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SMU 102 - Session 4: Copywriting & Psychology

image representing consumer psychology

Purpose/Aim of this session

This session builds upon your initial knowledge of consumer psychology covered in SMU101: An Introduction to Branding. In this session you will explore internal and external factors that influence audience behaviours.

Any marketing strategy aims to influence people’s behaviour in a way that has desirable outcomes. These outcomes could be purchases, subscriptions, enrolling on a university course, making a donation - and more.  In order to create these strategies, marketers first need to understand the complex way in which people behave as consumers. What is going on in a consumers mind when engaging in purchasing activities? 

Psychology is the other side of the demographic's coin. Demographics reveals who are audience is. Psychology tells us how they think and their thought patterns when it comes to purchasing decisions. Understanding the psychology side of this coin improves a copywriter's goal in getting an audience members to say "Yes" through the copy they write.

Learning Aims for this session:

  • You will explore the psychological factors underlying consumer choice
  • You will explore the core concepts in consumer psychology
  • You will develop an understanding of how people process information. This includes Cognition – thinking, understanding and interpreting stimulus events
  • You will explore the concepts of Culture; the effect of social environment on behaviour; cultural analysis and cultural meanings;  and the cultural process model

Learning Outcomes for this session:

At the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the psychological structures and processes involved in consumer choice
  • Explain the ways in which attitudes affect consumer choice - referencing attitude as a set of processed beliefs
  • Apply theory to practice by developing marketing solutions and strategies
  • Critically evaluate and apply the theory of Consumer Psychology to the development of brand copywriting strategies

How this Session Works:

  1. Read through the Overview that accompanies this session. This provides an overall context for the session
  2. Work your way through the items on the Preparatory section that accompanies this session
  3. Listen to the Lecture that accompanies this session
  4. Work your way through the branding scenarios in the "Scenario" tab. Scenarios are practical activities to develop your critical thinking and apply your knowledge to a specific component of copywriting
  5. Work your way through the template in the "Template" tab. The template will support you as you take the first steps in developing your own brand messaging copy
  6. You can browse through some carefully selected material in the "Reading Room" tab. These materials will build upon your knowledge of copywriting

SMU 102 Session 4 Study Activities

  • Overview
  • Preparatory Activities
  • Lecture
  • Scenarios
  • Template
  • Reading Room

left brain right brain consumer psychology image

Copywriting is as much about psychology as it is about writing.

There are entire courses focused on consumer behaviour. It is a massive field of study. This session is designed to introduce you to the subject matter - and provide you with a strong basis in which to incorporate consumer psychology within your brand copy. Consumer psychology and behaviour is something we focus on specifically throughout Level 3.

You can be a great writer, but if you don't know very much about how people think, you won’t succeed as a copywriter. On the other hand, you can be only a fair writer, and if you have a deep understanding of the human mind, you could do very well writing copy.

People can be pretty hard to figure out sometimes. Even though I’m a lifelong student of human behavior, I'm still learning.

Providing an initial introduction to something as complicated and complex as consumer psychology is a little tricky. However, over the years of teaching this introductory level material, there are a few things we’ve learned that shape the way we have successfully taught this to students. They incorporated this knowledge into their branding copy...producing copy that motivates, persuades, and sells.

consumer psychology image

Below is a great video that introduces you to the topic.

Below is the short list of what we will cover in this session:

People make decisions emotionally.

People decide fairly quickly, based on a feeling, need, or emotion. Usually, therefore, intangible benefits are the key to persuasion. Even for offer-driven promotions and business-to-business marketing, there is an emotional core to every decision. Always ask yourself, "What is the emotional hot button here?"

People justify decisions with reason.

Example: A woman sees a dress in a catalog and instantly wants it. But she hesitates because it’s so expensive. However, the copy provides details on the quality of the fabric, the close stitching, and how buying the dress is an investment. This justification allows her to act on her emotional impulse.

The lesson? Give people reasons to help them justify a purchase.

Another example: I know a guy who bought a very expensive handmade long board for surfing. He needed a new long board and wanted one that fit his style of surfing.  He went on for an hour reciting his reasons for owning this seeming luxury instead of buying a standard long board. Pure justification.

People put off making decisions.

Psychology and sales experience reveal two interesting facts:

  1. The longer a decision is postponed, the more likely a decision will never be made; and
  2. The sooner you can provoke a decision, the more likely it is to be in your favor.

This is why we have to simplify the decision-making process in every promotion and force a quick response whenever possible. Specific deadlines are particularly powerful.

People are egocentric.

Not "egotistic," but "egocentric." That means centered on the ego or self. Anytime you ask someone to do something, you must answer that person’s unstated question, "What’s in it for me?"

On a deeper level, the question might be, "How does this give me feelings of personal worth?" We all see the world and everything in it in terms of how it relates to us personally. That’s why features must be translated into benefits.

People are unpredictable.

Even those of us who ponder consumer psychology can never predict with any certainty how people will act in a real-world situation. The equation is just too complex. You can formulate hypotheses about why people do what they do. You can ask people what they think and like. But in the end, you never know how people will respond to your copy until they read it.

