Psychological Product Enhancement

‘Psychological what?’ you may well ask. OK, I may have just made up a new phrase for the marketing lexicon, but stick with me, and you’ll discover how you might just be able to make people perceive your products in a completely different way.

I would define psychological product enhancement as something that improves the experience a product delivers to its customer by virtue of changing how the customer thinks about it, rather than necessarily by changing the physical product.

This is something that goes on all the time, but we’re often so taken in by it that we don’t really notice.

At the risk of creating two new marketing phrases in one day, I’d argue that most marketing is about congruent misattribution.  When it comes down to it relatively few products have a genuine technical edge of the competition – and even if they do, relatively few of these have a technical edge that most customers can appreciate and will choose on the basis of.  And in case you think that’s a bold claim, any time that it was true there would be a market with no competitors!

Congruent misattribution means that you need to create associations with your product that can be attributed to it even though the product doesn’t actually deliver that association, at least not more than any other product in the same category.  What’s important is that nothing about your product fundamentally clashes with the image you’re wrapping around it.

We see this a lot with celebrity-endorsed products.  I have no idea whether David Beckham wears his own aftershave, but he might do.  Of course, if I was to wear it I wouldn’t be any more like David Beckham than I am without that aftershave on, but if his name triggers associations with aesthetic appeal and I put the aftershave on when I’m looking my best, I will probably genuinely feel more attractive.  All that matters then is that I don’t sniff the bottle and think, “Ugg! Smells like two-week-old football socks!”  Anything vaguely pleasant will do: let’s face it, few of us are likely to ever smell Mr Beckham in person.

Someone who wanted to produce a range of toiletries in the name of a top golfer approached a year or so ago me.

Whilst he was a very successful golfer he was also a slightly podgy, ordinary, down-to-earth bloke: why anyone would want to smell like him I have no idea.  Millions of people would, I’m sure, like to play golf like he does, but no one would believe that smelling like him was going to help in that regard.  People only really admired the ‘brand’ for golfing prowess, not style or aesthetic appeal.  Assuming that this initiative began with the product, the idea of branding it with this particular golfer was incongruent.

The marketing magic comes when the right associations are made.  The evidence suggests that then, people aren’t just noticing something and liking it because of what those cunningly creative marketing types have put on the pack or in the advert, people actually have their experience of the product enhanced as a result.

Put another way, people can take on characteristics because of the branding on and around a product.

A recently published study has explored another fascinating dimension of psychological product enhancement.  It’s a product category that’s very close to my heart: sports equipment.

I was brought up playing sport.  Both my parents were sports teachers and many of my earliest memories involve playing a sport of one kind or another.  Nowadays I play tennis and golf whenever the chance arises.

Part of what I love about sport is the technical side of it; trying to improve the technique on a particular tennis shot or experimenting with a different string to try and eek out a small advantage or improvement.

The internet is a great resource when it comes to looking for those improvements.  There are lots people offering on-line instruction and you can learn from others on forums dedicated to tennis.

Quite often people post questions on these forums enquiring what their favourite pro players are using: what’s the specification of their racquet? What string and tension are they using?

Helpfully, some of the people who string the pros racquets at events around the world contribute and, with a bit of searching, you can find out all about your favourite player’s equipment.

Interestingly, people who go on-line to ask, “What is Federer’s racquet weight?” usually get, in addition to an answer, a cutting remark or two from people who are very quick to point out that what works for arguably the greatest tennis player of all time is not likely to be right for someone who’s greatest tennis-playing aspiration is to beat his friend at the local park court.

But it would seem that it’s not quite as black and white as that.  It might be that the using the same specification of equipment as a great player DOES help your game.

Researchers invited forty-one golfers to hit some putts with a high-end putter.  One group was told that PGA player Ben Curtis had used the putter.  In addition to seeing how many putts they made, the participants were also asked to estimate the size of the hole by drawing it.

The difference between the two groups was dramatic: those who believed they were holding a putter used by a well-known professional estimated that the hole was 9% larger, and sank 32% more putts.

So, when people believe that someone good at golf has used something why does that improve their play?  I suspect that priming is part of the answer: when people who know about golf are primed to think about Ben Curtis they will call to mind his skill and success.  They might not recall him winning the 2003 Open Championship, but they will immediately associate him with playing golf at the highest level.  This is a positive prime and, certainly in my case, would be infinitely preferable to the other thought I might have when I’m holding a putter: “Hmm, this is not the best part of my game!”

They will also presume that the club is as good as a putter can be: after all, a pro can get any equipment he desires and the price isn’t going to be a concern to someone who has earned more than $12m in his career.

Another aspect is that the type of the thinking their minds do will be influenced by their beliefs about the putter in their hands: they won’t think of themselves appraising it, “Is this a good putter for me”, they will experience themselves putting with it: “what happens when I putt with Ben Curtis’s putter?”  Anyone who has experimented with the ideas in The Inner Game of Tennis will know that there is much to be gained by adopting a less self-critical mind-set during sport.

It’s no surprise that sports equipment manufacturers pay pros to endorse their equipment.  It’s not just that people will be more likely to notice it.  It could be argued that, if the endorsee does well in a big tournament or in the world rankings, the products themselves will be more effective in the hands of the enthusiastic amateurs who buy them.

Provided that you really believe you’re using a player’s piece of equipment, which might come from anything as small as a picture of the player on a swing tag when you buy it in the shop, or adding lead weights to your tennis frame to get the same balance and swing-weight as your favourite pro, it seems that investing in gear really can improve your game; such is the power of psychological product enhancement.


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