Do you know about the distinction – and it’s a useful one –
between communication that tries to reinforce and communication
that tries to get change?
If you follow politics you’ll already be familiar with this
idea: Incumbents send messages that reinforce existing voter
behavior, while challengers call for changes.
Any thoughtful marketing communication (and political
communication is marketing communication) will be strongly
influenced by this distinction, which affects not only the
content, but also the presentation, and perhaps even the medium.
For example, suppose you own a bookstore and every couple of
months you send a newsletter to all residences within a two mile
Now, if you have good market share and you’re profitable, you
won’t want to rock the boat. You’ll want to reinforce existing
behaviors (which include buying at your store).
On the other hand, if you just opened a new bookstore and need
to take market share from other bookstores, then you want change
existing book buying behavior.
Another example: Suppose your employee safety program has worked
well for the past year and you want to maintain the practices
that led to this longest-ever period without an accident. Your
communication would reinforce. On the other hand, if the safety
record was unacceptable, you would try to get change through
In a change situation, we want to upset the status quo, to
challenge existing beliefs and ways of doing things. That means
the words and style could be somewhat inflammatory.
We can do this by making bold claims or allegations: Just listen
to, or look at, advertising claims like these: “If you shop at
Joe’s Bookstore, you may be paying too much!” or, “Drive a bit
further and save a lot more at Jane’s Bookstore!”
Change also might be hurried by painting negative scenarios , as
in “Unless we get more efficient, senior management will
outsource the whole department.”
Tactically, change usually demands more communication, as in
more often and more words or pages. As you can imagine, it takes
more communication to drive change than to stay on the same
There are also tactics we can use to reinforce existing beliefs
To maintain the status quo we can stress a service record, as
in, “Serving you with quality and service for 25 years.” or
“Your performance has been very good over the past year, Betty.
Keep up the good work.”
Reinforcement does not automatically rule out change; however,
it emphasizes incremental and gradual change rather than major
and abrupt change.
You can also appeal to shared values or experiences to
reinforce. Nothing commits us to staying the course like
emotional cues that link good times to the status quo. For
example, consider the power of an advertising slogan that
begins, “Remember when….” It connects a powerful, positive
emotion with a product or service. By extension, the product or
service offers an opportunity to relive that good time.
In summary, make a distinction in your communication between
reinforcing and changing. Decide which way you want to go, and
then choose the appropriate strategies, tactics, and tools.