This Will Never Happen to You

Car accidents, failed businesses or marriages, and lackluster marketing campaigns happen to “everyone but me.” Or so we like to think — or, rather, are programmed to think.

Car accidents, failed businesses or marriages, and lackluster marketing campaigns happen to “everyone but me.” Or so we like to think — or, rather, are programmed to think.

According to Tali Sharot — author of “The Optimism Bias,” published in Time magazine in 2011, and then a research fellow at University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging — our brain’s frontal cortex causes our thoughts of the future to be more positive than negative. We tend to associate our life events with good outcomes, not bad ones. You know, “other people get divorced, not us. Other people’s kids get sick, not ours. We have a chance of winning the lottery, despite all the odds,” and so on.

When you consider the role the frontal cortex plays in our lives, it makes sense. The frontal cortex drives our thoughts associated with goal-setting, and we set goals because we believe we can achieve them. If not, we would just live to exist, not to self-actualize, which is a key part of the human psyche, and a strong driver in many of the choices we make personally and professionally, as well as our purchasing choices.

So if we tend to live in a state of hope that life will turn out how we expect it to, what does that mean about our ability to accept the reality that the opposite might occur: That maybe we will be the ones to experience loss, tragedy, defeat and more?

Freud identified a series of ego defenses, or thought stages, we go through to help us survive against threats associated with reality and deal with conflicts. His daughter Anna elaborated on his concept of defense mechanisms and helped to build a list of mental stages that represent various ways of coping when reality is too much to accept. I call these defense mechanisms “denial stages,” or places we exist to avoid thinking about what we don’t want to face someday. The mechanisms, or denial stages, include:

  • Repression: When our unconscious keeps disturbing our unconscious thoughts from becoming conscious.
  • Denial: When we block external events from our awareness and choose not experience situations we can’t face.
  • Projection: When we project thoughts about traits we don’t like to admit about ourselves onto others to make our own weaknesses more acceptable.
  • Displacement: Substituting an impulse with another object, like eating sweet berries when you really wanted ice cream.
  • Regression: Moving back in psychological time to a place that seems safer than the place where you currently are in life.
  • Sublimation: When we satisfy an impulse with something positive, like putting your addictions into running vs. alcohol.

For any of us, many of our customers live in one or more of these stages. We need to “face” which of these stages affect our target consumers and how consumers might block our messages in order to fall deeper into denial. A state that does not open their minds to our products, messages, offers and such.

Take financial services for example. We do not want to think of ourselves as getting too old to work, so we might slip into denial and thus block out messages about retirement planning and investing. Life insurance companies face this dilemma every day. “Other people die and leave their children without a parent or with a compromised financial future.” No one wants to think about something that bad happening to their family and to engage in life insurance purchasing processes means accepting that it actually could.

Moving consumers from a state of denial in which they have likely dwelled comfortably for a long period of time is a tricky but critical process for marketers in just about any business category.

Building Your Brand Religion

Even with the most finicky of customers in an increasingly chaotic and complicated world, lifetime value and brand loyalty can still be achieved. But not how you might think. It’s not the loyalty programs, frequent purchaser points (only 35 percent enrolled redeem these, per Forrester Research), and free gifts that stack up the purchase orders for a given customer. And it’s not the great service that can be matched by your competitors, either. It’s something much deeper. The same something that keeps the church pews warm, tithing coffers full and baptismal fonts busy.

Even with the most finicky of customers in an increasingly chaotic and complicated world, lifetime value and brand loyalty can still be achieved. But not how you might think.

It’s not the loyalty programs, frequent purchaser points (only 35 percent enrolled redeem these, per Forrester Research), and free gifts that stack up the purchase orders for a given customer. And it’s not the great service that can be matched by your competitors, either. It’s something much deeper. The same something that keeps the church pews warm, tithing coffers full and baptismal fonts busy.

The secret to lifetime value and referrals from your customers is really no secret at all. It’s simply the psychology of hope, loss and rewards, and trust that has made religion the biggest industry worldwide. Without question.

