When Your Best Advertising Arguments Fail: Overcoming Resistance To Change


Where people are dug in or resistant to change, a rational argument for your product, service, or cause is a bad argument. Here’s what to do instead. 

I recently heard a talk from an organization whose mission is to change people’s minds about their marketing behavior. Their arguments are entirely rational. They have tons of data, lots of presentations, a website, and an annual meeting all dedicated to presenting the facts about why more marketers should follow their lead. They even make an excellent, evidence-based case about the potential benefits of doing so.

It isn’t working. Marketers are receptive and polite, but in the end, they don’t change their behavior.   Why? Why don’t rational, evidence-based arguments work to change behavior, even when rational people are presented with compelling reasons why they will benefit by doing so?

Most often, it’s because the argument creates one or more barriers in the mind of the target audience:

  1. The argument takes too many steps to grasp or understand easily.
  2. It requires the resistant person to give up cherished ideas.
  3. It implies an element of difficulty, for example, requiring learning new information  or changing longstanding habits.

As an example, let’s take a rational argument for replacing lawns with grass-free landscapes in desert climates:

“Green grass lawns are a convention imported from the British Isles and the Eastern Seaboard, where the climate is temperate and much wetter. They have never made much sense in places like Arizona and Southern California. Why don’t we invent a new and improved kind of residential landscape that conserves water and takes advantage of the beauty of our desert fauna, and convert our yards to that?”

It’s a perfectly rational argument. But you have just bombarded the resistant person with a cascade of words that make their skin crawl. 

“History”  and “climate” are too much like school. These words encompass too many ideas, and are too disconnected from “now”. 

“Never made much sense” — so I was wrong? I don’t like that!

“Convert” implies work, time, and expense, and no one wants any of those things.  

But wait, you say, aren’t “new and improved” good words? “Invent”, “new” “improved”, “better” and “different” can certainly be positive advertising buzz words, but that’s only to the right audiences, and within certain contexts.   If these words say something cool about the audience, they’re usually effective. If they carry the weight of a substantial change in thinking or behavior required to embrace the new thing, they’re often perceived as negative.

The exception, of course, is when you’re targeting early adopters. For many early adopters, having to learn something new or figure out how to use a product that may be “fiddly” is part of the appeal. But you need to take a different tack with general audiences, who will base buying decisions on different emotional needs and preferences. (This is why new tech products sometimes fumble, and growth slows or stops, between promising launch and wide acceptance.)

Look around, and you’ll see that when used to general audiences, “innovation” words are used in completely different ways. “New & Improved” on a box of laundry detergent captures a shopper’s eye, but trying it has a low risk and cost. If I try it and I don’t like it, I just won’t buy it again. More important, I can make this change without learning a new way to do laundry. 

Likewise, “different” and “advanced” when used in automotive advertising don’t usually have much to do with how those differences and advancements improve the car’s function. More often, they have a lot to say about the car buyer, or more specifically, how that buyer wants to think of themselves. These words can signal that the consumer is brave, adventurous, and forward-thinking just by buying the car. They don’t have to learn to drive any differently. 

On the other hand, when you couple that language  with changes you have to make in behavior, or a learning curve, or there’s work involved, innovation words become anti-change words. Instead of enticing customers to buy, they actually increase resistance. 

Resistance, unfortunately, is contagious. In our lawn care example, a forceful, influential, or scary neighborhood leader can singlehandedly ruin adoption of low-water landscapes by how they talk about them, or worse, how they talk about homeowners who adopt them. If they describe a low-water yard as ugly, or describe a homeowner who installs one as a nut, resistance will spread like a kudzu vine. 

So what should you do instead?

Luckily, adoption of new ideas is contagious, too. 

A pair of cute Siberian husky puppies

Strategy 1: Position new ideas as though they were puppies. 

Ooh and aah over them. Use emotional and positive words to talk about them. Praise the people who have adopted them. 

