A New Marketing Measure: Psychological Distance

Electric cars seem to need more marketing help. President Obama's 2011 State of the Union speech made 1,000,000 electric cars by 2015 a goal, but we are nowhere close to achieving that. Notably, even the environmentally concerned Pope chose a gas-run car for his recent trip to the US. Electric cars are environmentally friendly and cost efficient in the long term, but the average consumer is not yet sold. Imagine you get the thankless job of marketing such a car. Do you try to make electric cars seem hip and fashionable, or do you want consumers to think about how the cars can serve their long-term goals? Research suggests that the former message should be delivered via relatively visual media such as Instagram, and the latter one via relatively verbal media such as Twitter.

Why? Studies show that a psychological factor that affects people's attitudes towards objects and events in the world, is how distant these objects and events seem to the individual, either in terms of time, location, and even socially. Evidence from the science of psychological distance indicates that people tend to prefer visual information when they think about objects and events that are close to them. In contrast, people tend to prefer verbal information when they think about objects and events that are far away from them. For example, suppose you are waiting for a table at your favorite Thai restaurant. There is a good chance that you will vividly imagine the color of the noodles you are planning to order, and the smell of that wonderful sauce they're using. However, if you schedule going to that same restaurant with friends a couple of weeks from now, you might be less likely to experience this type of vivid mental simulation. Rather, you are likely to think verbally about how long it takes to get a table, and that the menu offers many choices you like.

But how can the insight about the associations between "visual-close," and "verbal-far," help sell more electric cars? When it comes to marketing, there are at least two advantages for keeping what's close visual and what's far verbal: enhanced information processing, and increased likability.

A purchase starts with the attention, identification, and memory of a product. We have gathered evidence that suggests that people pay more attention, are faster at identifying, and have better memory for items when they see pictures of close objects, and verbal labels for far objects, than vice versa. For example, people are faster at identifying a picture of their local currency than a picture of a foreign currency. Surprisingly, though, they are faster at identifying the verbal label of the foreign currency than the verbal label of the local currency. These findings have direct implications for marketing. For example, an electric car that appears on a visual advertisement would receive more attention, be identified faster, and be more memorable if the advertisement highlighted the fact that electric cars are "fun" (which is an immediate reward), or that they are locally produced by in-group members ("See the USA in Your Chevrolet electric car"). In contrast, an advertisement for electric car that appears on verbal media (such as the radio or newspaper) and relies mostly on verbal content, would get more attention, be identified faster, and be more memorable if the advertisement highlighted the long-term cost-effective qualities of the car, the fact it is environmentally friendly, or the fact it is the "car of the future" ("See the Future in Your Chevrolet electric car").

Advertisers seem to get these ideas. You may well see a factory and factory workers in a TV commercial if a car is made in America. However, you are more likely to hear or read words celebrating "German engineering" if a car is made in that far-off land.

Notably, the advantages of getting the combinations of medium and distance right do not end at the information processing stage. Recent research supports the intuition that people have a preference for fluent (that is, easily processed) information than less fluent information. If, as our research shows, it is indeed easier to process pictures of close objects and verbal labels of far objects, then these medium-distance combinations should elicit higher likability and preference than other combinations. Our studies show exactly that. For example, in an experiment about cooking preferences, participants who viewed a visual recipe for pasta were more likely to try the recipe if a locally based chef created it, than if a chef from a distant location created it. Interestingly, this locality-bias was not present when the recipe was displayed verbally, with no added pictures. In other words, we have preference for what is local - but only if we learn about it from visual media.

The key lesson from this research is that it would be beneficial for advertisers to carefully match the dominant medium of the communication platform with the perceived social, physical or temporal distance of the product. For example, the framing of electric cars as "the car of the future" (that is, distant in time) or "imported" (that is, distant in space) might increase likability and preference on relatively verbal platforms such as Twitter. In contrast, the framing of "locally produced" (i.e., close in space) or exciting (i.e. immediately rewarding) might increase likability and preference more on relatively visual platforms such as Instagram and television.

There are now many more venues to market than there were just a few years ago. That abundance forces companies not to overlook the need to determine what message should go to which venue. The new science of psychological distance can help companies figure what to say in print and on Twitter, and what to show on television and Instagram.