We are more likely to support something when it has several positive associations than when it has just one

We are more likely to support something when it has several positive associations than when it has just one

Tiger Woods has announced he will be playing at The Open Championship at St Andrews in a couple of months time. That is a double edged sword for the Royal & Ancient golf organisation which runs the event. On the one hand, Tiger is the most well-known golfer in the world, has a huge fan-base and will inevitably bring mass media coverage. On the other hand, he is tarnished goods, with a badly damaged personal reputation and dubious morals. He might bring the R&A’s Open more positive attention, but equally he might lead to negative associations in the minds of many.

This is due to a psychological phenomenon known as “evaluative conditioning“. It means that what we think about one thing tends to be linked to what we think about another, associated factor. For instance, if you like a particular TV personality and they say they like books by a certain author, you are more likely to find that author’s books attractive to you. If your best friend says they prefer Starbucks to Costa, then you too are more likely to have the same preference. For the Open Championship, the problem is the organisers do not know where most of the current public thinking is centred. Some people will be supportive of Tiger and will therefore be positive towards the Open. But other people will have negative views about Mr Woods and will connect those views to the R&A, thus diminishing the value of the Open in their mind.

The reason that companies like Nike use celebrities is because of evaluative conditioning. Our favourite celeb endorses a product and we are likely to have positive feelings about that item ourselves. New research conducted across France, The Netherlands and the USA now suggests a better way ahead for a more effective use of evaluative conditioning in business. It also implies that many celebrity-obsessed brands have been doing it wrong for years.

The researchers found that there are two ways in which we process information during evaluative conditioning. One is an indirect method, where we are subject to repeated presentations of the two items – as in Tiger Woods and the Nike logo always being seen together – because he wears their clothing with the “Nike Swoosh” being constantly visible.

There is another way that evaluative conditioning information is processed, according to this new study, which is a direct method. This is when one item is presented with a range of different factors which affect our mood. So, for instance, the Nike logo may be presented to us on the clothing worn by a celebrity whilst that individual is supporting, say, a sports education project for disadvantaged children and we see the brand being worn by the youth worker who is leading that project.

The research found that when indirect – memory-based – evaluative conditioning happens it is less likely to have the desired impact than the direct method. In other words simply associating a personality with a brand is not enough. All we remember is that Tiger Woods is a love-rat, that he has not been completely truthful and that he has hurt his family. We then link that with the Nike Tick. But when the direct method is used, this negative memory is diluted by all the other associations we make with the brand.

In other words, using one thing to trigger good feelings about another is not enough in isolation; you need a complete programme of stimuli which make the chances of positive associations greater. So how can you be sure you achieve this online?

  • Firstly, don’t simply associated your products and services with a single supporter, celebrity or associated brand. Nike, for instance, has been able to weather the storm of Tiger Woods, because they sponsor large numbers of sporting people across a range of different disciplines.
  • Secondly, if you link to other sources of news and information, vary them. Don’t always use links to your favourite news site, for example, use different ones. Don’t always quote from Wikipedia – there are other online encyclopaedias..!
  • Equally, don’t always re-tweet the same people, or comment on the same forums. Associate your online business with a range of people and websites.

In other words, you can avoid the Tiger Woods effect if your online business has several positive associations, rather than being centred on one particular kind. Often, online business owners are keen to establish a link with a company whereby they can say “as used by….”. Or they prouldy wear a badge saying ” Approved By Such and Such”. That’s precisely the kind of evaluative conditioning that does not work, according to this research. Instead, for example, having testimonials from several different firms is likely to work better.

Indeed, it is the way that Google evaluates you. If all your links come from one kind of source, they reckon your site is not as valuable as when you have a variety of liks in associated industries and sectors. It is part of the “web” nature of their algorithm. If you do not have a multiplicity of connections you are not, according to Google, “in a web” and are therefore of less value than websites which are interconnected.

It seems that human brains mirror the Google way. Im order for us to positively evaluate something, we need to see a myriad of connections and associations SIMULTANEOUSLY. That means relying on a single brand identifier is never going to be enough. For evaluative conditioning to work on your website you need several different positive associations presented together. That way, people will start to think good things about your online business.

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