Effectively Leveraging Cognitive Dissonance in Marketing and Sales

Social Psychologist Leon Festinger Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance in Marketing and Sales

How we can craft messages and strategies that carefully induce and resolve dissonance, guiding consumers toward desired outcomes

By
Bastian Moritz
Feb 2024
Update
Min

Most of us have felt this aspect of psychological coherence, where we fell at unease when our actions don’t stay coherent with our previous actions or verbal declarations.

For instance, if we value sustainably produced and seasonal food and have decided to buy more products directly from local farmers, but then often catch ourselves ordering from delivery services or reaching for industrially processed foods in the supermarket. Especially during those particularly stressful work weeks, we then also don't have time for shopping at the farmers' market or cooking with fresh ingredients. This directly contradicts our beliefs and the image we have of ourselves as health-conscious and environmentally friendly individuals. This contradiction leads to cognitive dissonance, an internal tension that we experience as discomfort and guilt. The conflict arises because: • We see ourselves as someone who values health and sustainability. • Yet, our actual eating habits do not match this self-image. Cognitive dissonance not only affects our self-image but can also negatively impact our motivation and well-being. Awareness of this conflict and the associated negative feelings can lead us to seek ways to resolve this internal conflict and better align our actions with our beliefs. We are on the lookout for a solution. Open to a solution. As marketers and salespeople, we know: this is the best opportunity! Potential customers who are on the journey, who are "in the market," are real, hot leads. People whom we can help make their lives a bit better thanks to our solution. How this can look in the case of our example will be discussed in the case study "Dissonance and Coherence in a Go-to-Market Campaign".

What is the psychology behind it?

What is going on there?

What we experience here is what psychology calls cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

We all carry beliefs, ideas, or values.

And then life happens in all its richness and every day anew.

Cognitive dissonance is this mental discomfort experienced by a person

  • who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time,
  • or who performs an action that contradicts existing beliefs, ideas, or values,
  • or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

Let's break this down a bit more to understand it deeply.

The concept of cognitive dissonance was introduced by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s.

Festinger's theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).

This is the essence of psychological coherence we mentioned I the beginning: We naturally seek consistency in our beliefs and perceptions.

When there is an inconsistency (cognitive dissonance), people experience mental discomfort.

This discomfort leads to an alteration in one of the inconsistent elements to reduce the dissonance.

In other words, when we find ourselves doing something that contradicts our thoughts or beliefs, we tend to resolve the contradiction in a way that reduces our discomfort.

There are several ways we might address cognitive dissonance:

  1. Changing beliefs, attitudes, or behaviorsThis is the most straightforward way to reduce dissonance. If you believe smoking is bad for your health but you smoke, quitting smoking can resolve the dissonance.
  2. Justifying by changing the conflicting cognition
    If quitting smoking isn't an option, you might justify your behavior by downplaying the health risks associated with smoking.
  3. Justifying by adding new cognitions
    You could also add new thoughts or beliefs that complement the behavior, like believing that smoking reduces stress, which is also beneficial to your health.
  4. Ignoring or denying any information that conflicts with existing beliefs.
    This involves refusing to accept information that would increase the dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance plays a huge role in many aspects of human behavior, including decision-making, problem-solving, and social interactions.

It explains why people sometimes act in ways that are not in line with their beliefs or why they might justify irrational decisions after the fact.

This theory is also very relevant in the context of marketing, politics, and education, where understanding how to mitigate or leverage cognitive dissonance can influence behavior and attitudes significantly.

Understanding cognitive dissonance can help us be more compassionate with ourselves and others when we or they hold conflicting beliefs or act in ways that seem inconsistent with their beliefs.

It's a reminder of the complex nature of human psychology and the lengths our brains will go to maintain a sense of consistency and stability.

Now, let's dive deeper into the topic, into the realm of marketing and sales.

How can we make use of that cognitive dissonance? How can we make use of this bias for consistency, or this principle, this drive for consistency in our sales and marketing efforts?

Cognitive Dissonance in Sales and Marketing

The application of cognitive dissonance in marketing and sales taps into the core of consumer behavior and decision-making.

Let’s see how cognitive dissonance can be leveraged in these fields of

Creating a Need (Marketing)

Marketing can induce a mild form of cognitive dissonance by highlighting a gap between the consumer's current state (without the product) and a more desirable state (with the product).

