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Pitching to Groups or Individuals; Stanford Business School Study Reveals Which Marketing Approach Works Best


    
    New findings from research conducted at the Stanford Graduate School of Business may help companies better target their advertising messages for more effective returns. According to study and survey results, individual consumers are best persuaded with an alluring promotional approach. Conversely group members respond to a message of prevention. These were the surprising yet consistent results of research project conducted at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
    Consider a juice company trying to decide between alternative marketing campaigns. One approach promotes the product as an energizing and fun drink. Another touts its ability to help prevent disease. One relates to the consumer as an individual. The other shows the individual surrounded by family. Which approach would be the most effective? Recent research by Jennifer Aaker, associate professor of marketing, helps illuminate such questions, suggesting that persuasion depends on the kinds of benefits promised, and whether consumers view themselves as either autonomous beings or members of an interdependent group. Cultural factors outside anyone's control as well as message content that the marketer can tweak both may play a role in making one type of appeal more effective than another.
    Working with two Northwestern University scholars -- Angela Lee, associate professor of marketing, and Wendi Gardner, assistant professor of psychology -- Aaker ran a series of experiments to test the allure of approach versus the desire to avoid. In one experiment, 94 participants were asked to look at a website for Welch's grape juice. Half of them were shown a version with promotion-focused language, saying that the product contributed to "higher energy levels" and was "fun to drink." The other half was given prevention-focused content, saying that the juice could "reduce the risk of some cancers and heart disease." The researchers also tried to trigger different self-perceptions in the participants by modifying the website's pictures and text. An "independent" self-view was activated by addressing the user as a single person, while an "interdependent" self-view was activated by referring to a family.
    As a result, there were four versions of the website in total, allowing the researchers to study the interaction between the type of benefit promised and the self-view of the consumer. Participants were then asked to rate the website and their level of affinity toward the brand. The researchers found that participants placed in the "independent" condition were more likely to be drawn by a promotion pitch than a prevention pitch. Conversely, the prevention-focused argument was more effective among participants in the "interdependent" condition, who were primed to think of themselves in a family context emphasizing responsibilities to others.
    The researchers conclude that appeals compatible with a consumer's own goals tend to be more persuasive. Thus, an independent self-view -- which cultural psychologists say tends toward self-improvement and self-enhancement goals -- is compatible with promotion-oriented benefits. "The consistency of the responses and the magnitude of the effects were remarkable. Further, they seem to be relatively persistent," says Aaker. Indeed, a questionnaire sent to the participants two weeks later found that this effect persisted over time. In a second experiment, the authors demonstrated that attention and recall are highest in conditions of goal-compatibility, helping to lubricate the persuasion process. A third and fourth study showed that the strength of the argument matters: The effects found in the first experiment fade away if the advertised gains or losses are not salient.
    Do the results hold for non-Western consumers? While the first experiment confined itself to Caucasian students in the United States, two subsequent experiments in the study also included Chinese participants in Hong Kong. This brought into play consumers' different "chronic" self-views-products of their cultural backgrounds. In line with conventional wisdom, the researchers found through questionnaires that the Americans saw themselves in more independent terms, while the Chinese leaned toward interdependent self-views. However, these self-views may be malleable. The researchers found some evidence to suggest that a culturally shaped self-view could be trumped by a message that primes the consumer to shift perspective. In one of the experiments, messages put in terms of a "team" made Americans more amenable to prevention-focused arguments. Conversely, Chinese participants were rendered more open to promotion-focused messages when these were framed in a way that emphasized individual rewards.
    The findings have significant implications for cross-cultural marketing of global brands. It appears that regardless of culture, people sometimes see themselves as individuals and sometimes as members of a group. Culture may make one self-view more mentally accessible than the other most of the time. However, a marketer can activate an otherwise latent self-view by framing the message appropriately, thus making consumers more receptive to pitches that describe benefits either in terms of the pleasure to be gained or the pain to be avoided. This suggests that it should be possible for marketers to craft goal-compatible messages that work across cultures.

 

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2002 New Jersey Small Business Journal