Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Winter 2002Kellogg School of Management
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Research : Brian Sternthal, Marketing
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  Prof. Brian Sternthal

Research: Brian Sternthal, Marketing
Word Play
Marketing is a matter of semantics, says Professor Brian Sternthal

By Trudy Morrison

People don’t often analyze the advertising and consumer messages they are bombarded with every day. Instead, they generally purchase products they feel they need with little or no consideration of the consumer information they have processed leading up to their decision.

Kellogg Marketing Professor Brian Sternthal, on the other hand, has spent the better part of 30 years researching consumer information processing and how people reach decisions to buy.

Sternthal, the Kraft Professor of Marketing, draws on his background in social and cognitive psychology and says there are many factors contributing to consumer behavior — even our mood can affect the way we spend.

Currently consumed by his research on context and consumer judgments, Sternthal is a man on a mission. A popular member of the Kellogg faculty since 1972, he remains determined and passionate about his work. “I’m in this business to solve puzzles,” he says. “You have to abandon your preconceptions and often work and work to reach the solution. I love the challenge.”

Sternthal’s current research takes his former collaborative studies on memory and context a step further to the general understanding of how judgment can draw on past information. He has found that consumers’ positive judgments depend upon the ease of the cognitive process.

For example, an advertisement for BMW that asks its audience to think of one reason to buy the luxury automobile will produce a more favorable response than an ad that asks for 10 reasons, as producing one reason is easier than producing 10. Similarly, being asked to “imagine” these reasons results in a more favorable response compared to being asked to “think” of reasons.

This finding of an “ease of judgement” preference represents an extension of Sternthal’s previous research that discovered positive advertising to be more successful than negative advertising — that is, focusing on what something is or does rather than what it is not or does not. Examples include: “It’s not an ending, it’s a beginning,” and “M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” Here, notes Sternthal, the consumer’s focus remains on the key benefits of the brand, thus aiding the ease of judgment.

This hypothesis raises the question: how is a not statement seen as positive advertising? Sternthal has the answer in his recent study on the processing of negations.

In this study, he found that product benefits are sometimes presented as being “not difficult to use” (negations) rather than “easy to use” (affirmations). Sternthal discovered that people process affirmations first. So, even if a Nike ad proclaims “it’s not the shoes,” most consumers hear the message that “it is the shoes.” This affirmation comes first, Sternthal says, “because in most cases the goal of the message recipient is advancement and growth — we all want to succeed.”

Consequently, the use of negations often makes it easier for consumers to process key benefits associated with a product or service, which is of course what the advertiser aims to achieve.

Sternthal sees his new research into how people make judgments as his most important work so far because “it enriches our understanding that memory is a tool in making judgments, but it’s also reflective, it looks back at how we feel about a brand.”

But, he notes, memory is just one piece among many that influences judgments. He believes there are several other, often subtle, components at work, all of which can help make predictions for the effects advertising may have on individuals.

“These decisions involve so much more than just processing content,” says Sternthal. “There are so many elements that play a part. I see it as a picture that’s not quite colored in. And that’s the picture I’m trying to complete.”

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University