More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle outlined the three key modes of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. While ethos came from the credibility and ethics of the person or entity presenting an argument, logos focused on the logic and reason used in persuasive rhetoric. But even way back in ancient Greece, Aristotle knew that reputation and rationality could only get you so far when it came time to persuade the public. That’s where pathos—the appeal to the emotions and feelings of an audience—comes into play. A strong persuasive strategy is designed to balance these three rhetorical appeals, but often there is one that will grab the attention of your intended audience more than the other two. Increasingly, the mode of persuasion that produces the longest-lasting impact—including higher rates of brand loyalty, stronger conversion rates in sales, and brand evangelism—is pathos.
Pathos is often a key differentiator between highly similar brands, products, and services competing for similar demographics. For example, Walmart and Target may seem alike on paper, but most people will tell you that Walmart aims to have the lowest prices, while Target is a store with reasonable prices, and, perhaps more importantly, a keen perception of its customers. Where Walmart focuses its marketing on the logic of frugality, Target focuses its efforts on promoting a specific lifestyle or image, one that customers can fulfill and actualize by shopping at Target.
Given the assumption that your brand, product, or service doesn’t chiefly rely on an appeal to logic and reputation (as would likely be the case with technical equipment, logistics services, and manufacturing processes), appealing to the emotions of your customer and learning what makes them feel secure and cared for—and how to satisfy those feelings—is an excellent way to engage your customer. But how do you know if you’re even connecting with them in the first place? The following three questions will help you think about where you are now and how you can get where you want to be.
Where does your brand and marketing strategy start—with an identity or a product?
Does your brand, service, or product start and end with your offering, or does it start with the audience, end user, or customer’s wants and needs? Keeping your target audience at the center of your strategic efforts is key when you want to go to market with an offering that will resonate with that audience. The story of General Mills’ line of Betty Crocker cake mixes provides a successful example of a company that aims to genuinely understand the wants and needs of its customer. General Mills first launched its Betty Crocker cake mixes in 1952 in response to the demand of homemakers who bemoaned the labor-intensive task of baking fresh, homemade cakes for their friends and families. Despite delivering on the promise of having to spend less time creaming butter and sifting flour, Betty Crocker’s cake mixes failed to gain much initial traction in the market. Understandably, the unreceptive response puzzled General Mills. Had they not provided a solution that reduced the midcentury homemaker’s time and labor, the problem the company had been so eager to solve? To find answers, General Mills hired psychological marketing researchers Dr. Burleigh Gardner and Dr. Ernet Dichter to provide an explanation for their mediocre sales. The problem with the mixes, according to Gardner and Dichter, was “that baking a cake was an act of love on the [homemaker’s] part; a cake mix that only needed water cheapened that love."1 In response, General Mills released a new iteration of Betty Crocker cake mixes, but this time the customer needed to add eggs and oil; the ease of use was reduced, but overall time and labor was saved while still “enabling the customer to play [the] social role"2 that had been so important to the consumer. Doing so successfully provided an answer that did not trample the homemaker’s quest for self-actualization of their identity, but rather subtly enhanced the experience in a way that still allowed personal ownership of the solution.
How are you communicating with your audience?
Are you showing or telling your audience about what your brand, service, or product will do for them? Any company can tell you about their water-repellant, luxuriously warm jacket that comes in seven different colors, plainly listing the durable nylon fabrics and specialty zippers like items on a manifest. But the most successful companies will convince you that wearing their jacket will transform you into a wilderness expert that can tackle any snowy peak. Or maybe they’ll show you that wearing their jacket will have you roasting marshmallows over a campfire with your friends and family, creating memories of the great outdoors that you’ll fondly reminisce about for years to come. While technical specifications are important, assume there are at least three other companies offering the same product, more or less, for about the same price you do. To break away from the pack, tell the story of your brand, product, or service in a way that shows buyers that your offering will fulfill the identity your customer fantasizes about. They want more than a jacket; they want a story where they can be the hero.
How do you make your first impression?
On the long and winding path to purchase, there are many opportunities to make a first impression with your customer, and it is that first impression that is often a key factor when it comes time to make a decision. The candy coating of a sleek and shiny brand will ultimately crumble away to reveal hollow disappointment if there isn’t a fantastic experience to back it up. Every piece of communication—billboards, text messages, websites, storefronts, offices, newsletters, packaging, customer-service representatives—is simply a first impression. This means that every type of communication is essential to the favorable outcome of an experience. An example of this happens frequently when diners visit a new restaurant. Maybe the food is excellent and the atmosphere is trendy and inviting, but the service is terrible. More often than not, criticism about the subpar service will travel faster and further than the positive reviews of the food. Similarly, your product and packaging can be stellar, but if your customer has a horrible time receiving their purchase—be it rude employees, slow shipping times, a poorly designed e-commerce website—it can tarnish the entire experience, likely leading to a higher churn rate as customers abandon ship for a competitor that’s selling something similar to your offering but making the experience a whole lot easier and more fulfilling. A great experience gives the customer the perception that they matter to your company as an individual and that they’re worth more than just dollars and cents added to the bottom line.
Thinking about how you engage your customers and making conscious, strategic efforts to positively engage them at every step of their consumer journey is becoming increasingly essential for brands who want to both retain and expand their reach. If you find that logic and reputation are not sufficiently engaging your audience, it’s time to seriously consider how you can emotionally connect to your consumers by inspiring and delighting them. Remember, your target market is not simply customers, users, or clients; it’s people.
Special thanks to Beau Platte for his help with developing content and concepts for this piece.
1. Susan Marks, Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 168.
2. Harry Brignull, “‘Just Add An Egg’—Usability, User Experience and Dramaturgy"