Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 293
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Selling With Stories

New Research explores the use of self-referencing within the context of stories.

Meet Alice as she returns to her store from the new mega-retailer in her town. Alice owns a small specialty retail store that sells athletic footwear, and her trip to the mega- retailer was to check out the competition. She was disturbed by what she found. The mega-retailer offered similar merchandise at much lower prices. The only advantages her store offered were convenient location and knowledgeable staff. Compared to price, she knew that these were weak advantages, and she wondered how long her store could stay open.

She was thinking this over when she walked into her store, and two customers entered at the same time. They were ideal customers, young, athletic, and one of them was accompanied by a parent. Each was greeted by a different clerk, and she overheard the greetings each received. One heard “Hi, are you an athlete?” The second heard “Hi, played in any big games this year?”

Alice didn’t think there was anything special about these two greetings, but if Jennifer Escalas, from Vanderbilt University had heard them, she would have congratulated the second clerk for employing the exact sales technique Alice’s store needed to compete with the mega-retailer. Professor Escalas could be confident in offering this assessment since her most recent research arrived at a similar conclusion.

Now you’re probably puzzled by Professor Escalas’ claim, and you may have already gone back and examined these two greetings to try to recognize the difference, so perhaps you’d appreciate an explanation. Here it is.

Each of the greetings triggered an evaluative thought process called self-referencing. With this process, people relate new information to themselves and to their personal experiences, and it helps them understand it and remember it. The first greeting called attention to the customer’s self-identity as an athlete. Examining athletic shoes is quite appropriate for an athlete. The second greeting also called attention to the customer’s self-identity as an athlete, but it did so by relating this identity to a story, a narrative drama in which the customer (in his own mind) is the star.

The first greeting stimulated a self-referencing thought process that causes the customer to carefully examine the merchandise. This thought process favors settings offering merchandise with strong product claims. The second greeting stimulated a self-referencing thought process that causes the customer to overlook weak product claims. This thought process favors settings like Alice’s store that are unable to call attention to product claims that are important to their customers. For Alice, the claim she was unable to make was low price.

Stimulating self-referencing by asking a customer to imagine a setting where he might use the product draws his attention away from the cognitive self-referencing process of careful examination and toward a positive feeling state of imagination. If a sales clerk can nurture this connection, then the positive feeling state aroused by imagining the setting will attach itself to the product.

For example, imagine the sales clerk in Alice’s store quietly picking up their top-of-the-line athletic shoe without interrupting the customer’s retelling of the “big game” drama. As he nears the end of his description, she places the shoe in his hands and says “How would you like to have been wearing these?” Then she waits as his imagination takes him back to the big game with this special pairs of shoes. With any luck, all the positive emotions aroused by the ”big game” story will attach themselves to this special pair of shoes, and the store will not only gain a sale, but it will likely gain a long-term, loyal customer as well. Not a bad benefit for using the right greeting.

Ms. Escalas’ research involved college students and print ads, and she was surprised to find how easy it was for her to stimulate the narrative kind of self-referencing illustrated in Alice’s store. In her research, she merely added a line in the text of the ad directing her students to imagine themselves using the product. She was also surprised to find how easy it was for her to spoil the effect – to turn off narrative self-referencing. She merely asked her students to critique the ad. This aroused skepticism in her students, and the skepticism prevented them from triggering their imaginations and transporting them into a simulated setting using the product.

Ms. Escalas leaves us with two thoughts she would like us to remember. First, the positive effect of triggering and nurturing narrative self-referencing not only benefits weak products, it also benefits strong products, too. The difference is that weak product claims are overlooked, and the evaluation of the product comes from attaching positive emotions aroused by the story to the product.

Her second thought is that today’s consumers tend to be skeptical. Their suspicions are easily aroused, and they often expect sales people and ad writers to try to trick them. Any attempts to trigger narrative self-referencing should be subtle or they will arouse suspicion and skepticism. That will spoil the sale.

Reference: Escalas, Jennifer Edson (2007) Self-Referencing and Persuasion: Narrative Transportation versus Analytical Elaboration. Journal of Consumer Research, 33 (March), 421-429.

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