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Do your customers believe you?

Do your customers believe you?

11 December 2014 Written by By Yasushi Kusume Innovation and Creative Manager – IKEA

Designer Yasushi Kusume has helped lead design and brand management for the likes of Philips and Electrolux. He has also co-written Brand Romance, a guide to building a loved brand – here he shares his essential guide to making customers believe in your brand.

Is it important to be believed?

How many times have you sat in a marketing communications meeting and heard the phrase, ‘We need to create a believable story for our customers’? Probably many, many times, since the goal of marketing communications is to make customers believe your story and pick your product. And if you’re a designer (in all fields such as product, communication, interaction), it’s most likely a specific requirement of any brief you’ve ever been given.

Over the years, phrases such as ‘reason to believe’ have become standard marketing jargon. They most likely appear in your value proposition template. (I’m assuming that most companies nowadays possess such a template: one describing the proposition that captures the essence of its proposition, the factor that makes it unique.) It’s confirmation, I believe, that the creation of a ‘believable story’ for a targeted audience is a key focus for both marketing and marketing communications.

I’d say, in fact, that anyone working in either marketing communications or design would agree with me that making people believe your story is the eternal challenge facing both professions.

Is it difficult to make people believe you?

In his article, How Mental Systems Believe, psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert developed a theory – with the aid of a number of related historical studies - about the mental processes involved in believing and disbelieving. He observed that people are especially prone to accepting as true the things they hear and see, and explained the mechanism behind such thinking as follows. He wrote that people’s understanding of what they hear and see begins with an inclination to believe it. He then noted that ‘the acceptance of an idea is part of the automatic comprehension of that idea, and the rejection of the idea occurs subsequent to, and more effortfully than, its acceptance.’ In other words, when people understand something, they automatically take it be true. Any decision to disbelieve would only occur as a second step. He also pointed out that, ‘people are particularly poor at ignoring, forgetting, rejecting or otherwise failing to believe that which they have comprehended’.

Now, for anyone in the fields of marketing communication and design, this is a wonderful piece of information. According to Gilbert, when people comprehend your message, they automatically believe you! 

So why, if this is true, are we all always struggling to create a message that will make our audiences believe us?

How do people decide to buy?

In most cases, people base their decision to buy on communication materials: everything from advertising - in all media - to websites, social media, point-of-sale displays, packaging, and the product's appearance. They seldom try it out first, or examine its content or the service it offers. There are exceptions of course, such as test-driving a car, or using software for a trial period, or tasting free samples in supermarkets. (This last is, by the way, a very popular approach in Japan, and for those of you planning a holiday in Tokyo, here’s a travel tip: Take a walk around the food section of any major department stores for a free and tasty lunch). However, these are exceptions. For the most part, people purchase products and services after judging the communications materials about them. Why is this?

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman referred to ‘WYSIATI’ behaviour. WYSIATI stands for ‘What You See Is All There Is’ and refers to the fact that we often make intuitive decisions without caring about the quantity, or quality, of the information we use to do so. When we purchase a product in a supermarket for example, we are content to base our selection only on the packaging. While this may be understandable, it’s notable that we do so without feeling strange about it. 

Humans, though, are excellent at creating - quickly and automatically - associative meanings from random words, events or objects. Such ‘associative activation’ is almost effortless for us. Take, for example, a trip to the supermarket to buy a product many people use regularly: cooking oil. When consumers reach the shelf on the aisle where the bottles are stacked, they see the graphical elements they associate with cooking oil: a photograph on a label or the shape of a bottle (sometimes the only information available). It is those elements that create the association with the specific value of the oil (such as premium, organic, ecological, high quality, etc) its producer wants to communicate. And once a specific value has been associated with the packaging, people will automatically also associate it with the contents. This is what Kahneman meant when he wrote, ‘the operation of associative memory contributes to a general confirmation bias.’ (This phenomenon has also been described as the ‘Halo Effect’.) In other words, if your packaging says ‘high quality’, people will assume the contents are also ‘high quality’.

I should emphasise here that people look for associative meanings quickly and automatically. They do it intuitively. Which also means that it's not possible to stop without a conscious decision to do so. It’s more than likely an ability built up since our earliest days on the planet, since humans able to reduce the probability of risk – learning the times and places where dangerous creatures prowled and avoiding them, for example – had a higher chance of survival than those who took no notice of their surroundings. 

Do people always make automatic, intuitive decisions?

So, do people make an automatic, intuitive decision to buy your product, or do they think about it first? Based on my own findings about purchasing decisions, I’d like to offer the following hypothesis:

People see your brand and product offers in the market. WYSIAT helps them understand what they see. It also aids the cognitive ease with which they accept all the marketing communications as true. And everything is done intuitively and automatically.

