Bill Nichols

18 April 2014

Bill Nichols

015 – 22 April 2014

Hard-wired consumer responses:  Magic of Three Trumps Four Or More

We are hard-wired: especially our consumer responses.  Often more or less automated.  Up to 80% of the time, according to a top psychologist buddy.  So, in most situations, for communicators, it should be a case of press the button, trigger the receiver’s mental ‘software’ and await the outcome.

Should.  If only we know which buttons. And, not least, how intensively to make claims and to persuade.

On intensity, insightful new research (*), based on a sequence of carefully-controlled experiments, confirms what many might guess.   The answer: it’s three, stupid.

For most message-receivers most of the time, three data-points are sufficient to triangulate and infer meaning.  Whether positive or negative.  So only three assertions per press release or three claims per ad.    Stir gently… It’s enough.  Really.

This is crucial evidence for hard-pressed PR execs, advertising copywriters and online scribes wishing to push back on the client’s demands for ever more positive claims.  And sobering for politicians parroting the exact same answer again (and again!).

The Power of Three

Three of course resonates in our culture. It is, for example, the deep structure of rhetoric.  In medieval numerology and theology, three is God and the Trinity.  And nine (3×3) is the number of miracles.

St. Augustine, that great marketer of the early church, offers perhaps the richest insight.  Three, he suggested, in a passable advance draft of the Theory of Reasoned Action which has dominated consumer behaviour thinking over the past 30 years, speaks to and aligns the three parts of the human being.  That is, mind (attitude), spirit (normative beliefs) and will (motivation).

Selling, Unselling and ‘Persuasion Knowledge’

But if we abuse this magic?  Beyond three positive messages in a marketer-controlled persuasion setting, four or more triggers the receiver’s scepticism.  His defences kick-in.  In the jargon, you run his ‘persuasion knowledge’ software.  Like the anti-virus on your laptop, it functions as a coping strategy.  It mediates, and may negate, initial acceptance.

Make sense?  As every great salesman knows, at a certain point, the more you push, justify and promote, the more you ‘un-sell’.  Or, as every wise consultancy head knows, the more times you re-write that client proposal, the less likely you are to win.

Risks and Rewards of Social Media

Further, in an age in which we increasingly consume news by aggregating narrative across multiple-platforms, simple repetition is high risk. The over-zealous marketer who transmits the same message in the same format across multiple social platforms (say Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) triggers defences.  As the research authors note, “small changes in message design can have profound effects on message effectiveness”.

But there is good news too.  Information in a non-persuasion setting (e.g. customer chat, reviews and likes on social media) does not trigger the defence.  It adds authenticity.  That is the reward of social media.

Managing the Message: Beware the Fourth

Over past decades, communicators have learnt much about message management.  They know about the power of source credibility.  The importance of aligning presentation to audience.  The contextual potency of e.g. price signals, message framing and message sequencing.  And the subliminal effects of environment.

Now add, if you like a posh phrase, the ‘theory of inference sufficiency’.  Or if you prefer, the ‘power of three’.

Three only!  Beware the fourth proposition and do not un-sell.  Whether you pitch a story, proposal or new product, close quickly and close early.  Hard wire those consumer responses.


(*) Shu, S.B., and Carlson, K.A. (2014), Why Three Charms But Four Alarms: Identifying the Optimal Number of Claims in Persuasion Settings.  Journal of Marketing 78 (1).  

Bill Nichols

4 January 2014

Bill Nichols

011 – January 2014

Bye Bye Scepticism: How and Why CSR Communications Works

If the PR world has an equivalent of the UK’s PPI mis-selling scandal, it is surely the CSR-based communications campaign.   .

Note, this isn’t scepticism about underlying policy or philosophy.  Heavyweights on either side – e.g. Forbes (for) and WSJ (against) – continue to debate.  Companies may, or may not, have a social responsibility.  But, motivation aside, behaviour indicates value.  90% of Fortune 500 companies have explicit CSR objectives.  Half issue specific CSR reports1.  Even two-thirds of crusty CFOs see return, says McKinsey.

But it is serious scepticism about the current value of CSR presentation investment.   All too often CSR campaigns appear worthy and unfocused.  Just-in-case insurance policies, they ‘tick’ the politically- correct compliance ‘box’.  Yet how they work – or to what intended hard business outcome (if any) -remains unclear.

But the research case for the value of strategic planned CSR communication really is building.  And, as Keynes supposedly said, “when the facts change…”  Here’s how.

Evidence and Engagement

The B2C research ‘jury’ is already long-term supportive.  Active CSR promotion drives positive brand and product evaluations.  It also increases both satisfaction and loyalty2.

Now new US research3 is surprisingly positive about B2B.  For corporate comms professionals, it offers a practical evidenced prescription.

As a necessary preliminary, the new work distinguishes two forms of CSR engagement for B2B:

  • Business practice (BP) CSR focuses on e.g. employees and customers: think brand     sponsorship or cause-related product marketing.
  • Philanthropic (PH) CSR addresses e.g. community and third-sector: think community volunteering, social marketing or corporate charitable contributions.

BP CSR and Trust

In the B2B context, BP delivers trust and (ultimately) enhanced loyalty.  The BP toolkit is particularly powerful, the research finds, in three specific scenarios:

  • Compensating high market uncertainty or turbulence
  • Supporting/shifting product perceptions
  • Offsetting infrequent customer engagement and shallow relationships.

How and why does it work?   BP is practical or ‘instrumental.  Grounded in classic social exchange theory, it’s based on competitive ‘survival’ drivers and highlights concrete actions. This is active stakeholder marketing in which something is clearly ‘traded’.  And the acquired strong CSR reputation signals trustworthiness.

PH CSR and Belonging

But now posit situations where trust is necessary but not sufficient.  Where, say:

  • Competitive market intensity is high
  • Or the customer itself reveals a strong CSR orientation.

If your task is to create a strong association – or ‘belongingness’ – then, prompts the research, switch to the PH toolkit.

How and why?  PH activities are soft: expressive, emotional, even ‘warm and fuzzy’.  They  signal the societal or ethical.  Their outcomes are human welfare and goodwill.  They drive measurable customer identification.

So let’s leave philosophy and political correctness to others.  Even this long-term sceptic concurs: as a communications toolkit, it seems to work.  Embrace it!


Hope you enjoyed the latest blog.  Thanks for reading and do please comment.  For earlier and regular updates join me on Astrophel for publications and blog or on Linkedin and Twitter.  

(1) Luo and Bhattacharya (2009), Journal of Marketing, 73 (6) 198-213.  (2) Bhattacharya and Sen (2003), Journal of Marketing, 67 (2) 76-88. (3) Homburg, Stierl and Bornemann (2013), Journal of Marketing, 77 (6) 54-72.


Bill Nichols

16 December 2011

Bill Nichols

One More Time: Authenticity vs Perception – Which Rules in PR?

001-November 2012

For product marketers, the ‘proof of the pudding’ is key. Truth, they assert, will out. Only once can you sell someone a dodgy motor, shoddy clothing or, yes, a bundle of subprime mortgages. Commit to consistent high quality every time everywhere and it will deliver brand loyalty and positive reputation.

“Ah yes, but”, respond the communicators, “perception is king.” They will argue that it’s what people believe that counts. With the right messages, positioning and narrative, blue can be red, up down and hot cold. You can paint Obama as a rabid socialist, Romney as a 21st-century Gradgrind and shove any mediocre also-ran product into the limelight. Continue reading