Consumers don’t care about your brand’s terrific features. In fact, most of them wouldn’t notice if you evaporated into the ether.
There’s more than sensory overload at work here. It has to do with the way our brains are wired.
As Oren Klaff writes in Pitch Anything, our lizard brain – the primitive one we started with – is our most trusted gatekeeper. And it’s programmed to respond to every stimulus in one of three ways:
Assuming your brand doesn’t frighten consumers off, make them hungry or frisky, the lizard brain instructs them to ignore you and move on.
So how do you get the lizard brain’s attention, and potentially even get your message passed along to the more sophisticated neo-cortex, where your scintillating persuasion can have its day in court?
You need to create tension, and attraction.
If you’re in advertising, you were schooled in creating attraction. Bright colours, chiselled abs, catchy jingles and clever turns of a phrase are your stock in trade. You know but sounds like butt, and cheap shots like that grab eyeballs.
But attraction alone isn’t enough. We’ve all seen enough beautiful people in ads. The attraction wears thin after a few seconds.
What’s needed to hold the lizard brain is something novel, something that just doesn’t seem right, a source of tension and discord.
Tension is tricky. Too much, and it triggers fear in the lizard brain. That just makes consumers turn tail and run away. Too little, and the lizard brain tells the consumer to move along, nothing to see here.
In simple english, you need to create a “it’s this…but it’s also that.”
Here’s how it works, when it’s working perfectly. The consumer is attracted to your brand, because it somehow stands out from the crowd in a non-threatening way. She zooms in to take a closer look. At that point, she notices that something isn’t quite right. Not in a ‘bear-trap-under-the-leaves’ way, but in a ‘I’ve never seen these two attributes combined before’ way. Not threatening, but intriguing.
Her lizard brain then does something miraculous. Having vetted your message as safe but worth investigating, it passes you along to the neo-cortex, where your copy gets read, your offer gets considered, and perhaps you even get pulled off the shelf for a closer look.
So how do you get to that kind of tension? Truth is, most brands worth buying already have it. You just need to look a bit.
One of the first projects I worked on where we explicitly triggered tension in every ad was for Sunoco Ultra 94. This fuel combined high octane (for better engine performance) with ethanol (for less pollution). Those two attributes simply didn’t belong together.
Combined with a highly attractive bright yellow license plate ad format, the messages resonated extremely well with consumers. Sales went up on a shoestring ad budget. There was an added bonus for the teams working on Sunoco messages – it was easy to find ways to express tension. We had no problem coming up with hundreds of ads that reiterated the juxtaposition between high octane and low emissions.
The tension doesn’t need to be in the product to work, either. I just completed a project where our brand united engineers with managers – two groups who see eye to eye on very little. This is the classic ‘You got peanut butter on my chocolate / You got chocolate in my peanut butter’ tension. One product that creates harmony between conflicting worldviews.
Take a look at your brand. Chances are, it was the result of two products blended together in a new way (conditioning shampoo), two benefits that didn’t previously co-exist (luxurious, yet affordable clothing), two worlds combined (mixed martial arts). It’s worth digging for.
I mentioned before that the lizard brain doesn’t have much patience. It also doesn’t handle nuance terribly well.
That means your tension has to be real. Your Miller Lite actually does have to taste great and be less filling.
If it isn’t, the neo-cortex will instruct the lizard brain to simply ignore any further entreaties by your brand. You’ll be thrown out of the kingdom forever. Or until your brand creates a new device for attraction / tension that overrides the lizard brain’s wariness. Not an easy task.
What used to be productive communication has denigrated into toxic shouting matches. Whether it’s the scorched earth political abuse that has served Donald Trump so well, character attacks fogging the climate change argument or the messages emanating from big brands around flashpoint issues (big oil or the gun lobby, for example), we’ve seen critical thinking, engagement and constructive dialogue be thrown by the wayside in exchange for headline-grabbing abuse and shrill megaphone matchups.
PR expert and celebrated author Jim Hoggan has just released an incredible book – I’m right and you’re an idiot – that dissects our language’s destruction by a host of forces. In this podcast, Jim and I explore some of the highlights and surprises of his book, and dig into the implication for brands trying to build an audience that alternates between shell shock and cynical disbelief.