Messages Driven by Sympathy

Article by David Preiss
3 minutes 28 seconds read

A message is more effective when folks identify with it.

Can crafted phrasing cause an audience to sympathize or identify with a message on a personal level? I think so. And those kinds of messages can be more effective at changing behavior too.

That’s not to say there aren’t many ways to get a good influential result. Marketers might use “scarcity” as a way to prod customers to buy now before it is too late. Or, there is the ole’ “everybody else is doing it” jump-on-the-bandwagon approach which is also pretty effective. For now, let’s focus on “self identification” as a message driver.

We are all familiar with the neighborhood “slow the hell down, so my kids don’t get killed” signs. A very reasonable plea. I have twin girls of my own, and even I forget to drive super slow on neighborhood streets from time to time. I’m sure I’m not alone. Our neighbors try to remind us with a variety of neighborhood signs, but which messages work best?

slow down neighborhood sign kids playing
A ‘Slow Down’ sign in our neighborhood where kids play

Message technique: direct + simple

Well, if nothing else, this is pretty clear. Definitely a good reminder for any driver losing himself to a good Metallica song as he barrels through a quiet neighborhood. The picture of the children gives you the reason for the command. It is always good to know the reasons behind a request.

slow children playing sign

Message technique: fear

Okay, now this is great. We are taking it up a notch. The first sign is similar to the first example, but right below that you have a very passive aggressive, almost ominous declaration: “You are being watched, Sir.” It is the equivalent of an “or else.” Fear is a great tool for motivation, but it can backfire if construed as childish or socially tacky.

Yard Sign: "Drive Like Your Kids Live Here"
Yard Sign: “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here”

Message technique: self-identification

Now this one has all the hallmarks of being simple and direct. It is firm. It is only vaguely threating. Above all, as a parent, I immediately get a picture of my own children in my head and not someone else’s. I have a feeling even the childless would be able to fill in the blank, your kids, with a potential future version of their mini-self. Just looking at this sign makes my right foot want to press down on a brake pedal.

What about self-identification in actual marketing? 

The yard signs are a nice vehicle to get my point across, but it begs the question: how can this be applied in the real world of marketing?

I think one of the best examples out there is the Subaru They Lived on-air campaign. The ads place the viewer directly into the shoes of a family who survived a terrible crash, tying their survival and that of many others to the live-saving features that make the Subaru a terrific car.

The excellent book Influence by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. teaches the following techniques: scarcity, social proof, authority, commitment, reciprocation. And I’ll cover them in future posts. But there wasn’t any mention of self-identification (or some better label). I think it is worthy of consideration.

What messages have you found most effective for driving sympathy? If you need help with your company’s messaging and brand positioning, contact us at Launch today.