This can create a sense of unease that can only be resolved by purchasing the product, effectively turning wants into needs.

Brand Switching (Marketing)

By creating or highlighting cognitive dissonance regarding a competitor's product—emphasizing shortcomings or ethical issues, for example—marketers can encourage consumers to switch to their brand to resolve this dissonance.

This is often seen in campaigns that contrast a brand's unique selling propositions with the perceived drawbacks of sticking with the current brand.

Post-Purchase Dissonance Reduction (Marketing)

After making a purchase, especially an expensive or high-stakes one, consumers often feel dissonance wondering if they made the right decision.

Marketers can reduce this dissonance by reinforcing the decision's positives. Follow-up emails, supportive advertisements, and customer testimonials can reassure the buyer they made the right choice, fostering brand loyalty and reducing the likelihood of returns.

Consistency and Commitment (Sales)

Sales strategies often leverage the commitment and consistency principle, where once someone commits to something, they are more likely to go through with it to remain consistent.

Salespeople can encourage small commitments early on, like agreeing to a trial or a demo.

Once the customer has taken the first step, they're more likely to continue making consistent choices that align with their initial commitment, leading up to a purchase.

Social Proof and Testimonials (Sales)

Using social proof, like testimonials or user reviews, can generate a form of dissonance in potential customers who haven't purchased yet, especially if they perceive others are enjoying benefits they are missing out on.

This can lead them to make a purchase to resolve the dissonance by aligning their actions with those of their peers.

Challenging Beliefs with New Information (Sales)

In sales, presenting new and compelling information that conflicts with the customer's current beliefs can create cognitive dissonance.

This method should be used carefully to not alienate the customer but rather to guide them gently towards seeing the value of a product or service.

By carefully navigating the conversation, a salesperson can help the customer resolve this dissonance by adjusting their beliefs to accommodate the new information, ideally in a way that favors the product being sold.

Case Study: Dissonance and Coherence in a Go-to-Market Campaign

Let's examine an example that illustrates the use of cognitive dissonance in the context of healthy eating with raw materials directly from the farm. Here, we utilize the principles of consistency and social proof.

The initial situation is as follows: A marketing campaign for a startup that offers a subscription box for fresh, seasonal products directly from local farms aims to encourage consumers to rethink their eating habits and make healthier, more sustainable choices.

Step 1: Creating Awareness and Need

Marketing: The campaign starts with a series of emotionally appealing stories about local farmers who grow high-quality food with love and respect for nature. Through social media and blog posts, consumers are made aware of the discrepancy between current industrial food production and the idyllic, sustainable cultivation on farms.

Cognitive Dissonance: Consumers begin to feel discomfort as their buying behavior (industrially processed food) does not match their growing awareness of health and sustainability.

Step 2: Intensifying the Dissonance

Sales: In the next step, the startup offers free samples or tours of the partner farms. The direct experience with the quality of the products and sustainable farming methods intensifies the dissonance among consumers, who now question their previous purchasing decisions.

Step 3: Offering a Solution

Marketing and Sales: The startup presents its subscription box as the solution to this discomfort. By purchasing the box, consumers can not only improve their diet but also make a direct contribution to environmental protection and support local agriculture.

Cognitive Dissonance: The decision for the subscription box is seen as a coherent step that enables consumers to align their actions with their values and beliefs. This reduces dissonance and promotes a feeling of satisfaction and self-consistency.

Step 4: Consistency and Social Proof

Sustainability of the Decision: Through regular updates, stories from the farms, and recipe ideas on social media, consumers are reinforced in their belief that they have made the right decision. Testimonials and reviews from satisfied subscribers serve as social proof and motivate new consumers to take the same path.

Summary

In this multi-layered example, cognitive dissonance is used to create awareness of the benefits of a healthy diet with raw materials directly from the farm. By offering a direct solution to the perceived discomfort, the startup can motivate consumers to change their habits while simultaneously promoting a sense of satisfaction through coherent actions.

The Key to Effectively Leveraging Cognitive Dissonance

In both marketing and sales, the key to effectively leveraging cognitive dissonance lies in understanding the target audience's values, beliefs, and current states deeply.

By doing so, we can craft messages and strategies that carefully induce and resolve dissonance, guiding consumers toward desired outcomes in a way that feels natural and self-directed.

It's a powerful tool, but it requires finesse and ethical consideration to ensure that it's used to genuinely benefit consumers and build long-term brand loyalty.

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