Consider:

If loyalty were dead, all of this money could not be generated from the millions of loyal believers who give up, on average, nearly 3 percent of their annual incomes to their religious faiths. If you take just U.S. wage earners with an annual income of $40,000, that comes up to about $93 billion a year in tithing—the equivalent in revenue for the worldwide video game industry in 2013, according to Gartner Research. And you wouldn’t have nearly 44,000 people attending a single group’s service on Sunday where the only product being sold is hope.

While we direct marketers are clearly selling more than hope as we peddle tangible products and services to millions of customers each year, our marketing ROI could truly become divine if we follow even just a few of the tenets from religious psychology. The primary tenets or cornerstones of all successful religions are:

1. Hope or faith in a better life (in this case, an afterlife);

2. Trust in your leaders to guide you with integrity;

3. A sense of community, or like-minded souls who have the same values, ideals and beliefs; and finally,

4. A fervor so strong about your beliefs that you are willing to spend much of your time on this earth spreading your faith’s gospel and bringing others into the fold—all on your own time, at your own expense and without any pay (besides the joy of knowing you brought eternal joy to others).

These are the same four cornerstones that make for successful branding and must be present in any brand’s marketing programs today.

Hope: All products are emotional purchases—your car, life insurance, clothing, furnishings and even food. Each time you swipe that payment card, you are doing so with the unconscious hope of gaining some intangible value associated with that product. Be it status, safety, reliability, an image that will attract romance or job opportunities for you, or a break from the fear of failing your children, spouse or job. What is the hope associated with your products? And yes, this applies to both B-to-B and B-to-C.

Trust: I’m not sure if there has even been a lower level of consumer trust for big brands as there has been in the past decade. Regardless of what industry you are in, trust is fleeting and hard to get, even for a small moment in your customers’ lifetime. Consumers are eager to find brands they can truly trust to stand behind their promises and products, and to actually put consumers’ interests, and those of the community at large, ahead of their own. There a few who do that well. Tom’s shoes is a great example. Even though the company sells a pair of shoes for around $65 which costs it $9 to make—earning it a profit of around $56 a pair—people love and trust Tom’s, because it promises to donate one pair to a needy child for every pair sold. And Tom’s produces evidence that it really fulfills this promise. The leaders of Tom’s shoes are right up there with the rich pastors of the world for selling hope that the world can be a better place, providing people with a means to make it that way, operating with integrity and cashing in on millions at the same time.

Community: Also known as “congregations,” we flock toward people with like values to feel safe, validated and empowered. Many people lose their faith at some point in their lives and question the religion of their childhood, and a large number of these fallen-from-faith adults stay true to their religion at the cost of losing a community of support, friends and a trusted network to be there when they are in need. Leaving is too high a price. The same applies to brand communities. Brands that bring consumers together for events or group discounts like “Family and Friends” create unbreakable equity as consumers pay a price to switch that is far higher than money, in many cases.

Evangelism: We love telling friends about a great purchase and then getting great satisfaction (really, decision validation) when they buy the same thing. It is our innate need to know we are making wise choices that others believe are wise, as well. This is particularly strong when it comes to our faith. The Mormons are famous, partially due to the recent Broadway musical, “Book of Mormon,” for their aggressive missionary program—whereby they have 80,000 missionaries evangelizing all over the world paying their own expenses, and working for free to build the church’s membership base. Why do they do it? Because they truly believe they have found the secret to a happy life and an even better afterlife, and they are compelled to bring others into their joy. This same need to share sources of personal joy with others applies to customers. Like religions, brands just need to create the tools to make it easy to do. Religions like Mormonism and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church have a book that members share with others. Religious-like brands have discounts and free trials for loyal customers to share freely.

When you find the right tools and provide the right incentives to your loyal customers, you can engage free marketers for your brand who will work on their own time, at their own expense and for the reward of knowing someone else loves your products, too! Seriously, what more can a brand want? (Other than a tax exempt status!)

As you start a crafting a new marketing plan, throw out the four Ps and starting focusing on the above “Four Cs”—the cornerstones of your brand’s religion—and see how quickly you reap the rewards in this lifetime (and the next!).