Given that rewards drive decisions, when we create the content that powers brands, one of the biggest challenges we have is to figure out what our audiences value — consider rewarding.
Clarifying rewards is challenging because what people value differs. An ad from HSBC bank demonstrates this well. The ad shows pictures of three people’s bald heads, viewed from the back, and they are labeled “Style,” “Soldier,” and “Survivor.” The tagline reminds us that “Only by understanding what people value can we better meet their needs.”
What Do People Value?
This question is important because too many companies talk past their customers, without paying attention to what they value. In a 2014 survey of 1,408 companies, executives were convinced that customers would most appreciate a brand that “promotes and practices sustainability in its products or services,” “has global reach,” “is a driver for innovation,” or “promotes diversity and equal opportunity.” When customers were asked what they really cared about, the factors considered important by companies were not statistically significant. Instead, what customers really wanted were brands that “care about honest and open dialogue with its customers,” “act responsibly across its supply chain,” “have a high level of specialist expertise,” and “fit in well with my values and beliefs.” You can imagine the disconnect if what you cared about was expertise and instead listened to a pitch about product sustainability.
There are several technologies that help us remove guesswork from what people value. I asked Kevin Lindsay, product marketing director at Adobe, about optimal ways to help customers make decisions, based on what they value, especially when shopping online. Lindsay mentioned conversion rate optimization (CRO), which is concerned with understanding the decisions that shoppers have to make at different points during their buying journey. He recommends making incremental improvements at each step and testing constantly. He points out, “If, as a result of testing, you discover that more shoppers add items with at least 10 user reviews, you may start directing all shoppers to the most reviewed products. If buy-one–get-one-free entices more people to explore your store than 15 percent-off–site-wide, pay attention. Testing gives us a statistically reliable way to validate what people value.”
Does knowing what customers value work in practice? Lindsay mentioned working with a retailer to help it implement CRO. At that time, the retailer had a unique visitor count of around 13 million, and the conversion rate hovered at about 2.8 percent. Lindsay noted, “As a result of applying rigorous CRO practices, in just three months we saw conversions increase to 3.1 percent. If you don’t think that sounds like much, think again: the result was an annualized revenue gain of more than $33 million!”
The values we assign to different objects, people, and experiences can range from functional and concrete to something more abstract. For example, we buy things because we value their tangible attributes, such as a dishwasher, a type of detergent, or even insurance. But we also buy things for their emotional value: think of the last time you used your GoPro or enjoyed food, drinks, or a film with friends.
Much has been studied about the impact of emotion on attention, memory, and decision-making. When we are faced with emotional events, the amygdala modulates the visual cortex to make sure we direct attention to these events. While the hippocampus is necessary in memory storage, the amygdala modulates memory in the face of a highly emotional event and ensures the event is retained. Emotions act as markers for important information, which is why at a decision point, we are likely to recall an emotional event versus a neutral one.
Studies show how emotions such as happiness, sadness, stress, or anxiety impact decisions. Take stress, for instance. Under stressful circumstances, we tend to be more risk averse in the gain domain and more risk seeking in the loss domain. A sad mood also pushes us into taking more risks for greater rewards. Anxiety biases us the other direction, toward low risks and low rewards. Some of us are generally more anxious or cheerful than others, which is why our choices are different.
You Can Change Value By Changing Emotion.
We may also choose things or people or experiences for their epistemological value: this includes products or experiences that give us the opportunity for knowledge development and intellectual stimulation, such as books and seminars. We value things for their aesthetics, such as clothes and decorations. We also seek hedonistic values because they evoke sensory pleasure, which is why we enjoy good hotels and fun nightclubs. Sometimes we choose because of situational value, such as selecting champagne versus wine because of a special occasion. And if we’re lucky enough, we may be exposed to things of holistic value: choosing a vacation in Paris with a new lover is likely to appeal to a range of values from emotional to epistemological, aesthetic to hedonistic.
Which of these values do your customers appreciate, and are those values coming across clearly in your communication? If so, then there is a greater likelihood of action.
Assigning Value When We Have To Make A Choice.
The brain automatically assigns values to elements in our surroundings, from the very first presentation of a stimulus, even in a choice-free context. Neuroimaging evidence suggests there is an automatic valuation system that encodes values for preferences under all circumstances. This system is personal, generic, and automatic.
In an MRI study, participants were shown pictures of faces, houses, and paintings and asked to rate their pleasantness and guess their age. The brain value system was activated even when the value was not necessary for the task at hand. Even if subjects were simply asked to guess the age of the house or the face or the painting, activity in the brain value system was higher for the pictures that were later identified as preferred. We constantly judge. This could be because the brain value system evolved before money was invented and values come first, potentially providing a basis for when we may have to make choices later. Such anchors influence subsequent decisions and sometimes unrelated decisions, too.
We Assign Values Even When We Don’t Have To Choose.
We don’t even need to pay attention for a long time to assign value. In one MRI study, participants in one condition (high attention) were shown a set of cars and asked to rate their attractiveness; in the other condition (low attention), participants were asked to fixate on a target, while some car pictures were displayed in the background. After scanning, participants were asked to rate their intention to purchase one of the cars.
Results showed that the brain areas that predicted preferences were activated even in the low-attention group. Unattended stimuli can still influence choice. Participants did not know that later they would be asked about their intention, so the study was set up to show that it is possible to have unconscious environmental triggers and automatic processes in decision-making. Even in the absence of explicit deliberation, the brain regions associated with expected reward value were activated. It is no wonder cultural stimuli, such as cars and logos of cars that indicate wealth and status, have been shown to activate the reward network in the brain. We can still make complex economic decisions without fully deliberating and even without paying much attention.
Using eye-tracking devices, we know we can make value-based decisions without having access to our full cognitive resources, in about a third of a second. For example, if we are hungry and we prefer Snickers to Doritos, and someone shows us pictures of the two options very quickly, we will look toward our preferred option in a third of a second (404 milliseconds, to be exact). Perceptual decision-making is even faster. We can pick out which natural scene has an animal in it in about 140 to 160 milliseconds, and we can tell if a facial expression or body posture is fearful or neutral in 350 milliseconds.
What does this information mean for our content and ultimately our brand? Even when we are not asking others to make a selection in our favor, we must still offer inspiring content. Our audiences’ brains are constantly encoding value for what we show them. There is no break from greatness for the communicator — or the brand who aspires to be influential.
Research informs us that once people assign values to choices, it is possible they forget those values particularly for products with longer sales cycles, products that are more complex, and products that do not imply too much consumer involvement. Consider your content with this finding in mind. Do you operate in any of these categories: complexity, long sales cycles, and sparse consumer engagement? If yes, consider constant activation of what people value, via more frequent communication and social media. With these messages, it is important not to insist on features and benefits, but rather to remind people of how much they value that product or service.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Carmen Simon, PhD, co-founder of Rexi Media and the author of Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions
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