The question that arises though, is this: is such a hypothesis applicable to all product areas? For example, you might say, ‘Yes, people in a supermarket make quick and automatic decisions about low cost industrial categories such as dairy products, but they don’t when it comes to more expensive categories.’ I’d respond by agreeing that there must indeed be some differences in people’s intuitive behaviours and reactions, but I’d then ask whether it was based only on price.

I believe that people’s behaviours and reactions alter between single and joint evaluations. Research has shown that people make more rational judgments when faced with broader, more comprehensive offerings. Having to evaluate more than one offering necessarily calls for more effort and, by extension, a more rational thought process.

What I would propose, therefore, is that when people purchase a brand and/or a proposition that is unique and distinctive in the market, their thought process is more intuitive and automatic. In other words, their decision is often a reflection of, and influenced by, the intensity of their emotional response to the product. (Brands and propositions boasting a ‘disruptive’ - and eye-catching - innovation in their design often benefit from this.) Yet when faced by a product in a 'saturated' market category with marginal competitive differences, people tend to take a more rational approach and compare all available offers. Increased market competitors offer broader and more comprehensive frames for a rational decision-making process.

This proposal would help to explain people’s attitudes to a brand such as Apple. Although I have no statistics to back up my opinion, I can well imagine that the majority of people who buy Apple products do so without comparing them to other brand offers in the market. They have already made up their mind intuitively and automatically, and most probably the majority of them believe fully in the brand.

Taking the idea further, I would suggest that all of the premium/luxury ‘Lifestyle’ brands - in whatever category they occur - are fully aware of this: their business model is based on a thorough understanding of their customer's intuitive and emotional values.

But, and here I return the original question posed by this article, how can you make a story believable, especially if you are a player in competitive and saturated market category?

Are you maximising your resources?

In his book Growth Hacker Marketing, Ryan Holiday described several unconventional communication approaches applied by various start-up companies. He explained that since these companies preferred to focus the majority of their resources on creating better product offers, their communications approaches needed to be highly creative and effective. 

This observation isn’t just relevant for start-ups. It also applies to each and every company since, regardless of their size and maturity, resources are by definition always limited. Note that I am not arguing the value of marketing communications here; it’s essential to communicate effectively about all your products. What I am doing is asking you to consider how you prioritise and, therefore, distribute your ‘limited’ resources. How do you cover both the creation of your products and the marketing communications that tell customers about them?

Of course, one way to resolve the challenges to your resources is by reprioritising your business or portfolios – for example, reducing your diversity. But while I don’t oppose removing any unnecessary diversity from your portfolio, I have another suggestion for you: Why not maximise your available design resources? 

I say this because it’s a sad fact that design is still often seen as no more than the adding of a style at the conclusion of the business process. However, as Brand Romance argued, one of the things design can do - and do well - is create a strong emotional bond between brand and audiences. So if you have not yet maximised the value of the design resources in your organisation, I would most strongly urge you to do so. This is because design can articulate foresights and insights into tangible hypothetical concepts and help you find the most meaningful, relevant, unique and distinctive offers for users. Based on a deep understanding of people, culture, and societies, it can articulate a meaningful appearance and interaction with all your product's touchpoints. It can contribute both to the creation of your products and the marketing communications.

It’s my belief that the main priority of every company should be the creation of meaningful, relevant, unique and distinctive offers. Therefore, the main purpose of your marketing communications is to communicate - as authentically and effectively as possible - the availability and uniqueness of your offers. And by unlocking the full value of design, you can build a trustworthy, loving and long-lasting relationship with your audiences.

If you manage to do both then, as I hope I have explained in this article, people will believe you when they comprehend your message.


•    Brand Romance, Yasushi Kusume and Neil Gridley, Palgrave Macmillan, November 2013.

•    Cognition and the Visual Arts, Robert L. Solso, MIT Press, September 1996.

•    Cultural Anthropology Tutorials website by Dr Dennis O’Neil

•    Growth Hacker Marketing, Ryan Holiday, Profile Books, September 2013. 

•    How Mental Systems Believe, Daniel T. Gilbert, American Psychologist Vol. 46, No2, February 1991.

•    The Lean Startup, Eric Ries, Crown Business, September 2011.

•    Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

•    Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, Penguin, 2011.

•    Listen-Learn-Respond, Philips Design, 2004. (The concept of Listen-Learn-Respond was developed and applied in 2004 by members of the Philips Design’s communication design competence, under the leadership of Mark Churchman.) 


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