Cognitive Dissonance in Branding: What is it and Why Does it Matter?

Have you ever skipped a workout even though you’ve set a goal of getting in shape? Do you lay in bed scrolling through Instagram even though you’re trying to sleep better? Or have you ever been rude to a slow cashier even though kindness to strangers is one of your most deeply held values?

All the above are examples of cognitive dissonance – when your mind holds opposing or irreconcilable ideas at the same time. It’s a fundamental principle of psychology and a powerful driver of consumer behavior.

Cognitive dissonance matters for brands because it reveals people’s deeply held beliefs. It’s also a window into what they value, desire, and fear, and how they want to be perceived. These are the beliefs that drive consumer behavior. Strong brands identify these subconscious drivers and narrow the gap between what people believe and what they do. Thus, making it much easier for a person to become a customer.

What Cognitive Dissonance Means in a Brand Context

Cognitive dissonance is relevant for brands in terms of:

  • The expectations consumers have for your brand and product.
  • The way consumers relate to your brand and product, based on their value and belief systems.

By expectations, we refer to your brand design, the features of your product, or the language your brand uses in their marketing. Consumers expect that a serious product, like diabetes medication, uses authoritative language and understated design. If the product had a whimsical logo with bright colors, and was accompanied by humor-focused marketing, this would create cognitive dissonance for the consumer. The result? They would avoid your product altogether.

In identifying consumer value and belief systems, we’re first pointing to the internal cognitive dissonance that occurs when a consumer experiences ambivalent and conflicting thoughts and emotions toward your brand and product(s). If you are misaligned with consumers on this front, expect them to go for another brand and product instead.

Cognitive dissonance in consumers may also be the result of certain behaviors in their own life that they want to change, and how those planned changes directly conflict with the product or service you’re promoting to them. It’s, therefore, crucial that you target the right audience with your marketing efforts.

Cognitive Dissonance Examples in Brand Design and Identity

Both types of cognitive dissonance are equally important for the brands, but the first of these is a bit simpler, so let’s explore it first. People have certain expectations around what brands should look and sound like, based on the products or services they offer. Let’s look at the various aspects of brand design that have the potential to create cognitive dissonance:

Color

Think about what colors make the most sense for your brand. If a sports team associated with the colors blue and orange unveils a new mascot in a green and purple outfit, it won’t be well-received.

Shapes

Shapes can be soft or sharp, perfectly straight or hand-drawn, open or closed. Using shapes that don’t match with your brand identity will create cognitive dissonance.

Logo Design

Studies on visual design show that people become uncomfortable when they see a logo confined tightly within a restricting shape. So uncomfortable, in fact, that they want to avoid that logo and brand. So, when you’re creating a logo, consider this feature along with the shapes and colors of your design.

Font

Font says a lot about the identity of a brand. Imagine a comedy network using a somber font like Times New Roman. How about the website for a business consultancy being written in Comic Sans? These are both choices that fly in the face of what people expect, and thus create cognitive dissonance for people who encounter it.

Tone of Voice

Think about what you want your brand to sound like in different situations and how your customers perceive your language. If you are a pharmaceutical company, it’s obvious that you shouldn’t throw in puns or emojis when talking about a new cancer medication. But there are more nuanced tones in language as well.

For example, innovative companies tend to use short, statement-like sentences to communicate their messages. Apple, for example, could say “Your next computer is not a computer. The world’s most advanced mobile display. So fast most PC laptops can’t catch up.” This type of language creates urgency and paints a picture of the vision Apple has for their new iPad.

Cognitive Dissonance for the Consumer

Now, let’s move on to the consumer’s internal cognitive dissonance. That is, the gap between their own beliefs and actions. This type of cognitive dissonance can manifest in a couple of ways, both of which businesses can address in their branding and product design.

The first way cognitive dissonance manifests is through guilt and regret over buying a product. Buyer’s remorse is one of the most familiar forms of cognitive dissonance. Imagine splurging on a pair of expensive jeans, and then feeling guilty because you value financial responsibility. You can reduce your cognitive dissonance by:

Changing Your Behavior

You can change your behavior by simply returning the jeans. Voila – it’s like you never bought them, and so your actions are once again aligned with your values.

