The following is adapted from "Marketing to Mindstates" by Will Leach.

People pursue their goals generally in different ways. In scientific terms, this is known as regulatory fit theory, which looks at the relationship between the motivation of the decision maker and the manner in which that person pursues their goal.

For marketers, it’s not just about knowing what motivates consumers. Understanding how they approach and pursue their goals is just as important. This idea was pioneered by E. Tory Higgins, who recently wrote a book with Heidi Grant Halvorson called Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. In it, he wrote the following:

How you experience the world around you, what you pay attention to, how you interpret it, and how much you care about it will be determined, to a large degree, by your motivational focus at the moment.

According to Higgins’s research and others, people approach their goals using one of two focuses: a promotion focus or a prevention focus. In this article, we’ll look at the differences between these focuses, see an example of how this works in this real world, and lay out some strategies and emotions marketers can use to connect with both groups.

Promotion Regulatory Focus

People with this focus seek strategies that help them maximize their chances of successfully reaching their goal.  For example, a person with a goal to lose weight who is in the promotion regulatory focus might adopt a strategy of eating more healthfully.

If you’re a marketer and you position your weight-loss product as a way to help that person eat better, the product will feel more in line with that person’s weight loss strategy. For example, if I know you have a promotion regulatory focus, I’ll focus on talking about the extra vitamins and nutrients you’ll get by eating my snack.

In other words, my messaging will key in on what you can gain by eating the snack.

That message is framed in a way that will feel natural to a consumer with a promotion regulatory focus, because it’s helping them maximize their chances of success.

Prevention Regulatory Focus

Let’s look at the same goal and motivation, but this time the person is driven by a prevention regulatory focus. That means they’re seeking strategies to minimize their chances of failure. Instead of seeking to eat healthier foods, their strategy is to stay away from junk food, takeout meals, sugary drinks, and desserts.

Under these conditions, you’d want to frame up your brand as a way of helping them avoid the risk of eating poorly. For example, if I know that same health food snack has consumers with a prevention regulatory focus, I’ll craft the messaging to underscore the fact that it has no trans fats and fewer calories than the alternative.

In short, the messaging will focus on the unhealthy behaviors you will prevent by eating the snack. If your product is framed that way, it will feel much more natural and liked by this consumer in the moment of decision.

Which Focus Is Best?

A mistake marketers must avoid is assuming one focus is better than the other. There is no good or bad regulatory focus. They’re just strategies (often nonconscious) people use to reach their goals. Most of us use both promotion and prevention strategies throughout the day but for different purposes in different situations.

Look at a millennial woman who is a new mom and is in the workforce. At work, she may be driven by the achievement motivation. She may seek opportunities and try to maximize her chance of advancement. She uses a promotion focus in her career.

But as a first-time mom, she may also use a prevention focus for decisions related to her new baby at home. She’s scared of doing something wrong, and she’ll make decisions that help her minimize her chances of failure or risk to the baby.

So how can you tell which regulatory focus is being used by your customer?

Listen to how they talk about your category or brand. When they tell others about why they use your category or brand, they will frame it up as a way to gain benefits or a way to avoid negatives

Greenpeace and Prevention Focus

I once worked on a project with Greenpeace International, who was primarily using a prevention focus in their fundraising messaging to drive donor engagement. Donations and volunteering would help prevent bad consequences for the environment.

That’s why you typically saw pictures of polar bears stranded on broken-up ice caps. It’s a classic communications strategy with almost all nonprofits—and it’s dead wrong.

I worked on a behavioral study that found it was more effective to talk to potential donors in a promotion-focused way. People who were likely to give to Greenpeace or be actively involved were less focused on preventing bad outcomes and more focused on how their support would make the world better.

With this information in hand, Greenpeace began to talk about the upsides of saving the planet versus the downsides of not saving it. For example, we showed that when Germany moved from coal to solar power, it created thousands more jobs.

That new approach resulted in a dramatic increase of social media engagement for Greenpeace. I’m not saying that a prevention strategy never worked for Greenpeace, but a promotion strategy worked better for their older, higher-income donors.

Both approaches—promotion or prevention—can have success. As a marketer, your job is to find the regulatory approach that fits best with the target consumers’ natural inclinations and frame your brand to match their nonconscious instinct.

Strategies for Promotion (versus Prevention)

To frame your brand’s benefits in a way that matches people’s regulatory focus, here are some general guidelines to help your creative tap into consumers’ promotion regulatory focus (versus the prevention focus, which follows in parentheses):

  • Focus on pleasure, for promotion (versus pain, for prevention).
  • Highlight the benefits of success (versus the cost of failure).
  • Talk about the needs for growth (versus the possibility of rejection).
  • Emphasize why your product makes sense and why it works (versus emphasizing the scientific facts that prove the product is the best).
  • Accentuate feelings (versus facts and reasons).
  • Show emotions that are cheerful (versus relaxing).
  • Say “you” (instead of “them”). Promotion-focused people want a feeling of independence, so address the individual (you) rather than the group (them). People in prevention mode find comfort in the interdependence of people.
  • Emphasize taking chances and seizing opportunities (versus stability).
  • Emphasize speed, progress, and the whole product (versus accuracy, control, or stability of all of a system’s individual parts).
  • Use animated gestures (versus reserved gestures).
  • Use faster speeds and cadences in speaking, videos, and songs (versus slower).

These are just a few beginner strategies to use for a better fit with your customers’ natural regulatory state. With these in hand, you can generate creative combinations to scientifically frame your brand’s benefits in a way that increases emotional engagement.

Emotions and Design for Promotion Focus

Next, let’s apply these strategies further to build out your best overall creative strategy.

What emotions and actions should you tactically embed in your marketing to generate the feeling that makes sense for a regulatory state your consumers are under?

Some emotions to evoke in promotion regulatory creative are:

  • Optimism
  • Praise
  • Nurturance
  • Love
  • Admiration
  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Excitement

In the marketing design for a promotion regulatory focus, show people being praised, working quickly, and considering alternatives (because these consumers are open to new opportunities). You’d maybe show creativity, novelty, and innovation as well.

People with a promotion focus value advancement, change, and progress. They have a rosy outlook about the success of your product, and they want to feel happy. Therefore luxury, comfort, and sophistication will be more important to them.

Emotions and Design for Prevention Focus

Emotions to evoke in promotion regulatory creative include:

  • Security
  • Conservatism
  • Safety
  • Calmness
  • Familiarity
  • Tradition
  • Stability
  • Pessimism
  • Caution
  • Relief

In prevention marketing pieces, you could show people being criticized or better yet, the looming possibility of failure if they don’t use your brand. Or you could show people making plans and being thorough, careful, thoughtful, accurate, and harmonious.

Prevention-focused people want to work slowly, deliberately, and feel prepared. They often stick to tried-and-true behaviors and products that feel safe. These people also want to feel less worried and less stressed. They value conformity, tradition, and security.


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Topics: Shopper, Behavioral Design, Motivation, Management