Podcast: Get Inside Your Customer’s Mind
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Dec 21, 2023

Podcast: Get Inside Your Customer’s Mind

On this episode of The Insightful Leader: how understanding consumer mindsets can help you make the sale.

Based on the research and insights of

Angela Y. Lee

Listening: Get Inside Your Customer’s Mind
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Angela Lee has a psychological bag of tricks for selling your product to customers.

Central to the marketing professor’s approach is knowing the consumer’s mindset, which is how one interacts with the world: someone who fears disastrous outcomes might be drawn to messaging about a product’s safety, whereas someone who craves a feel-good future would be attracted to products that tout their more exciting features.

“In the case of the Tesla, marketers can appeal to both the promotion mindset by hyping up the acceleration and infotainment, but they can also say to the prevention mindset, ‘hey, this is a low-maintenance vehicle in comparison to one with a gas engine’ or ‘all the cameras on this car help you avoid collisions on the highway.’”

In this episode of The Insightful Leader, we examine several consumer mindsets and how to align your messaging with them.

Podcast Transcript

Laura PAVIN: Welcome to The Insightful Leader, I’m Laura Pavin. Marketing: it’s essential to a successful business, but it often feels like something of a dark art. What is it about an ad or campaign that makes a customer decide to buy what you’re selling? Now, there’s tons of research focused on understanding your customer’s needs, like the problem they are looking to solve, what they look for in a given product category, what prices they expect, things like that.

PAVIN: But Angela Lee likes to go a bit … deeper. She’s a professor of marketing at Kellogg who studies consumer psychology. She recently gave a talk as part of our Insightful Leader Live series, and here to give us the lowdown on what she shared is editor in chief, Jess Love. What’s up, Jess?

Jess LOVE: Hey Laura, how’s it going?

PAVIN: Going well. So Jess, you recently hosted this talk that Angela Lee gave. So what did she want to cover?

LOVE: Yeah, so as you said in your intro, Lee studies consumer psychology. And she’s particularly interested in getting inside a customer’s mindset. She thinks this provides information that’s really useful for crafting messages that are likely to resonate with them.

PAVIN: Okay, I hear the word mindset used pretty frequently, especially at an institution of higher education. You know: growth mindset, fixed mindset—is that what she’s talking about?

LOVE: Totally, those are great examples of what she wanted to discuss. But just to get us all on the same page, she did give what I think is a helpful general definition of mindset.

Angela LEE: It is a habitual mental state that determines how you interpret and respond to situations. It’s about how you’re thinking about the situation or current information that is coming to you. And that influences how you then take the next step.

PAVIN: Got it. So, depending on my particular mindset, I might respond to situations differently.

LOVE: Exactly. Now, professor Lee explained a number of different things about mindsets that should be relevant for marketers. Because guess what? It’s relevant for marketers. And today I’ll walk you through some of them: what they are, why we have them, and why marketers should care.

The first point that she made was that mindsets can sometimes be “induced.” So, for example, there’s a study that looked at the impact of having a comparison mindset. What the researchers did was ask one group of people to answer a series of questions.

LEE: For example, “which flies faster, dragonflies or butterflies?” So you make a decision of which one is faster. The next question may be, “well, which one is bigger, the rhino or the monkey?”

PAVIN: Sounds like a game I would play with my kids. Love it.

LOVE: Yes they’re somewhat simple questions, but they get us thinking in a surprising way. So after all these questions, the researchers say, “okay, let’s go shopping” and ask these same people how interested they are in buying some chocolates.

LEE: And what the researchers found is that those who engaged in making comparisons were more likely to purchase one of the chocolates that were presented to them.

PAVIN: Wait, what? They did all these simple comparisons, and now they’re more likely to buy chocolate? How does that work?

LOVE: Well, according to the study, the people in the comparison group were pushed into a comparison mindset, and that can cause them to be a little more likely to make a purchase.