As a copywriter, you must be willing to put preconceived notions aside and trust the results of testing. You might think you know the right answer, but customers will always tell you what works and what doesn’t through their actions. Listen to them.

People seek fulfillment. Love. Wealth. Glory. Comfort. Safety. People are naturally dissatisfied and spend their lives searching for intangibles. At its simplest, copywriting is a matter of showing people how a particular product or service fulfills one or more of their needs.

Always remember that motivations always have deeper motivations. You seek wealth for security. You seek security because you fear change. You fear change because … well, you get the idea.

People usually follow the crowd.

We look to others for guidance, especially when we are uncertain about something. We tacitly ask, "What do others think about this?" "What do others feel?" "What do others do?" Then we act accordingly.

A related concept is what is called the "Bandwagon Effect." When lots of people do something, that thing becomes more than acceptable and, in fact, becomes desirable. This is one reason why testimonials and case histories are so influential.

People fear loss.

In general, the fear of loss is more powerful than the hope of gain. And this fear includes (1) losing something you have and (2) losing the chance to have something you want.

By properly manipulating the instinct to avoid loss, you can trigger a favorable response to your offer. But don’t turn every appeal into fear. As we've previously covered, fear is powerful, but tricky. A positive approach is usually easier to pull off.

There’s a lot more to consumer psychology than this. However, these ideas can take you a long way in developing effective brand copy.

Read More
  1. Copywriting uses 3 rhetorical strategies: pathos, logos, and ethos. These strategies are defined in the sheet below. Rhetoric is an important psychological device, which will become apparent as you familiarize yourself with these 3 strategies. It's helpful to think of these rhetorical strategies like those used in a persuasive writing assignment. You'll be using these strategies when you produce your own brand messages. Note: The word 'logos' in this context should not be confused with a brand-specific image or insignia referred to as a logo.

    3. Logos Ethos Pathos Chart by John Lukezic

  2. More example of advertising strategies using ethos, pathos and logos can be accessed here

  3. The video below deepens your understanding of the concepts of pathos, logos, and ethos with visual examples. The video explains how the television, print, and online advertisements utilize the three rhetorical strategies. The narration in the commercial further explains their use in each advertisement.

  4. Best selling author of Drive and star of the most-viewed RSA Animate, Dan Pink visits the RSA to explore the ways in which we can all improve our everyday sales skills, and identifies the personal qualities and essential skills necessary to move people. The questions and concepts Dan covers are some of the basic elements copywriters must grapple with before putting pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard.

  5. Please read Collins, R. 2013. Understanding Buyer Psychology, Buyer Seller Insights., 14 May 2013.

  6. Remember the key points from the Dan Pink video and Collins reading, please think 9and apply) those key points when watching the video below. Empathy is a powerful psychological force. Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical activist Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society.

    Taken from a lecture given by Jeremy Rifkin as part of the RSA's free public events programme. Apply "mirroring" and empathy in a psychological context of creating authentic copywriting and brand messaging that touches emotional triggers. While it it's short, this is nevertheless a powerful video. Every time I've shown it in a campus-based lecture, students require about 5 to 8 minutes to really wrap their heads around it. Without exception, all said this video ramped up their copywriting abilities

  7. Time perspective is another critical factor that has a psychological impact. Are you a past, present or future orientated person? How dies this impact your purchasing decisions? What kinds of services or products are influenced by past, present and future considerations or motivations? If you're product or service is future orientated, how do you produce copy that will appeal to present present people? Understanding this concept also greatly improves the production of clearly focused branding copy.

    The video below is of particular note for international brands. I will provide one caveat. There speaker presents time motivational concepts based on traditional religious affiliations. This has upset more than a few of my previous students. I will say to you what I say to them: focus on the larger philosophical-psychological message. The speaker places no judgements. He casts no aspersions. When he mentions the timer perspectives and the influences of religious denominations. he does so to illustrate his larger point.

    Typically shown in small group tutorial sessions, this is video we use to get students to think about time perspective, the brand they are producing copy for - and producing copy that resonates with the time perspective of an audience.

  8. Choice is another powerful psychological force when it comes to consumer behaviour and psychology. In this RSA Animate, Professor Renata Salecl explores the paralysing anxiety and dissatisfaction surrounding limitless choice. Does the freedom to be the architects of our own lives actually hinder rather than help us? Does our preoccupation with choosing and consuming actually obstruct change?

    How will your copy convey that your product or service is the most ideal choice for a consumer? If a consumer chooses your product or service, how will your copy compel them to believe the feeling of loss they might suffer will be minimal?

  9. Please read: Kotler, P., and Armstrong, G. 2007. Principles of Marketing, Chapter 7: Part 3: Designing a Customer-Driven Marketing Strategy and Integrated Marketing Mix, Academic Internet Publishers, pp. 182-215.

