt and pressure. Maybe this could be just by adding some copy about your appreciation for their business, or giving something back to them.
This is not a hard and fast rule, and I tend to think there is a fine line between assertive language and non assertive language. For example would it be considered assertive if the ad said “why not check out our Facebook page?” or “come and have a look at our website”? I don't think that language is too assertive, however it is also not as gentle as "now is a good time to buy".
It also depends on what you want and need. Perhaps if you don’t have a huge amount of loyal customers you might prefer to continue to target new customers then to look after the loyal ones. Or maybe you can try to make your assertive ads more directed towards new customers - for example on your newsletter sign up box, where loyal customers probably aren’t looking (or might not see if it is a pop up).
What to take away:
The main nugget of information to take away from this research is to be careful and considerate when using assertive ad language - because while you might attract new customers by telling them to "buy now", you could be turning away your most loyal ones.