LEE: That is because usually when we make a purchase decision, we first think about “should I buy or not?” If we decide to buy some chocolates, the next thing we do is think, “well, which chocolate should I buy? Should I go with Harry and David, or Ferrero Rocher, or Godiva?” Now, when people are put into a comparison mindset, what happens is they’re very used to making choices. So when they were presented with an array of different options, chocolate in this case, they have already skipped the step of “should I buy chocolate or not?”

PAVIN: Oh, so it’s like if I’m already making a series of choices or comparisons, now you present me with something like chocolate, my mind already assumes I’m going to choose one of the options.

LOVE: Right, you’ve skipped right through the step of whether or not to buy and are primed to just make a choice of some kind. And what’s interesting is there are a number of mindsets that work kind of like this. So, in another experiment, students were asked if they agreed with statements like “reading is good for the brain” or “the university shouldn’t raise tuition.”

PAVIN: Okay, assuming that most of them said they agreed with those.

LOVE: Correct. Then, afterward, they were asked whether certain vacation destinations were desirable. And those in that “agreeing” group rated a vacation more desirable than a control group—and a LOT more than people put into a “disagreeing” mindset.

PAVIN: Wow, that is fascinating—and also a little strange that our minds can be so easily persuaded like this.

LOVE: It’s definitely strange to think about. But Angela does say that these mindsets are temporary. They really are more like nudges in one direction or another.

PAVIN: And how does this help marketers or companies?

LOVE: Well, these sorts of mindsets are probably most relevant to marketers in a retail setting: somewhere a customer would make a purchase. So you’re probably not going to ask your customers to compare animals, but a banner who asks customers to choose between two gift options or two outfits might be able to nudge your customer into making a purchase they would otherwise be on the fence about.

But there are implications in other settings, too. So as marketers pitch their products, they would be smart to steer clear of programs or contexts—or even controversial news stories—where consumers are likely to disagree with the content.

PAVIN: Got it. Makes sense. So what else do we know about mindsets?

LOVE: Well, not all mindsets are transitory like this. Some can also be more permanent or “chronic,” as Lee puts it. And the reason for that is because they’re rooted in our fundamental needs. So you may be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs …

PAVIN: Mmmm…? Refresh my memory.

LOVE: It’s covered in every Intro to Psychology course. Basically, this scholar—his name is Abraham Maslow—he came up with this tiered structure of needs that are universal across cultures. This is often represented by a triangle, where at the base you have physiological needs, like food and shelter or safety and security, and higher up are things like a sense of belonging or self-actualization.

PAVIN: This is coming back to me now. And part of the idea is that you need to satisfy the lower-level, physiological needs, in order to have the others.

LOVE: Right. If you don’t have water or you’re living in fear, not a whole lot else matters. Now what Lee points out is that even when we’ve satisfied those most basic needs, we’re still driven by them in some way.

LEE: These basic fundamental needs never really leave us. Even though we do have a roof over our heads and we do have food on the table, the need to feel nurtured, to grow, and the need to feel safe and have security … never leaves us and gives rise to two different mindsets.

LOVE: Lee calls these two mindsets promotion and prevention. And these are basically inverses of each other. So someone with more of a promotion mindset is drawn to positive outcomes. They focus on what could be gained in the future: hopes, dreams, aspirations. Whereas someone with a prevention mindset focuses more on avoiding negative outcomes. They dwell on the here and now, and tend to seek out physical, psychological, or financial safety.

PAVIN: Okay, that makes sense. Promotion mindset: I’m focused on getting the delicious food that will nurture me. Prevention mindset: I don’t want to leave my cave and potentially get eaten by a lion or something.

LOVE: Exactly, and we all adopt these mindsets, right? But based on your disposition, or maybe your upbringing or cultural background, you might lean more toward having either a promotion or a prevention mindset.

PAVIN: So what do these mindsets have to do with marketing?

LOVE: Well, knowing that we are driven by one or another of these mindsets, marketers can tailor how they frame a product. So, for example, I want you to imagine two brand new Tesla sports cars, one gray and one bright red.

PAVIN: Alright, I’ve got two Model Ys in my head driving down an open road.

LOVE: Excellent. So Laura, if I asked you “between promotion or prevention mindsets, which is more likely to buy which car,” what would you say?

