At a time when many categories are populated by parity brands, marketing executives and advertising agencies find it increasingly difficult to win market share and consumer loyalty even when they have strong positioning. There is good news, however, for the savvy marketer. According to research by Brian Sternthal, professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management and his colleague Prashant Malaviya (INSEAD), by understanding how consumers make purchase decisions, companies can present information on their products and services in a way that increases advertising effectiveness.

The authors’ forthcoming report in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that the manner in which information is presented to consumers can significantly impact their decision to purchase a product. If marketers present information about their products in a way that aligns with how consumers make purchase decisions, the likelihood of purchase increases. Conversely, if marketers present product information in a way that misaligns with consumers’ decision-making process, the likelihood of purchase decreases. By following three simple steps, marketers can ensure that they are presenting information about their products in a way that maximizes their advertising returns.

Step 1: Understand Your Target Consumer’s Goal Orientation

Consumers make product judgment and purchase decisions in a manner decidedly linked to their goal orientation. People orient their attention, attitudes, and behaviors toward attaining their goals. Goal orientation activities involve assessing the worthiness of the goal, striving toward the goal, and monitoring progress toward achieving the goal. Some individuals adopt a “promotion-focused” goal orientation, while others assume a “prevention-focused” goal orientation. Promotion-focused consumers are eager to pursue goals that promise advancement and growth, and prevention-focused consumers are motivated to pursue goals that promise security and safety. Thus, understanding the goal orientation of your target customers is critical to creating advertising messages that appeal to them.

In the context of making purchase decisions, products and services are means for consumers to achieve their goals. Before a consumer decides to purchase a product, he or she must come to believe that this product will help them achieve their goal (which could either be a promotion or prevention goal). For example, someone looking to buy a sports car for its speed and performance might hope to fulfill his promotion goal of advancement, while a retiree investing in stocks and bonds to sustain wealth, or a parent in the market for a safe car for her teenager, might be looking to satisfy their prevention goal of security. Occasionally, the same product may benefit consumers with different goal orientations. For example, mobile phones may appeal to promotion-focused young people by improving their freedom and opportunities to connect with friends. At the same time, mobile phones may also appeal to prevention-focused parents because the phones can help them keep track of their children and can be particularly useful in emergency situations.

To be effective in their targeting strategy, marketers need to ask themselves: “Do consumers who buy my product do so because it helps them advance themselves, or because it helps them feel more secure?” Once the answer to that question is understood, marketers can consider the presentation method they should use to deliver the most persuasive message.

Step 2: Understand the Presentation Formats at Your Disposal

Although there are many presentation formats that marketers can choose from when creating advertisements and making media decisions, two common presentation formats are locomotion and assessment. A locomotion format gives out information piece by piece rather than all at once, such that the consumer experiences progress in acquiring information—and hence toward attaining the goal. Examples of locomotion formats include the placement of different magazine ads for the same product on successive pages, each page offering new information, or highway billboards placed at regular intervals, each communicating new information for the same product.

Conversely, the assessment format, a more traditional advertising format, gives the consumer—all at once—a full comparison of alternatives with regard to goals, means, and outcomes as a basis for evaluation. Consider a car advertisement that provides comprehensive information about the vehicle and two competing vehicles on one magazine page. Consumers viewing this advertisement may feel that they have all the information necessary to make a good decision.

Step 3: Select a Presentation Format That is Aligned with Your Consumers’ Goal Orientation

How can marketers translate knowledge about a target consumer’s goal orientation into additional sales through more effective advertising? Research findings show that the locomotion format is most persuasive for promotion-focused consumers oriented toward growth and achievement. Promotion-focused consumers react well to advertisements using locomotion because they feel as if they are progressing towards a goal and achieving something. The satisfaction created by this fit is projected onto their overall evaluation of the advertisement and more importantly, onto the brand.

For example, Porsche consumers are likely to be promotion-focused, placing higher value on the sense of advancement the Porsche brand provides (in terms of performance and cachet), than any security benefit associated with the brand. As such, a locomotion format is likely to be more effective for Porsche advertising than an assessment format. Rather than directing the consumer to a single Web page that details all the comparative vehicle data against BMW and Mercedes, Porsche could benefit from giving the consumer the same substantive information but in progressive chunks. One way of doing this would be to first focus on handling, then speed, and then styling. This sequential disclosure of information allows a promotion-focused consumer to feel as though they are making progress while they are viewing the advertisement, and this can enhance their overall affinity for the Porsche brand.

Conversely, Toyota Camry consumers tend to be prevention-focused, valuing the safety, reliability, and security that the car provides more than the car’s handling and performance. As a result, the assessment format is the most appropriate means of advertising communication. Presenting all relevant information at once in a manner that invites comparison gives the prevention-oriented consumer a feeling of security (i.e., a sense that nothing has been left out), and thus, satisfaction. An effective Toyota Camry advertisement could compare the vehicle’s warranty, interior space, and safety features with those of competing brands. By presenting the information all at once, consumers are reassured that they are not missing anything, and their feelings of security are reinforced. This, in turn, results in prevention-focused consumers having a more favorable opinion of the Toyota Camry brand.

Using the wrong presentation format for a given consumer goal orientation can negatively impact a consumer’s brand assessment. Sternthal and Malaviya’s research shows that when promotion-focused consumers are exposed to a message presented in an assessment format, their evaluation of the brand is diminished. In a similar vein, when a prevention-focused consumer is exposed to a locomotion presentation, their affinity for the brand decreases. Marketers, therefore, should align their advertising presentation format with their consumers’ goal orientation in order to enhance brand evaluation and increase the probability of purchase (see Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1: Aligning Advertising Format to Consumer Goal-Orientation

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Conclusion

Many advertisers assume that the information being conveyed in their advertisements is the most critical part of their message to consumers. Although this is certainly important, the manner and timing of how the information is presented is equally significant. This is because different consumers have different goal orientations which determine how they make purchase decisions. By aligning the presentation format of their advertisements with the goal orientations of their consumers, advertisers can ensure that they are maximizing the appeal of their products to their target audience.