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“You Can’t Create Desire through Advertising” – Q&A with Tom Asacker, P

Tom Asacker is an advisor to major brands like Procter & Gamble, UPS, and G.E. and the author of many thoughtful and incisive books on branding and marketing. He is one of the brightest minds in any business, and his latest book is his best yet: The Business of Belief: How the World’s Best Marketers, Designers, Salespeople, Coaches, Fundraisers, Educators, Entrepreneurs and Other Leaders Get Us to Believe


Watch the complete Q&A or skip to Part 1 of the abbreviated transcript below. Part 2 will post tomorrow.

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Let’s start with the obvious question: Why belief?

Mark, I make it my business to know why people do the things they do, and I try to help organizations and people improve their impact in the marketplace through those insights. I have noticed over the last two to five years that people aren’t making decisions in the marketplace the way they used to.

Go back 100 years to what I would call “the age of awareness.” At that point we had nothing. So all you had to do was make someone aware of a washing machine, a car, an air conditioner, a telephone – all these modern conveniences, all these things we never had before. Just make us aware of it, and we gobbled it up.

Then came the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s where competition starts heating up and people start differentiating their products based on the features and quality of those products. Actual differentiation. That’s what took Toyota from nothing to being one of the leading car brands, because they actually had a car that didn’t break down. They weren’t driven by style. They were driven by an actual functional difference, and that’s what drove a lot of products back then: Differentiation in functional performance. I call that “the age of understanding.” If you made people aware and made them understand the difference they bought it.

Guess what? Eight or nine years ago JD Powers said there are no bad cars any longer. So making consumers aware and making them understand does nothing to drive their decision-making, because they expect quality in the marketplace. They expect timely delivery. The expectations “bar” has been raised so high that now I believe we’re in a new age: “The age of belief.”

Awareness is not enough. Understanding is not enough. You have to understand how people create beliefs, personally relevant belief in something. That’s how consumers make their decisions today.

So what is “belief”?

Belief is a strange mixture, a personal mental construct of our perceptions of something and our desire for that thing. Once we develop a perception and a desire, then we look for information to validate that perception and desire. That’s how we form our beliefs.

You write in the book that we don’t necessarily believe what is real; we make what we believe real.

Look at all the great debates we have today – from global warming and over-population to political debates – people believe in their point of view, but there’s someone else on the other side of the argument who believes just as strongly – and these are smart people. So we believe what we desire to believe based on our awareness and our perceptions and our understanding of the world and our place in the world, our personal narrative.

Businesses, entrepreneurs, marketers are all looking for “action” from consumers, and the path you outline in this book is: “Desire leads to a belief leads to action.” Can you walk through those steps?

Make no mistake; action – behavior – is the Holy Grail today. Not awareness, not understanding.

Before he passed away my dad smoked for years. I made him very aware of the fact that this habit was going to kill him, and I gave him a lot of information to help him understand that, but he did not change his actions or his behavior because he didn’t desire to. So desire is what drives not only our search for information but also our eventual decisions.

You’re saying the framework begins with what I, the consumer, desire. That leads to me having certain beliefs about the world around me as well as the marketplace, and action – consumption – follows from that desire and those beliefs, right?

Motivation comes from desire. If there’s no desire, there’s no reason to act. So desire is, in fact, the reason to believe in something. Some marketers think the reason people make decisions are the facts that marketers give them, the list of ingredients and all that. That’s not the reason why people make the decisions that they make.

Why would someone run her first 5k race? If you ask her “What’s the reason to believe in running that race?” she’ll be confused. “What do you mean the reason to believe?” she’ll say. “I want to run it.” The desire is the reason to believe. She’ll figure out how to rationalize that desire after the motivation kicks in. And she may use your “facts” for that rationalization.

In marketing, when we have a new thing we want to sell, we ask ourselves what are the “reasons to believe” our item is worth consuming, and these are usually functional, feature-based reasons. But those aren’t the real “reasons to believe.”

Those functional differentiators are permission to believe, not reasons to believe. I have my reason to believe, that’s my desire. Then you give me all that backup information that gives me permission to move forward with my desire, whatever it is. We do look for that before we take a step. So that is the permission. It is not the reason. The reason is your desire.

Given that desire is at the root of all this, why is the book called The Business of Belief rather than The Business of Desire?

Well here’s why. Because I’ve heard people say that they can get people to desire things through advertising, through marketing, through selling, and that’s absolutely false.

You can discover wants and desires and you can bring what you do to life in a way that feeds those hungers, but you cannot create a desire in someone who doesn’t have the desire. It just doesn’t work that way.

After Gandhi liberated India from British rule, somebody from the press asked him: “Now that you have all this influence with the people why don’t you get them to stop smoking?” He said “I can’t do that. They want to smoke.” That’s brilliant!

You can only move people where they want to go, not where you think they should go.

The frustration we’re seeing in the marketplace with entrepreneurs, with organizations, is because marketers think that somehow consumers need more things, more stuff, more apps. We don’t need anything anymore in this modern marketplace. But we do hunger for some things. We have some frustrations. We have desires. And the businesses that best feed those are the ones that are going to get our business, our attention, our interest.

Desire precedes interest. The old marketing construct – attention, interest, desire, action (the AIDA construct) – that’s obsolete. We have everything today! Now you have to get my attention, then comes desire. Once I desire something I dig in to see if it interests me. Desire precedes interest.

Look for Part 2 of my conversation with Tom Asacker tomorrow.

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