  10. Please read: Moriarty, S., Mitchell, N.D., Wells, W.D. 2012. Advertising & IMC: Principles and Practice Plus, Part 3: Practice: Where is Creative Headed?, Chapter 8: The Creative Side, Prentice Hall, pp 252-285.

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The lecture videos below focus on the subject of copywriting and psychology - better known as consumer behaviour.

Video Lecture Part 1

Video Lecture Part 2

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Before starting the scenarios, please read:

Clow, K.E. and Baack, D. 2010.  Marketing Management: A Customer-Oriented Approach, Chapter 2: Market Analysis, SAGE Publications, Inc, pp. 24-55.

  1. Download the document which appears below. Use this to answer the questions in Part 2 of this activity.

    SMU102 Session 4 Scenario - The Use of Ethos Pathos and Logos by SocialMediaU-USA

  2. Review the six advertisements below. After viewing each one, write your answers in the scenario document you have downloaded.

Here's an example to illustrate how the scenarios works:

Magazine advert: OPI nail polish

OPI Nail polish magazine advert feauring Nicki Minaj

Scenario Assessment Answer:

This OPI nail polish advertisement uses the Ethos strategy by featuring celebrity Nicki Minaj. The ad uses the device of a picture of Nicki showing off her line of nail polish. Teenagers will be drawn to this ad because they will recognize Nicki and will be interested in what she's promoting. The tag line "Stylish and sassy shades inspired by the Queen of Hip Hop" this ad exudes a fresh and youthful vibe. Note the use of colour and fonts

Scenario Activity

2 x magazine adverts

biore magazine advert example

Acuvue advertisement image


2 x television commercials

2 x internet adverts

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Use the template below to guide you through applying what you have learned about writing audience-focused copy and applying this to writing copy that works on a psychological level.

SMU102 Session 4 Template - Copywriting and Psychology by SocialMediaU-USA

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The Reading Room for this session provides carefully selected resources for you to further explore copywriting concepts, elements, issues and practice.

Alfano, C. and O'Brien, A. 2005. Envision: Persuasive Writing in a Visual World, Pearson Longman, New York.

Belk, R. W. 1988. Possessions and the Extended Self, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 1, September 1988, pp. 139-168.

Bergadaa, M. M. 1990. The role of time in the action of the consumer. Journal of Consumer Researchh, 17 December, pp 289–302.

Boden, S. and Williams, S. J. 2002. Consumption and Emotion: The Romantic Ethic Revisited, Sage Publications.

Brennan, L. and Binney, W. 2010. Fear, guilt and shame appeals in social marketing, Journal of Business Research, 63 (2), pp. 140-146.

Campbell, C. 1995. Conspicuous Confusion? A Critique of Veblen's Theory of Conspicuous Consumption, Sociological Theory, Vol. 13, No. 1, Mar., 1995, pp. 37-47.

Chen, H., Ng, S., and Rao, A. R. 2005. Cultural Differences in Consumer Impatience, Journal of Marketing Research ,Vol. XLII, August 2005, 291–301.

Ciotti, G. 10 Ways to Convert More Customers Using Psychology.

di Muro, F. and Murray, K. B. 2012. An Arousal Regulation Explanation of Mood Effects on Consumer Choice, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 39, 2012.

Gooruze, The Psychology of Copywriting.

Khan, M. 2006. Consumer Behaviour and Advertising Management, New Age International (P) Ltd, New Delhi.

Longaker, M.G. and Walker, J. 2011. Rhetorical Analysis, CourseSmart eTextbook, Chapter 7, Pearson.

Lwin, M. and Phau, I. 2008. Guilt appeals in advertising: the mediating roles of inferences of
manipulative intent and attitude towards advertising, Proceedings of Australian and New Zealand Marketing Academy Conference, Dec 1 2008. Olympic Park,Sydney: University of Western Sydney.

Mogilner, C., Aaker, J., and Kamvar, S. D. 2012. How Happiness Affects Choice, Journal of Consumer Research,
Vol. 39, No. 2, August 2012, pp. 429-443.

Morgan, A. J. 1993. The Evolving Self in Consumer Behavior: Exploring Possible Selves, Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 20, 1993, pp 429-432.

Page, C. 1992. A History of Conspicuous Consumption, in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, Association for Consumer Research, pp 82-87.

Palan, K. M. 2001. Gender Identity in Consumer Behavior Research: A Literature Review and Research Agenda, Academy of Marketing Science Review, Vol. 2001, No. 10.

Peter, J. P. and Olson, J. C. 2010.  Consumer Behavior & Marketing Strategy, Ninth Edition, McGraw-Hill Irwin, New York. [NOTE: This service requires a membership, which is free. You can sign in using your Google ID, Facebook Profile ID or create a free account].

Pieters, R. 2013. Bidirectional Dynamics of Materialism and Loneliness: Not Just a Vicious Cycle, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 40, December 2013.

Zhou, X., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Shi, K., and Feng, C. 2012. Nostalgia: The Gift That Keeps on Giving, Journal of Consumer Research,Vol. 39, No. 1, June 2012, pp. 39-50.

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