– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Since Spring Training is now in full swing (no pun intended), I thought I would use a baseball analogy to introduce a marketing concept. In a baseball game it is common for a player to go to the “on-deck circle” when awaiting his/her turn at bat. While in the circle, the player usually puts a weight on the bat and swings the weighted bat around a few times.

Psychologists would call this a demonstration of the principle of perceptual contrast. It is hard to observe an object in a vacuum because everything is considered in comparison to everything else. The weighted bat feels heavy, which then makes the unweighted bat feel lighter, thus making players believe they have a “faster bat” or a quicker swing.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said “Everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures.” In my profession of brand development, the relative nature of product names is solid rationale for in-depth consideration of the competitive set.

An experiment by psychologists Zakary Tormala and Richard Petty applied the principle of perceptual contrast by measuring persuasion based on the amount of information people think they have about something in relation to the amount of information they learn about something else. The researchers asked people to read a persuasive message for two fictitious department stores, Brown’s and Smith’s. The message for Brown’s was always the second one read and never changed during the experiment; it described three departments of Brown’s. The message for Smith’s, which was always read first, varied from discussing one department through discussing six departments of Smith’s. Not surprisingly, the respondents felt more knowledgeable about Brown’s after learning relatively little about Smith’s, and vice versa, which demonstrates the principle of perceptual contrast.

By using perceptual contrast, you can change how others think about the brand name you develop. For example, in a previous Duets Blog post on Differentiation, I  discussed the client I had who wanted a descriptive name for a product that would exist in a category of descriptive brand names. To exaggerate, the client wanted a “Fast Pain Relief” name in a category with brands like “Ultra Fast Pain Relief,” “Super Fast Pain Relief,” “Faster Than Everyone Else Relief,” etc. I always present a wide range of options for names because I want the client to see the possibilities. However, in this case, the client selected a highly descriptive name that was similar to the other names in the category and now faces the uphill battle of driving differentiation through excellent marketing.  A well-differentiated name choice would have given him a head start.

What is a “best practice” case for use of perceptual contrast? Apple was an unusual name for a computer company, but it did stand out in a world of highly technical names such as Microsoft and VisiCalc. Perceptual contrast further enhanced the name choice by using competitive technical gibberish as the “weight on the bat” to help sell the simplicity of an Apple Computer. Check out this review of historical Apple ads and notice how the game changed even more when Apple introduced the “Think Different” campaign. The evolution of Apple advertising is a wonderful example of perceptual contrast in action!