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Here’s Why Psychological Games Make or Break Marketing Campaigns

Human psychology imposes both barriers to and opportunities for purchasing; as a marketer, you need to know how to turn one into the other.

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Here are a few truths that’ll make any marketing rookie’s eye twitch: 

A snappy subject line won’t launch a blockbuster email campaign. 

An earworm radio jingle won’t coax consumers into your store. 

A high-budget infomercial won’t compel viewers to place an order just like so. 

Want to know why? I’ll tell you — it’s because the form and budget of a marketing campaign are only ever window dressing. It doesn’t matter if you have the best-written radio ad on the airwaves; if the underlying message doesn’t resonate in the hearts and minds of the people you’re trying to reach, it’ll flop. Big time.   

All marketing campaigns should have their grounding in psychology. When you craft a marketing campaign, you need to have a clear understanding of who your consumer aspires to be. You must know what motivates them and how they perceive the products you put in front of them — only then can you craft a campaign that will work. 

Let me walk you down memory lane for a second. Back in the late ‘70s, I was living in Southern California when a friend called me with a pricing puzzle. He was trying to sell high-end townhouses for the (then) high price of $349,000. I know; it sounds like an unthinkably reasonable price now. But back then, those costs were reserved for the luxury market. 

My friend had 24 townhouses listed for the price, and none of them were selling. So, when he lamented to me, I asked why he hadn’t priced them higher — at $395,000. 

“395,000,” he scoffed. “Are you kidding? I’m a week away from dropping the price down to $275,000!” 

“No, raise the price,” I told him. “Sell the townhouses for $395,000 and tell buyers that if they sign within the next 60 days, they can choose whether to have a completely refurbished, concourse-condition Ford Mustang or Camaro in the driveway.” 

He ended up offering a ‘69 Camaro and ‘67 Mustang. Within 30 days, every single townhouse had been snapped up by a buyer. The cars cost $20,000 apiece; do the math, and you’ll realize that per townhouse, my friend had made $30,000 more than his original, seemingly impossible asking price. Why? Because he wasn’t really marketing a house or a car — he was selling a self-image

Buyers wanted the luxury lifestyle that the classic car and upscale house implied. They wanted to identify with it. Taken by themselves, neither the car nor the house would have attracted so many buyers. Together, however, they created an implication of upscale Americana that was hard to resist. 

Psychologists explain this appeal through social identity, a theory that considers how and why consumers’ self- and group-perceptions guide their buying behaviors.

As researchers for the Harvard Business Review once explained, “It is no coincidence that people in the same profession—successful athletes, say, or chief executives—tend to buy similar cars and read similar magazines. When it comes to a purchase, the group you identify with at the time of the transaction is a very important factor in your decision.”

Hence, the up-pricing strategy worked because it was presented as selling a lifestyle identity that suited the targeted consumer demographic. It helped, of course, that buyers felt like they were getting a bargain on the deal. After all, how often do you have a refurbished ‘69 Mustang tossed into a real estate transaction? It would feel like you got it for free — even though, when you run a few calculations, you realize that the deal added another $50,000 onto the original asking price. 

Marketing is all about perception. Once you understand how your consumers see themselves and perceive products that suit their lifestyle, you can sell almost anything. Human psychology imposes both barriers to and opportunities for purchasing; as a marketer, you need to know how to turn one into the other. 

But you don’t need to go big to see this strategy work. It can also apply in more subtle, smaller-scale ways. 

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I consulted with one of the largest furniture chains in the country. By the time I made a store visit, they were at their wits’ end — they had manufactured a line of store-brand sleeper sofas that they couldn’t give away. 

When I saw that, I told the store manager to take one of their big red “SOLD” tags, stick it on the sofa, and put it in the middle of the sleeper sofa display. A few weeks later, that store could barely keep the sofas in stock. Why? Because that sticker gave consumers social permission to buy

You see, before that tag, customers viewed the store-brand sofa as a knockoff. They were willing to pay more for a brand-name product because, if they were going to spend money on a sleeper sofa, they didn’t want to waste it on a lesser version. It didn’t matter that the couch was comfortable or less expensive; once consumers perceived it as being subpar, they wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. 

This quirk takes us back to social identity research. People want the products they purchase to uphold their views of themselves. Given a choice, they won’t buy a sofa — or any other goods, for that matter — that they perceive as inferior, because having that product would be at odds with the social identity they wanted to express. 

However, once that “SOLD” tag landed on the couch, customers began to perceive it differently. Once one person had bought it, customers had social permission to do the same. They started viewing the sofa as an in-demand product, rather than a sloppy knockoff — and therefore didn’t have any identity-related anxiety around bringing the product into their houses. 

Now, that’s how you use psychology. And in marketing, psychology has impact. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling sofas or jet planes; if your product doesn’t align with your consumer’s self-image and uphold their vision of who they want to be, it won’t sell. 

Good marketing isn’t only about offering a good deal or having a great pitch, although both matter. Instead, it’s about providing your customer something that upholds and reinforces their chosen lifestyle. If you can accomplish that, your consumers will pay for the chance to validate their perceptions. 

Here’s the lesson here — if you want to be successful in marketing, hit the books. Read every psychology tome you can get your hands on. I suggest Persuasion and Pre-suasion, The Game, and The 48 Laws of Power. Read books that will teach you how people act and why. 

The, once you have the basics, feel free to make that earworm jingle. It’ll be effective this time. (It’s a small, small world, lad de da, da, da…)

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