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What Makes Consumers Buy? The Art and Science of Persuasion
2015.03.20

A reasoned argument can change minds. But emotion is what drives action.

Yet we are often unaware of the emotional forces that motivate us. We believe we make our decisions rationally, particularly big decisions. We say we’ll list the pros and cons and evaluate them. But do we, really? The decision to purchase a home can be affected by color – or realtors wouldn’t repaint their listed homes in neutrals. Hiring decisions are made based on an emotional connection with a job candidate – and not tangible job performance – far more often than managers realize.

Because we don’t recognize our own emotional motivations, we marketers too often downplay the role of emotion when we ask for action from our customers. 

Research has established several principles of persuasion and marketers have seen them play out in reality. Robert Cialdini’s 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, listed 6 principles, including:

  • Liking. This principle says that we will do something because we like the person (brand) making the request. This principle is what brand-building is all about. Advertisers even measure “brand liking” under the assumption that this is foundational to eventual sales. USA Today rates the top 10 most-liked Super Bowl commercials each year, because advertisers believe that will have an impact on sales. In past years, agencies have even (allegedly) lost clients when their expensive ads have failed to make this list.
  • Scarcity.We assign a higher value to things we perceive as scarce. That’s why we have things like deadlines on sales, limited quantities available, only the first 50 responders may attend and many more urgency drivers like them. This is also part of the appeal of many luxury items.


Artificial scarcity is what has made the diamond industry – particularly the De Beers monopoly – so successful for more than a century. While other commodities have seen price fluctuations over the years, diamond prices have climbed since the Great Depression, even though diamonds themselves are not truly rare.

  • Authority. People generally follow the advice of experts – and sometimes pretend experts. Many of us remember the commercial for Vicks Formula 44 that had a soap opera actor say, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” It worked well enough that Vicks recreated the same ad with a different “doctor” after the first one was convicted of tax evasion in real life.


The other Cialdini principles of persuasion include social proof (why websites will tell you which items for sale are most popular), reciprocity (direct marketers may think of this as the “offer”) and identity (when we have a like-minded connection with the one influencing us). At HackerAgency, we add something we call relativity (a way to compare our brand to the competition) to the list because it gives consumers a shortcut to making a decision.

This is just an overview of what lives under the surface of our conscious thoughts that drive action. A good marketer needs to work with all of these ideas – and a great marketer will test them at every opportunity. If you want more details about these principles, you can see what Kristin Flor and Tom Reid from HackerAgency have to say about it during their session at the Direct-to-Consumer Health Care Marketing Event.