Marketing Messenger/ Branding & Communications

Declared vs. Revealed Preference Threatens Usefulness Of VOC Research


by Tim Riesterer
Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer
Corporate Visions Inc.

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Article Highlights:

  • It’s easier to respond in certain ways when there is no cost involved.
  • You have to make the pain of remaining the same greater than the pain of change.
  • You must put your offering in direct contrast to what’s broken, and show how you make it better.

Marketers who rely heavily on voice-of-the-customer (VOC) research to develop their marketing messages are potentially being undermined by a phenomenon called “declared preference.” Believe it or not, customers and prospects don’t always react the way they say they will in focus groups and market research.

It’s why people may say they are “aggressive” investors when their financial planners do an assessment, but start panicking and pulling money from the market as soon as they lose a few points from their earnings, let alone their principles.

It’s also why people say they want higher gas mileage cars, and will even be willing to pay extra for “green” cars (and other environmentally friendly products), only to have those cars sit on the lots and green merchandise linger on the shelves.

VOC Doesn’t Identify Willingness To Change
VOC research identifies a declared or stated preference, while the actual decisions or behaviors represent “revealed preference.” As it turns out, it’s easier to respond in certain ways when there is no cost involved. You can answer more confidently in the hypothetical than you will perform in reality when money and reputation are part of the equation.

Your prospects can say all kinds of things and demonstrate all measures of bravado, as long as they don’t actually have to change anything. But in the actual decision-making process, the first “yes” you must get is their agreement to do something different than they are doing today. They have to say “yes” to taking the risk and making a change.

In VOC, prospects will tell you what they know. Those problems, challenges, and pains they express, while real, are not significant enough to get them to change. Why? Because they’ve already figured out how to work around those issues. So your so-called solution and the change management needed to bring you in looks more painful than the pains they are living with.

You have to make the pain of remaining the same greater than the pain of change. Interestingly, the problems, challenges, threats, gaps, or deficiencies that will cause prospects to reconsider their status quo are often unknown to them, or at a minimum, they are undervalued and underappreciated.

‘Why Change’ Messaging Transcends VOC
For your marketing messaging to be successful, you will need to deliberately create “why change” stories. I’m not talking about gratuitous references to customer pains at the beginning of your campaigns or collateral. You need to think about the entire first half of the customer buying cycle as creating a buying vision where the customer understands that his/her status quo is no longer safe, and gains a sense of urgency for change.

Use the knowledge of your solution’s unique and relevant strengths, as well as your collective experience solving problems for customers, integrated with your efforts to peer into the future of your industry and create an early-stage, executive-level story:

  • Disrupt: Your messages, presentations, and conversations need to deliberately provoke and disrupt the status quo in order to “wake” the part of the brain that decides to change.
  • Visualize: You will need to visualize the gaps in your customers’ current assumptions and show how these are putting their desired outcomes at risk. Simple pictures are needed to make the situation concrete and easy enough to grasp.
  • Amplify: Then, use third-party stats and results to show the magnitude and imminence of the potential negative impact if these things are left unchecked. This context creates a sense of urgency for change.
  • Contrast: Finally, you must put your offering in direct contrast to what’s broken, and show how you make it better. There must be enough contrast between the status quo and your solution for the prospect to see value in changing.

Following these four steps will help you craft marketing messages that create more opportunities and drive more purchase decisions in your favor.

About Tim Riesterer

A marketing and sales industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience, Tim Riesterer is the chief strategy and marketing officer for Corporate Visions Inc., a leading sales and marketing messaging company that works with B2B companies. Tim is also a recognized thought leader, practitioner, and author. His books, “Customer Message Management” and “Conversations that Win the Complex Sale,” focus on improving market-ready messages and tools that marketers and salespeople can use to win more deals. For easily integrated marketing and sales tips, visit