Recent articles such as Marketing is Dead (HBR Blog) would have you believe that our profession is on the outs. On the contrary, of course, our job has always been to understand the buyer, matching benefits to needs in a meaningful and trustworthy way. The current misguided hype around the demise of marketing primarily comes from a misunderstanding of what marketing is: the process of getting a product to market and into the hands of buyers. This includes R&D, positioning, messaging, pricing, promotion, advertising, sales, and customer care.

Marketing is as much about the prospect as it is about the customer (or should be). And it’s not dead.

What has changed dramatically in the past few years are tactics employed in marketing, but the guiding principles have remained the same. To succeed in attracting buyers, there are three basic psychological concepts that marketers must leverage when developing messaging: cognitive fluency, social proof, and cognitive dissonance (the sequence changes to social proof, cognitive fluency, and cognitive dissonance if you are trying to establish yourself for the very first time).

Cognitive fluency basically means that something can be easily understood. And if something is easy to grasp that also signals to the brain that it is true—Occam’s Razor, or the that-makes-sense-to-me effect. This has profound implications on your positioning.

Let’s assume you have a product or service for which a category doesn’t presently exist. In theory you have a tremendous opportunity, because you can define and own a new category (think eBay). The unfortunate downside is that it actually takes a tremendous amount of resources—especially time and usually a lot of money—to do this missionary work successfully.

If you continuously need to explain your new category, you may be building up long-term brand equity should your business or product launch turn out successful. But in the interim, however, you are not enabling cognitive fluency, as potential buyers need to first spend countless brain cycles on making sense of your message. While they’re doing that they are not thinking about the benefits of your offering, and are thus significantly more likely to abandon the idea of engaging with you, since they are not building an emotional connection with your message.

That is because we humans naturally categorize, which helps us understand, only after which we can process further input. If I cannot very quickly categorize what you do, I simply seek other message that I can rapidly absorb and act on.

An easier approach that enables cognitive fluency is to pick an existing category, but carve out whitespace with that environment. Now, because the listener can rapidly categorize you, you can move the conversation more quickly, because you are being given license to explain how you are unique within that category. You are permitted to espouse on your unique selling proposition (USP, the thing that sets you apart). This is a fun conversation for both sides to have as all involved in this exchange of ideas and knowledge can contribute to the conversation, either by asking intelligent questions, or hopefully providing meaningful information.

The litmus test for cognitive fluency is not whether your product is easily explained, but if it’s easily understood.

Social proof has been in the marketing news a lot lately. That’s because it works. Social proof is the very basic concept that if you yourself are not familiar with something, but others you trust are and are happy with that product, you are significantly more likely to try the product. “If it’s good enough for Person X, it’s good enough for me.” Examples include movie recommendations, VC investment decisions (why you need to have a strong board), automobile purchases, etc. The list is literally endless.

Beware, however, that social proof can be used surreptitiously to move buyers to a purchase without that “proof” itself being true or validatable. Having only “4 more of [something] in stock” may or may not be true, but having only “two tickets left at this price” is almost always an outright lie. This feeling that an offer may cease to exist because others are seemingly acting upon it triggers a natural acquisition instinct; scarcity a market can make. While the proof itself isn’t really social—as it involves strangers, it is more societal or communal—some marketers hope to create then exploit a buyer’s emotional reaction.

Marketers are well advised to be truthful in their social proof messaging, lest lies and deceit reveal themselves at a later time to cause brand equity erosion. Don’t trade-short term gains for long-term profits (read: customer loyalty).

Fred Wilson ( summarized the importance of social proof in his seminal Marketing blog post where he wrote that “marketing is for companies who have sucky products.” The point is that aside from needing to make sure that you actually have a good product, equally important is that your first customers (“Innovators”) are ecstatic about it. This will (a) make them share their experience with others and provide you with the most powerful marketing of all, word of mouth (e.g., social proof), and (b) provide you with truthful customer testimonial (e.g., social proof) on which others can safely base their purchasing decisions.

Crossing the Chasm” (HarperBusiness, 1990) relies entirely on social proof. The next group of buyers only ever buys because the previous group—on whose recommendation the current buying decision hinges—has successfully adopted the product.

Social proof = trust = reduced risk.

Cognitive dissonance refers to holding competing or incongruent thoughts in the brain at the same time. Apparently that’s a feeling—almost an emotion—which people don’t like. But it also makes the brain think—literally. Most of the time the brain is at rest, helping the body perform autonomic functions. Every once in a while the brain actually signals to us that we should be paying attention to something; that’s the thinking part.

Cognitive dissonance causes thinking because conflicting beliefs must be resolved. The cognitive dissonance theory states that we change our attitude toward one of the conflicting beliefs to once more achieve harmony. However, in marketing the approach is that both conflicting beliefs are indeed true, and what must change is our attitude toward the outcome, which we previously thought untrue or impossible. For example, you can perspire profusely but still smell great, or you can drink coffee that whitens your teeth.

And that’s a powerful ally in messaging. Your USP must evoke “positive” cognitive dissonance by promoting a benefit that was previously considered a trade-off. But this USP must also be true! If your USP does not deliver on its promise, word will get around quickly and your competitors will crush you.

A USP that creates positive cognitive dissonance and actually delivers on its promise unhinges the competition in such a way that it cannot easily combat your claims.

Positive cognitive dissonance = yes, you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Marketing Psychology

All three concepts highlight why a strategic approach to marketing is so critical. Without a good understanding of the buyer’s perception of your product you will never be able to categorize yourself in a meaningful manner that enables cognitive fluency. Without happy customers you will not experience social proof. And without a USP that enables positive cognitive dissonance you will not set yourself apart from your competition.