Using confirmation bias in your marketing

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People tend to find evidence to support their existing beliefs, and ignore
evidence that goes against them

June 17, 2011

Recently my wife and I embarked on a cross-country trip in a silver Chevrolet 15-passenger van with our six lovely children.
On our first night out we stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. They have created what they call the “Simply Smart” guest bathroom, which includes a great showerhead, a shower curtain that gives you more wiggle room, big comfy towels, and nifty little bottles of shampoo, conditioner and other accoutrements.
The centerpiece of this amazing experience, according to the sign, was the Stay Smart Showerhead by Kohler. Not only does it feature “sleek, stylish brushed chrome finish, three powerful spray settings, and a unique pressure compensating flow regulator that automatically adjusts to keep water pressure strong and steady,” it also, apparently, makes you smarter.
Once we checked into the room, I eagerly rushed into the bathroom to see what all the hullabaloo was about. Sure enough, inside the curved shower curtain bar; there, in all of its glorious splendor, the Holy Grail of all hotel showerdom—the Stay Smart Showerhead. It was undeniably sleek and stylish—and big. It appeared to be a regular sized showerhead tucked inside an oversized hood—not unlike the Australian frilled neck lizard that puffs its neck out like a parachute to make itself appear much bigger and more important than it actually is.
Intrigued, I immediately found myself staring in the face of a major dilemma—after a long day’s drive with all the kids, which of the three gourmet-sounding spray settings should I choose: relaxing, revitalizing, or invigorating? Each choice was alluring—so I sampled each one and ultimately settled in on revitalizing. Then I used the shampoo and conditioner and found, like the Web site says, it indeed “may cause inventive ideas to flourish.” After a revitalizing four-minute shower, I ensconced myself in the luxury of an oversized, 100 percent cotton towel. Indeed, an exhilarating shower experience if there ever was one.
How does this all relate to your marketing?
This marketing campaign works on a principle called confirmation bias, which means that people tend to find evidence to support their existing beliefs, and ignore evidence that goes against them or at least find excuses to rationalize them away.
Confirmation bias is what causes parents to ignore the fact that their derelict teenager drinks beer  and focus in on the fact that their little angel attends church every week. If you’re convinced that vitamins make you feel better, you’re going to feel better when you take them—and you’ll feel bad when you don’t.
Here’s what’s interesting: in business, you can set your prospects’ beliefs for them, then supply them with the evidence to support those beliefs. That’s what Holiday Inn Express does. They tell you their showerhead is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then when you actually get in the shower, you not only notice the showerhead (when under normal conditions, it would go completely and utterly unnoticed), you also interpret the evidence (large size, gourmet sounding settings, high pressure) as proof that it is indeed great. You notice it and you like it.
So here’s what you should do: Point to a “showerhead” in your business or something that’s at least semi-fabulous. Figure out what it is and point like crazy. Then customers and prospects will begin to believe that it really is great, and find evidence to support that it’s everything you’ve made it out to be. To make this work, it’s requisite that whatever you’re pointing at is fairly impressive. What if I hopped in the super shower—after all the hype on the signs—only to find a dinky, calcium encrusted showerhead with no water pressure? Kinda ruins the effect.
Let me give you two real-world examples of this principle at play in marketing. The first comes from the early 1900s from advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins.
Hopkins visited the Schlitz manufacturing plant where he was shown the beer making process. The water for the Schlitz plant came from 4,000-foot deep artesian wells, which guaranteed its purity. Special wood pulp filters took out all the impurities of the brewed liquid. Special rooms were filled with filtered air so that the beer could be cooled without impurities. Pumps and pipes were cleaned twice daily to avoid contamination. The glass beer bottles were even steam cleaned four times before being used.
Hopkins was fascinated by both the complexity and quality standards of the whole process. He asked the Schlitz executives why they didn’t tell people about all these things they did to make their beer so pure. The Schlitz executives—decidedly unimpressed with their own processes—replied that they didn’t think it was important because every beer manufacturer made beer the same way.
Hopkins countered, “Yes, but the others have never told this story,” and went on to create an advertising campaign that explained every step Schlitz took to make their beer so pure. The brand went from fifth place in the market to tied for first in less than a year.
The next example of confirmation bias comes from the roofing industry. One of the biggest challenges facing good roofing companies is the bad reputation of the industry as a whole. People don’t know how to judge a good roofing company from a lousy one, and as a result, many people tend to be skeptical of all roofers. To combat this, we put together a program called the “Code of Ethics and Competency For Roofers” and delineated all the things that a consumer should look for in a good roofer.
In marketing, victory goes to the one with superior forces at the point of contact. So for the roofer, the first place we put information about their “Code of Ethics” was in its yellow pages ads, Web site and pay-per-click campaign. Next, we put together a 24-page printed report that detailed each of the points of the code. The report was sent to all prospects before showing up to their home for the sales meeting.
Just like Holiday Inn Express with their fancy showerheads and curved shower curtain bars, this roofing company started pointing at all of the things that they did well. Prospects started to notice and believe them. It’s a simple execution of cognitive confirmation bias.
The prospects started to notice that each roofer had a photo ID name badge with a certification level on it—because we told them to look for it. They started to notice that the jobsite was cleaned up on a daily basis—because we showed them our daily 12-point jobsite cleanup roster. They noticed that salesmen weren’t pushy and overbearing because the company produced a signed document that promised they wouldn’t do that. They started to notice that the workers did not use foul language, pee in the bushes, or play their music too loud—because we showed them the personal conduct agreement that each worker signed as a condition of employment.
So what happened? Here’s a comment from the owner of the company talking about the results of the project:
“My sales manager now commonly greeted on the first call in a friendlier way… sometimes in a ‘relieved’ sort of way—the customer says they feel like they have someone they can trust. They actually talk about our marketing when they call, and in person—it’s really amazing! Customers regularly tell us that we’re by far the most professional company they’ve seen. It feels good. Everyone in the company has a new focus and can feel the positive momentum of this since we started the marketing.”
All that might just sound like your garden-variety testimonial letter. But look a little closer—and you’ll see the important part. The roofing company isn’t doing anything any differently than they did before. They always cleaned up after jobs, treated their customers with respect, had a good reputation, were financially stable, and everything else that they were now touting in their marketing.
Last footnote on the roofing company. An unexpected benefit of their using the marketing program invoking the power of cognitive confirmation bias was the precipitous drop in customer complaints. Complaints went down by a whopping 88 percent. Again, realize, that the company had not changed the way they did business. They just changed their customers’ perception of them.

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