By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Okay, maybe that is a bit much for an opening, but stay with me here, Charles Dickens’s famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, might have more in common with the psychology of modern-day consumers than first meets the eye. Or at least, it might be mildly relatable, especially if you close one eye and squint with the other.

Either way, a study out of the journal Psychology and Marketing suggests that just as the divergent perceptions of Dickens’s characters are deeply intertwined with the cultural norms and values of their respective home cities, the diverging perceptions of modern-day consumers toward a brand’s messages are similarly influenced by their respective psychological distance to the brand itself.

At the heart of these recent findings (and tentative comparisons) is Construal Level Theory (CLT), which proposes that people mentally construe or interpret information at different levels of abstraction, depending on their psychological distance from the associated events, entities, messages, or cities. The core idea behind CLT is that there are two poles of cognitive representation:

  1. Concrete Construal. This level of cognitive construal is associated with things that are geographically, temporally, or psychologically close to the individual (such as one’s home city, an event that is occurring in the present, or a brand with which one is deeply familiar). In these instances, events and information tend to be perceived, categorized, and structured in a concrete, specific, and detail-oriented manner.
  2. Abstract Construal. This level of cognitive construal is associated with things that are geographically, temporally, and psychologically distant to the individual (such as a foreign city, an event set to occur in several years’ time, or a brand with which one is unfamiliar). In these instances, events and information tend to be perceived, categorized, and structured in a more abstract, general, and high-level manner.

Ultimately CLT suggests that the “nearer” we are to something, the more concrete our thoughts about that thing will be, especially in terms of making decisions and organizing our life. While on the other hand, the “further away” something is from us, the more our thoughts, considerations, and perceptions about the thing become abstract and generalized.

To keep the analogy going, let’s say that we have two consumers who have been exposed to a brand’s message. One has an existing strong connection to the brand (their home city so to speak) and the other one has a non-existent or weak connection to the same brand (not their home city). Now, although these two consumers might hear the same message, research suggests that they each will pay attention to, be motivated by, and ultimately be persuaded by different aspects contained within the messaging.

Now, the consumer with a strong connection to the brand (a brand community/“tribe” member) is more likely to focus on and be persuaded by the utilitarian and concrete aspects of the message. For example, the practical, immediate, and tangible benefits that the brand, product, or service can provide them with in their daily lives, such as saving time while running errands, or perhaps increasing their level of convenience while on a road trip or providing a way to achieve their specific goals over an upcoming long weekend. The point is that this strongly connected consumer will tend to focus on and be persuaded by the concrete tangible benefits being offered within the message. This consumer is already familiar with the large-scale aspects of their “home city” so to speak, and instead will automatically tune into the practical aspects that will almost certainly affect their daily life in the near future.

On the other hand, the consumer with a weak connection to the brand (perhaps a first-time or general consumer) is simply not as familiar with this “foreign city” and is subsequently more likely to focus on and be persuaded by the symbolic and abstract parts of the messaging. For example, things like the emotional, aspirational, and/or long-term benefits associated with the brand, product, or service, such as the lowest prices paired with the highest quality, or the mission of bringing happiness to their consumers, or perhaps the implication that it represents an ethos or an idea that is larger than life. The point is that this weakly connected consumer will tend to focus on and be persuaded by the abstract symbolic benefits being offered within the message. Given they are unfamiliar with the cultural norms and values of this “foreign city,” they instinctively tune into the big-picture aspects that help them understand what this brand is all about and how it might impact their life in the long run.

A great example of this symbolic messaging can be found in Chrysler’s ‘Imported From Detroit’ Super Bowl spot. Here they drew in the general consumer by using high-level ideas and cultural values of what their luxury car represents, while specifically avoiding mentioning things like horsepower, or even how many passengers it can hold. Instead, the focus was placed on the symbolism and emotion around their brand and product, and in the process, they both figuratively and literally introduced general consumers to their brand/city.

A great way to ease the transition of consumers from an abstract to a more concrete construal of your brand/product is to offer a free trial, such as one week free at the gym, or a promotional giveaway like Rita’s tradition of giving away free Italian ice on the first day of Spring each year. Even things like university tours can be used to accomplish the same goal. These are all great ways to increase familiarity among general consumers and make the concrete details about your brand more accessible and persuasive.

In conclusion, just as Dickens’s characters navigated the dichotomy of two cities, today’s consumers must navigate the diverging realms of concrete and abstract construal (again, it helps to squint a little).

This duality of interpretation emphasizes the importance of tailoring your messages to account for the psychological distance between your brand and your target audience. In essence, as consumers strive to interpret information within the two poles of familiarity and novelty, your ability to recognize and accommodate these cognitive preferences will help pave the way for more impactful communication strategies.

Happy Marketing!

-Dr. James

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