PAVIN: Hmm, I think I’d say that the promotion mindset would go for red. It looks faster, sexier, and they’re going to care more about that stuff. A prevention mindset is going to think red looks too risky, like you’ll definitely get a ticket.

LEE: My answer is that we don’t know, because both maybe would find this car appealing. Now you may think that, “well, those with a promotion mindset may be more into having fun, so they’ll go with the red color, and the prevention mindset consumers may actually go for the gray color.” But if you actually know a little bit more about resale value, you would know that the red car holds onto the resale value a lot more than the gray car. And so if you’re in the prevention mindset, you may want to hold onto resale value—then you may choose the red car.

PAVIN: Ah, so it was a trick question!

LOVE: It was, sorry about that. But I think this point is really important because it goes to show that utilizing mindsets comes down to messaging. In the case of the Tesla, marketers can appeal to both the promotion mindset by hyping up the acceleration and infotainment, but they can also say to the prevention mindset “hey, this is a low-maintenance vehicle in comparison to one with a gas engine,” or “all the cameras on this car help you avoid collisions on the highway.”

PAVIN: Got it, so you can try to match the messaging to the mindset.

LOVE: Exactly. But there is one final wrinkle we should discuss about that, because the way that you match mindset and message matters. So going back to the promotion and prevention mindsets for a second: Lee and her team dug into these a bit deeper, and they discovered something really interesting.

LEE: What we have found is people with an independent self view are more likely to have a promotion mindset. And those who have an interdependent self view are more likely to have a prevention mindset.

PAVIN: Oh, so how individualistic you are determines which one of these mindsets is more dominant in your personality?

LOVE: In general, yeah. This is important because some cultures tend to be more independent or interdependent than others, which means messaging strategies should be different around the world.

But even within a culture, Lee and her team have shown this insight has important implications, this time in the context of public-health messaging. So in a study they did back during the early days of the pandemic, they looked into the most effective way to tell people to stay home. So they showed participants four different slogans.

LEE: “Keep you safe from the coronavirus or keep America safe from the coronavirus. Help you stay healthy or help America stay healthy.”

LOVE: And what they found was consistent with what we know about independent versus interdependent self views.

LEE: When it is “keeping safe,” keeping America safe is definitely more persuasive. And “helping you stay healthy” is more effective than “helping America stay healthy.”

PAVIN: I see, because keeping America safe is a prevention mindset. We’re avoiding something bad. Whereas staying healthy is more like promoting my individual health.

LOVE: That’s right.

PAVIN: Fascinating. Well this has all been quite informative and is definitely going to make me watch ads differently. But I do have one question. With all these examples, it’s been about individual consumers, but there are plenty of marketers out there who are selling products to businesses. Does Lee have any advice for those folks?

LOVE: It’s a great question, but Lee says that the advice is pretty similar, because even when you’re selling to a business client, it’s still a person who is making the decision of whether to buy your product. And that person is still going to have a prevention or promotion mindset.

LEE: You can definitely go to a potential partner and say, “let’s go and conquer the world and corner the market,” right? That is a growth mindset and that will work if you’re talking to someone who has a promotion mindset. As opposed to someone who is kind of conservative, and they may be more prevention oriented. So instead of saying “we’re gonna corner the market,” you say “well, we won’t fall behind the market, and this is a great hedging opportunity.”

LOVE: So once again, it comes down to assessing what message will work for that individual decision-maker.

PAVIN: Wow, these mindsets are so intriguing. Well Jess, thanks as always for the wonderful breakdown.

LOVE: Of course, happy to do it.

PAVIN: This episode of The Insightful Leader was written by Andrew Meriwether. It was produced and edited by Laura Pavin, Jessica Love, Susie Allen, Fred Schmalz, Maja Kos, and Blake Goble. It was mixed by Andrew Meriwether. Special thanks to Angela Lee. Want more The Insightful Leader episodes? You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back in the new year with more episodes of The Insightful Leader Podcast.

Featured Faculty

Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing; Faculty Director, Golub Capital Social Impact Lab

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