A Benefit of Membership



The Language of Buyers

New research examines the effect of correct product framing.

Imagine for a moment that you are young again, a teenager. The big dance is approaching, and you have a date. Everyone will be there. It will be your big chance to show them all that you’re not a little girl anymore. The dress. Yes, the dress will say it all, but of course, you have no prom dress. Your closet is filled with t-shirts and jeans. You and your Mom will have to make that purchase.

When the prom is twelve weeks away, your dreams about the dress soar. We’re thinking of Oscar award presentations here. But imagine that the big dance is tomorrow, and you still have no dress. Now it’s O.K. to panic.

When the purchase is in the future, hopes command your attention, and you are drawn to messages that stimulate your dreams about what the perfect dress could do for you. When the purchase is imminent, like today, needs command your attention, and you are drawn to messages that explain how you’re going to use the dress to satisfy important needs. Also, you need to protect yourself from being embarrassed by your dress.

This distinction between near purchases and distant purchases was the subject of recent research by Cassie Mogilner from Stanford University. She conducted three experiments probing her subjects’ attraction to promotional messages while she varied the proximity of the purchase.

As with the young lady in the example, Mogilner found that people considering a purchase in the distant future were most attracted to messages that described positive outcomes, goals associated with aspirations and ideals and standards a person hoped to meet. She also found that people considering a purchase in the near future were most attracted to messages that alerted them to possible negative outcomes, and reminded them of obligations they had and standards they needed to meet.

Distant purchases stimulated abstract thinking, i.e. why make this purchase? Near purchases stimulated concrete thinking, i.e. how can this purchase satisfy my needs?

Abstract thinking and concrete thinking occur in different places in the brain, and Mogilner found she could switch a person’s thinking between these two brain centers depending upon the language she used to frame her messages. The information remained the same, only the language changed. For example, in one experiment she told some subjects to consider purchases they would make “relatively soon . . . in only two weeks time.” Other subjects she told to consider purchases they would make “later on . . . in two full weeks.”

This switching from one center of the brain to another occurred out of the awareness of her subjects, but it was revealed by their attraction to varying product messages Mogilner presented to them. It was a significant difference, and Mogilner found that correctly matched product messages led to stronger intentions to actually carry out purchases.

Retail clerks and others in direct sales are familiar with the mental shift Mogilner studied. They often see it as they close sales, and they often save a few product benefits to bring up to help them close sales. One implication of Mogilner findings involve these closing benefits. Sales people need to frame these benefits in language reflecting a near purchase. Correct framing recognizes that customers are using concrete thinking and are sensitive to needs and obligations and negative outcomes the purchase will prevent. Incorrect framing, with benefits describing grand dreams fulfilled will fall on deaf ears and likely result in lost sales.

Another implication of Mogilner findings point out the usefulness of careful listening and correct matching of comments. Sales people will be more successful when they correctly identify the purchasing time frame of their customers and match their language to it. For example, when customers describe their hopes and aspirations for a purchase, their time frame for actually making the purchase is in the future. A trial close doesn’t match. Instead, comments describing goals associated with advancement and achieving one’s aspirations . . . to be “the prettiest girl at the ball,” are a good match. Conversely, when customers raise specific objections that reflect concrete thinking, their time frame for actually making the purchase is near. A trial close is appropriate after answering the objection in concrete, specific terms. When customers’ purchasing time frame is near, they want to know how a purchase will work for them, they want to protect their money and not get cheated, and they want to fulfill their obligations. When sales people frame their comments in light of these needs, they will be speaking the language of buyers. - James Larsen, Ph.D.

Reference: Mogilner, Cassie, Jennifer Aaker, and Ginger Pennington (2008) Time Will Tell: The Distant Appeal of Promotion and Imminent Appeal of Prevention. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 670-681.

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