Consumer Marketing and Getting to the Message

An interview with John Fullingim, Founder, Applied Behavioral Sciences LLC

When I encounter “mission impossible,” I bring in John Fullingim, founder of Applied Behavioral Sciences, and together we surpass insurmountable odds. I’ve been working with John for over 20 years on projects in various areas including consumer marketing and the arts.

His company identifies communications and strategic moves that will influence customers at an unconscious, emotional level and cause them to quickly take action (usually purchasing). He is also the creator of Applied Behavioral Sciences Whole Brain marketing influence model. His clients have included a number of top publicly traded corporations and large educational and nonprofit organizations. He is best known for his work with Verizon in creating the progress position (“can you hear me now?”). He has worked on a number of other large projects for companies such as Procter & Gamble Olay, Samsung, Aetna, and others.

John will shares his insight on how consumer marketing, why some products surpass others and what companies are getting it right. 

How is your work relevant today, especially considering the role of social media and the breakdown in traditional advertising?

As you correctly point out, communication channels are more confusing, crowded and challenging than ever. That means that unless you have the right appeals precisely linked to a powerful emotion, you will likely fail to break through the clutter and won’t increase revenue.

So, message is more important than the channel?

Absolutely. History is full of “new” channels that were supposed to displace competitors and result in wildly increased sales. Telemarketing, direct mail, and earlier, television and radio advertising were all trumpeted as panaceas. But, if you look closely, the first firms to embrace these advertising channels only saw a temporary advantage and the playing field returned to the previous position once everyone else caught up.

But hasn’t the Internet changed all that?

Well, let me give you a recent example. Apple completely changed the way people compute by creating the iPad, a tablet. Tablets existed for some time but had failed to catch on. What was different about the iPad was that it was designed to be intuitive and work unconsciously without requiring much conscious effort for mastery.

Now, I would like to point out that the primary advertising vehicles that Apple used were traditional: press conferences, magazine articles, newspaper articles, print advertising, and yes, television advertising.

While new media can be very useful, just having new media is not enough. You must have a product or message (or preferably both) that resonate unconsciously and create a strong desire to act.

You keep talking about desire to act. What do you mean by this?

Our work identifies concepts, images and messages that resonate unconsciously and emotionally to create strong desires to act. We also find ways to remove psychological blocks or defenses to taking an action (usually purchasing). So, desire, or motivation, combined with freedom from obstacles to proceed creates action.

What do you mean by freedom from obstacles to proceed?

Web merchants talk about making a web experience frictionless. They streamline their flow to eliminate anything that would slow or stop the purchase, such as logging in or entering credit card information.

Similarly, every purchase or decision has a series of mental gates or hurdles. These are unconscious but are important. If you anticipate the questions and hurdles, and have the answer ready, people will act, seemingly without thinking. They will think, but because you have given them everything they need, they will act quickly, often without even realizing that they have made a decision.

I’d like to return to your Apple example. Apple has a superior product.  What about most companies that do not have a competitive product advantage?

Well, it is important that a company have a reasonably competitive product that fills a need. But, product superiority is not a requirement. The vast majority of successful products are not the most powerful, innovative, or best in category. Instead, they are the products that people understand intuitively or unconsciously and feel driven to purchase

So, this applies only to consumer goods?

No, this is how all decision-making works. It does not matter if you are buying a college education, new truck, data provider, arts membership, opera ticket, and software platform or even selecting a new career or relationship. All decisions go through the same sequence. Providers who can link their company’s characteristics to a deep unconscious, emotional need and remove the perceived barriers to action will nearly always dominate their category.

Can you give me another example?

We worked on the brand re-launch for Verizon, which most people do not know that the initial launch failed. We provided deep psychological insights to help create Verizon’s phenomenal success. Verizon quickly rose to the top tier of the most trusted, and desirable brands in the country overall. It totally dominated the telecom space, even passing AT&T.

Now you must remember that Verizon was a complete unknown. There was nothing new or special about Verizon’s products. They took two old legacy phone companies (GTE and Bell Atlantic) and merged them. That was it.  There was nothing different.  Nothing innovative.  It was just a phone company.  Yet, just optimizing symbols and words caused Verizon to become number one in its category.

Can you explain just what those symbols and actions were?

Yes, we have a presentation on precisely how it worked but it takes a few minutes to go through it. We would be happy to share those with those interesting in learning more.

So, are you saying that you can accomplish this sort of result for any company?

No. You must have a reasonable product or service. You must be willing to think about your customers and the way you describe what you do in a new way. But, in the vast majority of cases, our insight has produced significant, measurable increases for clients using their existing products, without increasing advertising and marketing spending.  The key is the message.

One last question:  how is it possible for you to accomplish these results so consistently?

Again, it’s rather a long story; but we have developed a predictive, quantitative computer model. We used advanced counseling techniques with customers to decide what to test in the model. The computer model uses web interviews to simulate a purchase experience and learns precisely what will result in purchase behavior, optimizing hundreds of possible elements to arrive at the combination of messages that will cause the most people to take action.

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Becky Powell-Schwartz, Founder & CEO