For some in your audience, that will be enough to overcome the challenges required to change behavior and mindset. They will want to have that feeling of enjoying puppies. They will want to be like their friends and neighbors who are showing off their puppies. They will also want to be praised for adopting puppies. 

The hard-core resistant population — about 30% — will come around slowly and late, if at all.  But if the community is talking about new ideas in positive ways, and beginning to adopt them, many, if not most, will stop saying publicly that they hate the new idea. 

In fact, when someone expresses resistance, the community response is going to be, “Don’t you like puppies?”

And since few people are willing to admit that they don’t like puppies, or want to look like they are anti-puppy, their argument loses steam, and the pro-change voices begin to overtake the anti-change voices. 

Will the resistant person come around? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe, when social pressure shifts the community value from “green lawn” to “gorgeous low-water landscape”, they’ll eventually get on board. Maybe they will be among the small percentage who never come around — and that’s OK. 

It is important to note that the hard-core resistant person has not changed their mind. Their opinion is exactly the same. But they’re much quieter and less influential. They are no longer expressing their opposition,  they’re doing it with less force, or they’ve lost allies. And that accomplishes two important goals: First, it gives the new idea the breathing room it needs so that more people will consider it and adopt it. Second, it removes the social pressure to conform to old standards, and allows social pressure towards the new ideas to grow. 

Two stylish fashionistas in Milan
You need to target influencers. But not these influencers.

Strategy 2: Win over influencers.

Unless you’re in fashion, beauty, or luxury travel, I’m not talking about celebrity influencers. The influencers who matter to you are the influencers who matter to your target audience. In the low-water landscape example, influencers might be professional landscapers and garden centers, real estate agents, garden clubs, community leaders, neighborhood tastemakers, and homeowners’ associations.

If you’re selling safety equipment, or healthcare products and services, to men, smart marketers target the women in their lives. (Case in point: a COVID-19 vaccination clinic invited patients to write the reasons they got vaccinated on a sticky note. The clinic shared the anonymous notes on social media. The number-one reason for men was, “My wife made me.”)

In B-to-B organizations, influencers include end-users — for example, IT techs who don’t have the authority to make a buying decision about hardware and development platforms, but who can tell their bosses which ones they want. Smart marketers have always done this kind of vertical targeting, by creating appropriate messaging and tactics for gatekeepers, end-users, technical decision-makers, and business decision-makers. Over the years, that’s evolved from small gifts for the receptionist and targeted brochures and presentations to online content that meets the needs of each influencer and decision-maker in the chain that leads to a sale. 

For many businesses, the most important influencers include professionals who recommend products and services.  These people may not even work for your customer. Depending on your business, these can include consultants, contractors, architects, accountants, attorneys, or any number of other specialists. 

It’s surprising how often these influencers are overlooked in marketing. When we began working with one of our clients, they were literally throwing away inquiries that came from one category of specialist, and only mildly engaging with another, because, as their sales director said, “we only want to talk to people who can write us checks.” Yet, an analysis of these two categories showed that fully half of the client’s inquiries came from these two kinds of influencers that the client was dismissing as worthless. Further, their direct customers might only buy their $100k products once or twice in a decade. But these influencers could each recommend them many times a year. 

In other words, there was a lot to be gained by showing these ignored influencers a little love, support, and respect. 

By developing online content, presentations, and tools and information that targeted those previously ignored influencers, we helped the client to double year-over-year sales and revenue. And half that revenue was generated, remarkably, by people who never spent a penny on one of the company’s products, and who never will. 

Woman who has toppled a brick wall
With the right strategy, your marketing can overcome resistance to change.

Strategy 3: Go for small wins and baby steps. 

Track your progress, test often, and build on your wins. Measure what counts — qualified leads, conversions, and above all, revenue. When you’re making headway on the low-hanging fruit (the people more responsive to change, and influencers), expand your efforts to re-engage audiences that are tougher. 

The first step in getting resistant audiences to change their minds is to change your own preconceived notions about what constitutes a compelling argument. Take the plunge. You’ll reap the rewards in revenue. 



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