Is your brand tapping into tension?

We were walking through the cobblestone streets of Venice when I spotted them in the window. The boots I’d told myself I was going to find on our European adventure.

They were perfect in every way (on the shelf). On my feet? They were ever-so-slightly too tight.

The store assistant told me in her sing-song Italian accent that they were the last ones, and that there were no larger sizes.

So I did what anyone in love does. I bought the boots. I told myself they’d stretch. That I’d just have to wear super thin socks with them. Ha!

I think we all know where this is headed. The boots made their way back to my wardrobe in Perth, and sat there as a reminder of my poor choices. I’ve always felt guilty about that purchase.

I bet you’ve had a similar experience with that uneasy feeling, also known as ‘cognitive dissonance’. It’s the tension you feel when your ideas, beliefs, or behaviours contradict each other. 

For me, believing that I’m a savvy shopper and generally pretty good with money kinda contradicts me buying expensive Italian boots that are too small for me. But, it rears its head in a number of situations. For example—

  • Many people like to think they’re pretty generous, but when asked to donate to a cause, even if it aligns with their values, they don’t always say yes.
  • Many people know that sugary food is making them sick, but refuse to give up sugar in their morning coffee.
  • Many people believe that global warming is a serious threat, but don’t take any action to reduce their personal emissions.

We’re all walking contradictions. But, why the disconnect? A barrage of reasons, from long-formed habits and attitudes, to not feeling personally responsible for taking action. Either way, our actions are incongruent with our beliefs, and if pressed, we’re likely to admit feeling a bit guilty.

When dissonance strikes, we want to take action to reduce it. We can do that by—

  • Changing our actions; or 
  • Changing our perception of the situation; or
  • Changing our beliefs

Tension in action

As brands, we can use this tension for good. To deliver on our brand promise, create change and spur people into action by providing relief from the dissonance.

Take MSWA, for example. They provide support to ‘people living with all neurological conditions in Western Australia.’

I used to work for a not-for-profit, and I found that aside from the regular donors, the bulk of people usually ‘love your cause’ but when prompted, don’t donate, perhaps deterred by questions about ‘how much of an impact a small amount will really have’ and ‘where they money really goes’.

But still, MSWA manages to raise a huge amount of money every year with their incredibly successful raffles, because they changed the action from giving, to giving with the excitement of winning something life-changing.

People who struggle to drop $5 on the fruit wheel at the casino are gambling $100 for the opportunity to win a beautiful home, car or holiday.

When they think of how charitable and generous they are, their actions match their beliefs. And even if they lose, they don’t feel their money was ‘wasted’ because they know it’s helping families who need it. The dissonance they might have felt is pacified by a change in action.

It’s not just not-for-profits, there are so many brands tapping into tension—

  • For the people who don’t want to eat meat anymore, but can’t seem to shake the habit, their dissonance is eased by the Beyond Burger (and many other meat alternatives) which look and taste like meat.
  • For the people who consider themselves to be ‘well read’, but don’t have the time to actually read, their dissonance is eased by Blinkist.
  • For people who consider themselves to be productive community members, but who suffer with depression or pain, their dissonance is eased by MedMen. This brand is trying to shake the ‘stoner’ image, change perceptions of what it means to consume marijuana and change beliefs about its risks.

How you can use tension

Every great story has a moment of tension, where the hero faces a dilemma. Should they keep treading the same path even though they feel the unease of dissonance, or take action to better align their beliefs, attitudes and actions?

Unlocking the hidden tension in your brand narrative requires an understanding of your customers and what they think about themselves and the world (even if they don’t say it). Once you know where tension exists, you can help to alleviate it—

  • Before they buy—by helping them to see and feel the dissonance between their current beliefs, attitudes and actions with your marketing messages and content.
  • After they buy— by helping to reduce dissonance they might feel by making the purchase by addressing their concerns head-on, helping them get the intended benefit as quickly as possible and offering encouragement and support.

Over to you! How can you use tension to help your customers make a positive change in their lives? If you want to learn more about the idea of tension, I highly recommend checking out Seth Godin’s blog and books.

Think your audience or friends might be able to use tension for their business? I’d love it if you shared this article with them too.

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Written by

Lisa D'Andrea

As our brand strategist and website copywriter, Lisa loves helping people clarify their message so that people listen.

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