Why we buy from winners

Image by Mike Mozart

I’ve been thinking a lot about Air Jordans and Donald Trump lately.

Kids in the 80’s bought Air Jordans because they wanted to “be like Mike.”

People buy Trump’s book, How to Get Rich, because they want to be wealthy like him. As Jeffrey Pfeffer explains in this Forbes article:

People are seemingly hard-wired to associate with and embrace success.

Folks act aspirationally. They’re motivated to buy because they perceive Jordan and Trump as winners.

There are three cognitive biases at play here.

1. Selective perception

Human beings have pre-conceived beliefs that drive their decision making. One such belief is that wealthy people are infallible. In his interview with Bill Simmons, Chris Sacca explains:

The minute you’re labeled a billionaire in this country everyone takes everything you say as bible. It’s just, you can do no wrong, like, they just think, “Well, that guy’s smart, he made a bunch of money, he must be a genius.” And it’s completely untrue, obviously. You know a lot of billionaires who are wrong about a lot of things.

For many, prosperity is the ultimate dream. People who desire to be rich respond favorably to messages from wealthy people.

2. Basking in reflected glory

In 1976, Robert Cialdini did a study of six universities and their football teams. He noticed a trend. After a victory by their school’s team, students were more likely to:

This is called “basking in reflected glory” (or BIRGing, which I like even better). Our desire is to align ourselves with winners, and cut ourselves off from losers. Subconsciously we believe that our connection with winners also makes us a winner.

This also explains why we brag when we meet someone famous. As we tell the story, we’re “basking” in their fame (even if it’s just a reflection).

3. The bandwagon effect

Some products launch, and there’s an instant buzz about them. Everyone’s talking about it, trying it, or wanting to try it.

It’s especially noticeable with fashion trends. If you lived through the 80’s, you remember Hypercolor t-shirts. Today, you’ll see this in technology: people seem to rush to social apps in groups (Snapchat anyone?).

What causes a product to suddenly become popular?

As more people come to believe in something, others also “hop on the bandwagon” regardless of the underlying evidence. People decide to ignore their personal information signals and follow the behavior of others.

Despite our desire to be individuals, our propensity is to conform to the movement of the larger group.


People make their purchasing decisions emotionally, and then try to justify them rationally.

This is how Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) explains Trump’s success:

The evidence is that Trump completely ignores reality and rational thinking in favor of emotional appeal. He knows facts don’t matter. He knows people are irrational. No one ever voted for a president based on his or her ability to name heads of state. People vote based on emotion. Period.

What does this mean for makers?

People have an innate desire to be on a winning team. It manifests itself in choices we make all the time:

I hate that this is how we humans act. I want to make things that matter, and have people buy them based on the merits of my product.

This truth about humanity presents me with a conundrum: what do I do about it?

For example: I write books about marketing and products. I could use a psychological tactic called signalling to communicate my success to others. Dan Ariely, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, explains:

The large and colorful tail of the male peacock tells the female peacock about his strength and virility. In the same way, we humans are concerned with the signals we send the people around us about who we are. Signaling is part of the reason we buy large homes, dress up in designer clothes and buy particular cars. The car that you drive communicates something about you to the world.

It’s possible that if I pose with a Porsche, people will buy more of my books. But the truth is, my dream vehicle is a bicycle. My wife and I just make a conscious decision to downsize our home. I don’t want to fly first class, because I don’t want to fly at all.

What should I do?

Here are three ways I’m thinking about this currently:

1. You can’t fight human nature

Instead of fighting against these biases, use judo. Instead of trying to swim upstream, try to divert the flow in a positive direction.

2. Recognize where you’re already a winner

“Everyone is an authority on something,” my friend Jarrod Drysdale explains, “show your accomplishments.” If you’ve written for Time Magazine, put the logo on your website. If you won the 2013 State Science Fair, put that in your byline. Worked with a big name customer? Ask them for a testimonial.

Jeffrey Zeldman just launched a new studio site. I think he strikes a good balance between displaying his accolades and showing how he can help his customers.

3. Build authority the honest way

Being known as the person who helps others is the best reputation you can have.

Commit yourself to caring for people, listening to them, and offering them something of value. These will be small wins, but over time these acts of kindness add up.

Again, I like how my buddy Jarrod puts it: “Even if you’re aren’t famous, you can still build trust by helping individuals one at a time.”


You’re not Michael Jordan and you’re not Donald Trump.

Thankfully, helping people in a genuine way cuts through all cognitive biases. Stay focused on that, and you’ll win the affection of many.

Cheers,
Justin Jackson
@mijustin

Image by Mike Mozart.

Further reading:

PS: This is an early draft of a chapter I wrote for my new book, Jolt. You can get a free chapter below:

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Weird marketing ideas for programmers, designers, freelancers, makers, and entrepreneurs.

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Published on June 14, 2016