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The Blemishing Effect - a secret tactic to boost your sales

by 
 
January 30, 2020

Include a small con in order to bolster customers’ positive evaluations of your products. Sounds crazy? No, it's just the Blemishing Effect.

In this post you will learn how to apply Blemishing Effect in your sales strategy.

You will also learn:

  • the definition of the Blemishing Effect.
  • the limitations of the Blemishing Effect.
  • 2 strategies for applying the Blemishing Effect in the way you display products.

If you are interested in using a bit of psychology in your marketing and sales strategies, that post is for you.

Let's go.

The Blemishing Effect and how to use it to increase sales?

It’s rare that a purchase has no downside. Even if the product is exactly what a customer is looking for, there may be some feature that doesn’t measure up as well to rival products. How bad is it if your customers are taking stock of the cons as well as the pros of your products? New research suggests that, as long as you manage how the negative information is encountered, it may actually be a good thing.

The Blemishing Effect - title photo - a broken plate
Photo by chuttersnap

Blemishing Effect leads to Blossoming

In a series of experiments, Danit Ein-Gar (of the University of Tel Aviv), Baba Shiv, and Zakary Tormala (both of Stanford Graduate School of Business) examined what happened when they presented consumers with a small bit of negative information about products they were already evaluating. This negative information ranged from actual negative product attributes (e.g. “only two” color options for a pair of hiking boots) to sources of inconvenience (e.g. a set of champagne glasses that didn’t come with a hard box) to very minuscule or irrelevant details (e.g. the box for a pair of shoes was scuffed).

The authors found that under certain conditions (see below), having that little bit of negative information actually made consumers more likely to buy the product!

In other words, telling customers that there was something mildly bad about the product made it more attractive. The authors call this the “Blemishing Effect.”

Why would customers like a pair of hiking boots more just because they were given a small piece of negative information about them? The authors suggest that it may be a byproduct of the way we evaluate information, and (more importantly) how we always like to be right.

Blemishing Effect leads to Bolstering

The first and most essential thing to take into account about the Blemishing Effect is that it only works when the negative information is encountered after some stronger positive information. In other words, if you present the negative information first, or if the negative information is too negative, the effect goes away (and you may be worse off than if you had just never mentioned the negative at all).

Positive information needs to come first thanks to the Primacy Effect: arguments that customers encounter first will be more persuasive to them. This means customers can be made to develop a positive impression based on the initial positive information.

Next, when they encounter a (minor) piece of negative information, it will lead them to very briefly reevaluate their impression of the product. Because the positives still outweigh the minor negative, their opinion won’t change, but the mere process of thinking about it and coming to the conclusion that the product is still good will make them like it more. When people arrive at a judgment on their own, they hold that belief much more strongly.

To illustrate how this process works, consider a 1979 paper by Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper. The authors had 151 Stanford undergraduates read two studies about the effectiveness and merits of capital punishment. One of these studies “proved” that capital punishment was effective, while the other “proved” it was not. The authors had identified ahead of time which students were pro- or anti-capital punishment, and they used this information to determine whether students would first read the study that agreed with their beliefs or first read the study that differed from their beliefs.

Their most important finding was that students did not treat both studies equally. Instead, they would use the study with which they already agreed in order to concoct arguments to undermine or discredit the study with which they did not agree (a demonstration of the classic Confirmation Bias). Furthermore, despite the fact that they had read one pro- and one anti-capital punishment study, they tended to emerge from the experiment with a stronger belief that they had been right the whole time.

In other words, seeing arguments from both sides only made them double-down on their initial beliefs. The authors call this “Attitude Polarization” (and note that this is a heavily simplified version of their results).

Confirmation Bias resulting from The Blemishing Effect - mug reading "everyone is entitled to my opinion"
Photo by Steve Johnson

What does this have to do with product evaluations? Essentially the Blemishing Effect works in the same way as Attitude Polarization: because customers need to think about the product, and decide that the minor negative information is not as important as the positive information, they will reinforce their positive beliefs.

Limitations of the Blemishing Effect

Recall that I said the Blemishing Effect only arises under certain conditions. Here they are:

  • The positive information must outweigh the negative information.
  • The positive information must come before the negative information.
  • Consumers should not be too invested in the purchase decision.

As we’ve discussed, the Blemishing Effect arises because of natural biases in how customers evaluate information. However, this means that if they are willing to invest the time and cognitive resources to think carefully about the purchase, they can override these biases and the effect will go away (this is similar to many of the ideas in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow). If the negative information is very minor, this just means that you won’t get a boost from adding the negative (e.g. a scuffed shoebox won’t stop someone from buying shoes), but if it is more substantial, then it can actually hurt you (e.g. having a limited number of color options is undesirable).

Blemishing Effect leads to Buying

Blemishing Effect and its impact on sales - an image of a shopping bag
Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos

This suggests that the Blemishing Effect needs to be applied very carefully in the real world, and you may not expect to see the Blemishing Effect for products that people need to evaluate carefully. In other words, large, expensive, or otherwise important purchases probably won’t be helped by a Blemishing Effect. However, small or routine purchases might benefit from listing a small negative attribute (even if it seems irrelevant). Additionally, anytime you expect customers to be in a rush or otherwise distracted or depleted are times when you would also expect to see the Blemishing Effect arise.

Other than listing product attributes, there are two ways to blemish a product. One strategy is to call attention to a (mildly) unflattering product comparison. For example, having “two colors” as options for a pair of hiking boots is not necessarily seen as a negative until it is relabeled as “only two colors.”

The second and perhaps simplest approach is by scuffing the packaging, or (in the case of an online retailer) you might experiment with the unintuitive strategy of using lower quality or less professional product photos.

While Blemishing is a relatively delicate effect, some of takeaways from the research are still universal to all kinds of products. Notably, most products have features or attributes that are less appealing than others, so the research suggests that you should always list these attributes after you have listed some strong positive attributes. Putting the positive information first will still have the effect of making your customers’ first impression be something good.

Takeaways

  1. When listing pros and cons, always make sure you start with some strong pros before mentioning the cons. This will lead to customers advocating your product to themselves.
  2. If you have a product about which customers won’t be thinking too hard, include a small con (even if it’s irrelevant) in order to bolster customers’ positive evaluations of the product.

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