by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. & Jonathan Halvorson, Ph.D.
Every marketer knows that people want more good things – good products, experiences, and ideas – and want to avoid bad ones. What they may not realize, however, is something that research psychologists have known (and kept mostly to themselves) for over two decades: there are two fundamentally different kinds of good. Tailor your message to match the kind of “good” you are selling, and you can increase consumer trust, message believability, engagement, and perceived value. Mismatch, and your message falls flat. So, what kinds of “good” do people want?
Some people tend to see their goals as opportunities for gain or advancement. In other words, they are focused on all the great things that will happen for them when they succeed – the benefits and rewards. Psychologists call this promotion motivation, and research shows that promotion-minded people are more energized by optimism and praise, more likely to embrace risk, seize opportunities, and excel at creativity and innovation.
Others tend to see their goals as opportunities to avoid loss and to stay safe. They don’t want to lose what they have worked hard to achieve, and they worry about all the terrible things that might happen if they make a mistake. Psychologists call this prevention motivation, and the prevention-minded are more driven by criticism and the looming possibility of failure than they are by applause and a sunny outlook. Prevention-focused people are more risk-averse, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully planned.
It’s not just people who have different motivational focuses – products, activities, and ideas can have them too. Some are obvious: seat belts, home security systems, and mammograms are essentially about avoiding loss (prevention), while vacation homes, lottery tickets, and facelifts are about potential gains (promotion). Others can be either promotion or prevention-focused, depending on how you talk about them. When toothpaste is about a “whiter smile,” it’s a promotion product. But when it’s about “avoiding cavities,” it’s all prevention.
You can more effectively market a product if you tailor your message to fit the motivational focus of the product or the audience you are aiming for. There are several ways to achieve a motivational fit, but the one that has been most frequently studied is the use of gain versus loss framing.
Promotion motivation makes us more sensitive to, and influenced by, information about gains. Studies show that people with a promotion focus (or people considering a promotion product or idea) are more deeply engaged when a product is described in terms of benefits. The same holds true for prevention motivation when descriptions emphasize avoiding loss.
Engaged customers reliably ascribe more value to the product in question, as demonstrated by changes in attitude, behavior, product enjoyment, and spending. In other words, people will pay more for a product - sometimes much more - if you describe their choice in a way that fits with their motivation.
The nuances in description can be subtle. If you are selling cars, you can choose to talk about “better mileage” (promotion) or “lower fuel costs” (prevention). You can emphasize the “bonus” features customers get if they buy the Limited Edition, or what they’d be missing out on if they didn’t buy it. If you are offering a loyalty program at your coffee shop, should you offer 10% off each cup, or tell them that after buying nine cups they get one free? What the customer gets in the end may be the same, but how they get there – through the promotion-focused strategy of seizing opportunities to gain (e.g., better mileage, bonus features, a free cup of coffee) or the prevention-focused strategy of avoiding losses (e.g., high fuel costs, an inferior product, having to pay full price for their morning joe), can be the difference between psychological night and day.
Knowing which version will be more effective for your audience, for your particular message or product, is the key to finding fit. For example, when Welch’s Grape Juice was described in an advertisement as energy-enhancing (a promotion product), potential buyers rated the brand more positively when the ad was gain-framed (“Get Energized!”) than when it was loss-framed (“Don’t Miss Out On Getting Energized!”). But when the juice was instead described as a source of antioxidants that prevent cancer and heart disease (a prevention product), the loss-framing (“Don’t Miss Out on Preventing Clogged Arteries!”) was more effective than gain-framing (“Prevent Clogged Arteries!”)
Similar results have been found for other products, including sunscreen, vitamin supplements, toothpaste, and gym memberships. Teen anti-smoking ads and messages advocating social policy issues (e.g, funding after-school programs) were more effective when they were designed with motivational fit. In one study, people ate 20% more fruits and vegetables after reading about their benefits in messages framed to fit their dominant motivation. In another, promotion- and prevention-focused participants paid 50-70% more for a mug that was gain or loss-framed, respectively.
To create motivational fit, you always want to keep both the qualities of the product and the motivation of your audience in mind, particularly when you are trying to position a particular product to a target population. Age is one indicator of how someone is generally motivated (along with culture, occupation, and a number of other demographic variables.) Younger people are, on average, more promotion-minded, and are drawn to opportunity. They are more likely to value the possibility for growth, advancement, and creative expression. They are also more comfortable with risk, and more likely to engage with a product or idea when it is gain-framed.
Older adults, on the other hand, tend to be more prevention-minded – they are looking for a safe bet. They want reliability and security. They want to protect what they’ve earned. They are, on average, less comfortable with risk, and more likely to engage when you use loss-framing.
Motivational fit is a powerful, and largely overlooked, tool of influence. When you tailor your message with promotion and prevention motivations in mind, your audience will like it more, and trust it more. They will find your arguments more convincing, or your story more compelling. And if you are selling something, they will value it more, and be willing to pay more for it. Best of all, they will be more satisfied with their decision to endorse your idea or purchase your product – which makes motivational fit a tool you can feel genuinely good about using.