the ketchup stain principle in marketing

Perfection Is Subjective, Consistency Is Not

As consumers, we tend to look for negatives. It's human nature. We want to ensure the decisions we make are good ones, and we want to avoid the pain of making bad ones. The latter is certainly more powerful.

  1. If the thing we want seems too good to be true, we're looking for anything that confirms our suspicion.
  2. If the thing we want requires considerable investment, we're looking for anything that justifies our indecision.
  3. Or if it's a combination of the two, anything inconsistent in the slightest can stop us from moving forward.

We might not search for negativity in a direct sense. But unconsciously, we're vigilant and our minds are sensitive to the slightest inconsistency.

For instance, when we're about to hire a professional, we will do some research and due diligence. The larger the investment and/or risk is, the longer and more involved the search for any potential dissonance will be.

But if something appears to be out of place for any reason, even if it’s something negligible, we will avoid buying or at the very least feel uneasy about the purchase. (Malcolm Gladwell's book “Blink” comes to mind.)

I call this the “ketchup stain principle.”

Let’s say you've met a salesperson. He was dressed impeccably, gave a compelling presentation, appeared knowledgeable about his product, asked all the right questions, and everything seemed to go smoothly.

But throughout the meeting, as perfect as it might have gone, you couldn't stop noticing that he had a ketchup stain on his tie.

Now, if I were to ask you two weeks later, “What stood out the most from the meeting?” More than likely, the first thing that would pop into your mind would be the ketchup stain. Regardless of whether you would say it or not.

More importantly, if you were considering buying from that salesperson, you would have procrastinated, decided against it, or gone ahead but still felt a little uneasy about it. Something would simply feel a little “off.”

The reason is, while the stain may not have been at the forefront of your mind as the cause of your apprehension, it was there, lingering, unconsciously feeding your fears, doubts, and concerns.

Ketchup stains often contribute to something called the “Horn Effect.” You've probably heard of the “Halo Effect.” According to Wikipedia, it's:

“A form of cognitive bias where the positive impressions of a person, business, brand, or product in one area tends to positively influence one's opinion or feelings in other areas.”

The “Horn Effect” is the opposite:

“A form of cognitive bias that causes one's perception of another to be unduly influenced by a single negative trait.”

That single negative trait is like a ketchup stain, if you will.

Like it or not, every touchpoint in your business has the ability to positively or negatively influence your audience, often at an unconscious level. It can project greater perceived value, but it can also lessen it just as well.

People have a tendency to seek out the negative.

It's not that we want negativity in our lives — although, I've certainly met some people in my life who seem like they do. But when we're about to make a serious investment, whether it's financial or emotional, we want reassurance.

We want to disconfirm our doubts and fears by hopefully not finding anything that might confirm them.

You can work night and day trying to make everything perfect, trying to “clean every little ketchup stain” if you will. But you can't. Perfection is often subjective.

But you can reduce your audience's inclination to look for negatives.

You do this by being consistent.

As a professional, consistency will project an aura of credibility and confidence, and it will do so more easily than any other marketing tactic. By the same token, it will reduce your audience's propensity to search for inconsistencies, too.

In short, be consistent across all your channels and assets. Be consistent in your message, your content, your voice, your branding, your interactions on social media, and so forth.

For consistency breeds consistency.

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