Changing Your Beliefs

You can try to change your beliefs by convincing yourself that financial responsibility isn’t all that important. You might tell yourself that practicing self-care (by buying yourself nice things, like the jeans) is a higher priority.

Changing How You Perceive Your Beliefs

Here, you get to keep the jeans and continue to value financial responsibility. You take steps to convince yourself that buying the jeans was, indeed, a financially responsible decision. You can do this by wearing the pair of jeans all the time so that you get more bang for your buck, or by reading tons of positive reviews that reinforce how great the pair is. Suddenly, it feels like a very reasonable choice!

Brands can leverage this type of cognitive dissonance and tap into a large market by helping consumers change the way they perceive their behavior – in other words, making it easy for them to justify purchasing your product.

Cognitive dissonance can manifest for a consumer in relation to their own actions and beliefs. Say a person wants to lose weight but they simply can’t stop eating two cookies every night. Just as with buyers’ remorse, the person can address this cognitive dissonance by changing their behavior, changing their beliefs, or changing how they perceive their behavior. When a brand can help a person lessen their cognitive dissonance, they unlock a huge opportunity.

Brands That Are Leveraging Cognitive Dissonance

Let’s look at a couple examples to clarify how brands can use cognitive dissonance to grow.

MyFitnessPal

Say someone wants to lose weight, but they can’t seem to eat more healthily. They experience cognitive dissonance between their behavior and who they want to be. Food tracking apps like MyFitnessPal give them transparency into what they’re eating, but don’t do anything to change their behavior or attitude.

Noom

The app Noom, on the other hand, knows that oftentimes people make poor diet choices for a variety of reasons, and you need to change those underlying reasons rather than just throwing poor choices into starker relief. Noom uses psychological principles to educate users about the consequences of each food choice, subtly shifting their attitudes toward various foods. Eventually, this helps change the user’s desires, closing the gap between what they want and what they do. There’s now a new behavior (eating more healthily) coupled with a new perception of that behavior (“I’m knowledgeable about my food and make choices that support my health.”).

Amazon

Let’s take charity as another example. Someone considers themselves a generous and charitable person, but they ignore the letters that come in from St. Jude asking for money to fight cancer in children. This creates cognitive dissonance. Enter Amazon: their website smile.amazon.com donates 0.5% of the price of select purchases to your charity of choice – all you have to do is opt in when the website prompts you. Humans tend to behave selfishly, which makes it difficult to give to charity, but when you’re getting something in return (whatever you’re buying from Amazon), it’s easier. The cognitive dissonance is removed, and people are more likely to shop from Amazon again.

How to Use Cognitive Dissonance to Build Your Brand and Grow Business

So, by now, you probably want to leverage the power of cognitive dissonance for your brand. Here’s how:

  • Look inward. When in your life do you experience cognitive dissonance? Try to observe the world through this lens for a few weeks, and you’ll notice the discomfort that you feel when your actions don’t align with your values. By doing this sort of introspection, you’ll more easily notice cognitive dissonance in others and for your brand.
  • Consider your users. Why do users come to your brand? What compels them to become users or customers? Anything holding them back? What do they value? Find their pain points and see if you can unearth any cognitive dissonance that underlies them (spoiler alert: you probably will).
  • Figure out your approach. How will you lessen consumers’ cognitive dissonance? Will it be by changing their belief, changing/adapting their behavior, or changing their perception of their behavior? You don’t have to opt for just one pathway here – changing more than one aspect can be even more effective.
  • Recognize that different types and degrees of cognitive dissonance require different approaches. Consider the dissonance a smoker feels when they think about the health risks of cigarettes vs. the dissonance a healthy millennial feels when they eat too many Cheetos in bed – you’ll want to be sensitive to the emotional and psychological intensity of the dissonance in how you try to resolve it.

In the end, the main takeaway for brands is that people want to feel good about their choices. If your brand can do that for somebody, they’re bound to become a loyal customer.


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