Matching Language and Motivation


People need motivation to engage with your brand. If you want to affect your customers’ motivation, it would be helpful to know a bit more about the way the brain’s motivational system works.

There are two core aspects to motivation: goals and energy. Goals are the things people are trying to achieve. For example, a customer buying sunglasses might want eye protection or a stylish accessory to her summer wardrobe. At any given moment, people have lots of goals, but the ones they pursue are the ones that are energized. One of the goals of brand messages is to energize those goals.

Constructing the right message, though, requires matching the language you use to talk about your brand to the goals of your customers.

In particular, there are two flavors of goals that people have: approach goals and avoidance goals. Approach goals refer to desirable states of the world that people want to achieve. A customer looking for an attractive pair of sunglasses is focused on an approach goal. Avoidance goals are focused on undesirable states of the world that people want to prevent. A customer looking for sunglasses for eye protection is focused on an avoidance goal, because she wants to avoid damage to her eyes.

You need to know what kinds of goals customers have about your brand, so that you can ensure that the messages you present are consistent with those goals.

When customers have approach goals, you want your messages to be focused on the desirable aspects of people’s lives that your brand can enhance. BMW does a great job of keeping drivers focused on the joy of driving with their “Ultimate Driving Machine” messages. They recognize that their customers want to experience the pleasure of driving a fast car that handles well, and so they match their language to this desirable outcome. Their campaigns focus on pleasurable images like speed, beauty, and enjoyment. Avoidance concerns like safety are mentioned on occasion, but they are not a central focus of their advertising.

When customers have avoidance goals, then you want your message to be consistent with helping them to avoid negative outcomes. Vicks advertises Nyquil by focusing on ensuring a good night’s rest to return to health. This message wraps the brand in the language of avoiding negative outcomes, like staying up all night because you feel sick.

Although brand managers often match messages to goals intuitively, it is important to be explicit about the core goals surrounding a brand. Campaigns that clash significantly with a customer's goal can backfire.

As one example, Charmin toilet tissue created a lot of negative buzz with their “Enjoy the Go” campaign. The problem with this message was that consumers have an avoidance goal related to toilet tissue. They want a comfortable and clean experience that avoids pain and dirt. The message “Enjoy the Go” uses language associated with approach goals. Consumers reacted negatively to this campaign because it simply did not fit with their goals.

Similarly, the Always brand of feminine protection had a campaign focused on “Have a happy period.” This campaign failed because women do not generally have approach goals associated with their monthly period. The messaging in this campaign suggested that the makers of Always did not understand women’s motivation.

Even when messages about brands are not as blatantly mismatched as these examples, it is possible to create mixed messages that undermine the effectiveness of a campaign.

Volvo often has this problem. Their core message is focused on avoidance concerns related to driving. They promote the safety and comfort of their cars in most advertising messages. However, after redesigning some of their models, Volvo also wanted to promote the style and beauty of the cars. The problem is that ads that target safety and then beauty are diluting the core message by spreading it across approach and avoidance goals relating to cars.

There are two key lessons to take away from this discussion.

First, for some types of products, customers have an orientation that will be hard to change. Feminine protection, toilet paper, and medications are all products for which people have strong avoidance goals. Messages that clash with that orientation will not succeed because customers will react to the mismatch between their motivational orientation and the brand communication.

Second, some products have more flexibility. Cars, for example, have both approach and avoidance components. A brand can choose its orientation. However, once that orientation is set, it is difficult for a brand to cross from approach to avoidance. Instead, customers will react best when the messages stay consistently within a single mode. Approach-oriented brands need to focus on desirable and pleasurable experiences. Avoidance-oriented brands need to focus on safety and minimizing negative outcomes.


This article originally appeared in Brand Quarterly and is republished here with permission.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Art Markman

Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing, University of Texas at Austin

After getting a B.S. in Cognitive Science from Brown University in 1988, Professor Art Markman went on to graduate school in the Psychology...

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