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Speak Value, Not Benefit
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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The biggest difference between the human race and animals, besides the opposable thumb, is what we know as free will. We have the ability to think, decipher, code, and oblige. We decide what our values are; what we consider right and wrong. We can define the environment around us and change it to our liking. 

We think what we want.

For people to think that advertising can control or manipulate free will is foolish. The brain is one of the most sophisticated organisms our society has studied, and to believe that a commercial or consumer behavior has cracked the code into how we think is giving AdLand way too much credit for its creative.

Though all of that may be true, a study that has been published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society may have provided a glimpse of how advertising professionals can lock in on brand loyalty. It was funded by, oddly enough, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Science Foundation. The study was a compilation of economists, information scientists, a psychologist, and anthropologists from in the U.S. and Paris.

The group used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the brain activity of the study participants as they responded to phrases about which they had to choose their allegiance (i.e. "You are Pro-Life). After picking the categories they considered themselves to belong in, the participants were faced with an auction: each participant could earn up to $100 per statement by agreeing to a signed document saying that they believed the opposite of what they previously picked. For the statements they valued the most, they were allowed to opt out of the auction. The result was a fascinating one: sacred values (the options the participants opted-out the auction for) triggered greater activity in the right-or-wrong, semantic parts of the brain versus the parts that recognize cost-benefit analysis. Also, those participants who were involved in sports, churches, musical groups, and environmental clubs had more vibrant activity in the parts of the brain associated with sacred, or core values. The lead researcher, Gregory Burns, said this may be the case because "organized groups may instill values more strongly through the use of rules and social norms."

What in the world does that mean for advertising professionals? Loyalty. Establishing a connection with your targeted audience could turn your brand into a value than a benefit, therefore taking your brand out of the cost-benefit analysis parts of the brain, where brands are subject to switching costs, substitutes, and promotions. As behavioral economics would dictate that people behave based on incentive, attaching your brand to a value instead of a benefit — "a what's in it for me" attitude — would place your brand above the others.

It makes sense that at times we see people act and buy the way they do. It partially explains the concept of social proof and groupthink. It doesn't matter if it is right or wrong, because when a person belongs to a group (or wants to belong), the parts of the brain that look at cost/analysis are nearly dormant or overpowered by those reinforcing sacred values and societal norms. 

How can advertising professionals use this? Get out of the cost/benefit talk. The instant gratification from sales promos and incentives creates sales, but not a constant stream of revenue. Don't accentuate how your brand can benefit a person's life, talk about how the brand can improve a person's life. Don't say, "You need this because you're a mom," tell moms that this is their product because family matters. 

Get your brand into the value part of the brain.


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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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