When People 'Buy' For The 'Wrong' Reason

Now that we’re past the hysteria of the Ice Bucket Challenge, I’m hoping that we can look back calmly and actually accept that: 

A) As much as we hate to admit it, we humans are motivated much more emotionally than rationally.  

B) But, affecting people emotionally doesn’t mean the messaging has to “be emotional.” 

Let’s take these one at a time. 

1. Opponents critical of the Challenge complained that participants weren’t doing it for the “right” reasons, claiming “people don’t even know what ALS is,” or, “instead of wasting water and ice, shouldn’t people donate just because it’s a really good cause?” Comments like these demonstrate a misunderstanding about how real people are motivated, assuming that we’re mostly rational beings who weigh out all the options and choose the best alternative. 



We mistakenly conclude this because we’re mislead by our own experience, as we claim rational reasons for why we do the things we do, despite the growing evidence in neuroscience and behavioral studies that prove otherwise. For instance, if you asked someone why they endured an ice bath after being challenged, they’d likely give a logical answer. “I did it because it’s a great cause,” or “it’s a terrible disease.” But, if that were really the case, why didn’t these same people give to the countless other organizations that are also fighting terrible diseases?

The Challenge demonstrated that we humans are largely motivated to do things well beyond reason, as this campaign wasn’t fueled by specifics of the disease or even how many people are afflicted.

2. Most marketers will readily agree to the first point, acknowledging that emotion plays a significant role in consumers’ decision-making. But, too often, they’re focused on the affecting conscious emotions, which often translates into the clumsy default of “emotional” advertising—affectionate, heart-warming, or even tear-jerking stories. While this strategy is really attractive to marketers who simply want their customers to fall in love with their brand, they should understand that falling in love isn’t that simple. Like any relationship, falling in love with a brand is an outcome—not a strategy.

You can’t tell someone to love you.

Instead of concentrating on how your customer feels about your brand, you might consider focusing on how your brand makes them feel about themselves. That’s what really motivates people.

And this is where the Ice Bucket Challenge comes in.

It’s clear that the success of this campaign wasn’t a result of poignant stories about how devastating the disease can be. Instead, it’s likely a result of impulses and motivations that lie below the surface of our conscious experience. The Challenge appealed to our need to belong, to be included, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It fueled our self-esteem and fulfilled our need to be recognized. The Ice Bucket Challenge made us feel better about ourselves. None of this is conscious, let alone rational. But it is real.

The lesson here is not to replicate the challenge format, or to figure out if the posted videos are the magic. The takeaway is that marketers need to become more conversant in how consumers are actually motivated. They’re driven by non-rational—and often non-conscious—impulses, not necessarily those they’re aware of.

One step might be to eliminate the words “emotional benefit” from our marketing lexicon altogether, as it often takes us to a misguided conclusion. “Non-rational benefit” would more accurately articulate consumers’ real subconscious motivations. And, we should replace “reasons to believe,” with “reasons to rationalize,” acknowledging that consumers often need plausible “excuses” to do the things we’d like them to do.

This more accurate understanding of what actually motivates consumers, not only affects how we market to them, but how we study and research them. It means that we can’t always take their word for why they do the things they do, not because they hide those underlying motivations, but because they’re simply not consciously aware of them. 

It means that we should focus a little less on how they feel about our brand, and a lot more on how our brand makes them feel about themselves.

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