Which burger would you prefer to eat?

One that says it has 75% less fat or an identical one that says it has 25% fat. Most would choose the one with the 75% less fat.  What’s more is that we might even be tempted to say that it tastes better!

Even though we might not be conscious about most of them, we make up to 200 decisions every day just about simple matters like food – what, where, and when to eat.  Over the course of each day, we make thousands of such decisions based on what we see, feel, and hear in our personal or professional life.

Behavioral Science shows that many of these decisions are subject to manipulation depending on the context in which they are made. The Trolley Experiment is a famous example of how our choices can be affected in starkly different ways once the context changes, even in hypothetical situations involving life or death.

Proactively setting the context – i.e., the framing or reframing of a question or situation in a particular way can lead to completely different decisions from the same person.

While Framing has been discussed extensively in behavioral psychology, it is an often underutilized by marketers in brand positioning and messaging. In many competitive strategy and differentiation situations, one who frames the context first, better, or differently than their opponent has a better chance of winning the spoils.

A frame is typically built around an anchor– a pivot point at which our conscious or unconscious bias hinges on. A brand position, i.e., the perception of the brand in a customer’s mind is built around this anchor point. To set or reset the context, you can reset, modify, or move the anchor point in way such that it reshapes, expands, or contracts the frame. The next step is to move to action: provide a clear set of distinct choices, or better yet a binary decision to be made based on the frame, such as moving to purchase or renewing a contract.

The Framing Effect can be used successfully in many situations

  • Differentiating in established markets requires creating a context by shifting the anchor point to a different, perhaps under-appreciated attribute within the preferred set of existing ones. To compete against Gillette which built its brand on innovation and blade quality, Dollar Shave Club shifted the conversation to convenience and price
  • In creating new categories by introducing a fresh take on the existing context. In these cases, reframing typically involves introducing a completely new attribute as the pivot point. For example – Dove positioned itself as a beauty bar, instead just another soap.
  • In revitalizing old brands and giving them a fresh perspective. Perhaps the most difficult of all, the new context needs to play a dual role – myth-busting, and recasting. Xerox is one example of adding a fresh perspective – the “way to work better” instead of their legacy association with copiers.

Great leaders – individuals and brands are masters at framing – it is their secret silly putty for mental manipulation. They are quick to create new situational or strategic context, inspiring and motivating people to move in a certain direction or towards a particular outcome.

The next time you want to influence direction, remember, you don’t need have the power of authority or have all the answers. You need to be masterful at framing the context.


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