Soft Sell in a Recession?

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by: Josh Hawkins

There’s no shortage of ink being spilled these days with advise about marketing during the economic downturn. But one of the more interesting perspectives to surface recently is offered by agency veterans and authors Hamish Pringle and Peter Field. In a piece written for AdAge’s CMO Strategy, they propose a very counter intuitive recession strategy: Instead of relying on marketing campaigns that highlight discounts, hard-sell comparisons and rational arguments, they recommend tugging on the heartstrings and going for emotional appeals. 

In an analysis of more than 800 marketing campaign case studies that span two recessions, they find that emotional campaigns are almost twice as likely to generate large profit gains than rational ones. 

How does this work? According ot the authors, the most important impact of soft-sell emotional campaigns is that they tend to reduce price sensitivity and strengthen the ability of brands to secure a premium in the marketplace (or in a recession, hold firm on pricing). Most importantly, these campaigns have a long-term effect on differentiation for the brand that lasts well beyond the lifespan of the campaign or competitive maneuvering.

Good food for thought, but it needs a grain of salt. Emotion and rationality aren’t so neatly bifurcated in the mind’s eye of the consumer. It turns out that loads of psych research point to a different kind of information processing especially as it relates to marketing campaigns. In fact, emotional engagement oftentimes determines how consumers will engage with rational arguments and data.

There are essentially two paths for processing information. One is sometimes refered to as "central" processing, the other "peripheral." Central processing is associated with attention to facts, figures and rational arguments. If there isn’t a motivation to engage at that level, consumers engage in peripheral processing, skim over the details and rely on cues, heuristics and predispositions to form judgments that inform purchasing behavior. In other worlds, the case presented in a hard sell might be lost on the consumer that doesn’t have the motivation to pay attention to the details – the price tag, the comparison, the argument.

So what determines the path consumers take to process information about brands, products and services? More often than not, it’s the emotional response elicited by exposure to the brand communication.

The proposal offered by Pringle and Field still rings true, but I would advocate a slightly different model that recognizes the inherent interplay between emotion and cognition. It might be useful to think about marketing campaigns, (especially in a recession where brands are engaged in daily combat for survivial), as influencing a information processing sequence for the consumer. First, engage the consumer with enough of an emotional appeal to trigger motivation to pay attention. Second, present the hard sell information when consumers are ready to receive it. Marketing campaigns that embody this combination  may actually be the most impactful when it comes to influencing purchasing behavior.

Maybe the best marketing campaign during a recession is really a soft hard sell. 

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