Cognitive dissonance in branding: What is it and why does it matter?

Sep 08, 2020

Have you ever skipped a workout even though you’ve set a goal of getting in shape? Or laid in bed scrolling through Instagram at night even though you’re trying to improve sleep ? Or been rude to a slow cashier even though kindness to strangers is one of your most deeply held values? All of these are examples of cognitive dissonance, when your mind holds opposing or irreconcilable ideas at the same time. It’s a fundamental principle of psychology, but turns out it’s also a powerful driver of consumer behavior.

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

What Cognitive Dissonance Means In A Brand Context

 There are a couple different ways that cognitive dissonance is relevant for brands:

  • In terms of the expectations consumers have for your brand/product.
  • In terms of the values and beliefs of the individual consumer, as it relates to how they use your brand/product.

With number one, we’re talking about expectations for things like what your brand design looks like, features your product will have, or the language your brand uses in their marketing. For example, consumers would expect that a serious product, like diabetes medication, would use authoritative language and understated design. If it had a whimsical logo with bright colors and humor-focused marketing, this would create cognitive dissonance for the consumer, and they’d avoid that feeling by avoiding the product.  

With number two, we’re talking about internal cognitive dissonance that a consumer feels about whether or not to use a product, or about certain behaviors in their own life that they want to change.

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.

Cognitive Dissonance In Brand Design and Identity

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:

Think about what colors make the most sense for your brand. So 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 because of the cognitive dissonance it creates.

Shapes can be soft or sharp, perfectly straight or hand-drawn, open or closed. Each choice conveys something about your brand, and using shapes that don’t match 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 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 says a lot about the identity of a brand. Imagine a comedy network using a somber font like Times New Roman, or 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 ways, both of which businesses can address in their branding and product design.

The first way cognitive dissonance manifests is through guilt or regret over purchasing a product. Buyer’s remorse is one of the most familiar forms of cognitive dissonance. Imagine that you splurged on a pair of expensive jeans, and then feel guilty because you value financial responsibility. In this situation, you can try to reduce your cognitive dissonance in a number of different ways. 

  • Changing your behavior. Here, you can change your behavior by simply returning the jeans. Voilà — it’s like you never bought them, and so your actions are once again aligned with your values.
  • Changing your beliefs. Here, you try to change your beliefs by convincing yourself that financial responsibility isn’t actually 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 keep the jeans and you continue to value financial responsibility, but take steps to convince yourself that purchasing the jeans was, indeed, a financially responsible decision. You could do this by wearing the 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 jeans were. 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 their purchase of your product.

The second way that cognitive dissonance can manifest for a consumer is with regard to the consumer’s own actions and beliefs. Say a person wants to lose weight but they simply can’t stop eating two cookies every night (who can relate?). 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.

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.  

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.”). 

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 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.

Red meat is another great example. Many people value the environment and animal rights, but just love burgers too much to give up red meat. Brands like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger have allowed people to completely eliminate their cognitive dissonance: they get to eat burgers that taste just like meat without compromising their moral integrity. Win-win-win!

All of these examples show how powerful it is when brands give you permission to be who you are and do what you want to do, without feeling discomfort about your own internal contradictions.

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 begin to 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? What holds them back? What do they value? Identify 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 return to you again and again.


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