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Ernest Dichter on Word of Mouth Marketing

Early on in the writing of THE PASSION CONVERSATION we stumbled upon a long-forgotten Harvard Business Review article titled, “How Word-of-Mouth Advertising Works.” It was published in 1966 and we couldn’t help but think how much further along the marketing world would be if it had heeded the article’s advice.

Ernest Dichter wrote the article. Dichter, who you ask?

ERNEST DICHTER is a name every marketer should know. He was an Austrian-born psychologist who spent a lifetime studying human motivations and applying it to marketing brands. He’s known as the father of motivational research and credited with coining the term, focus group.

Dichter’s pioneering research techniques and analysis changed the way that giants like Chrysler, Procter & Gamble, Exxon, General Mills, and DuPont sold products to consumers. His advice to the prestigious clients was essentially to humanize the brand in order to connect better with people. Psychobabble it wasn’t. It was indispensable marketing advice then, today, and tomorrow, no doubt.

Let’s revisit Ernest Dichter’s seminal (yet slept-upon) Harvard Business Review article from 1966 on Word-of-Mouth Advertising.

Steeped in his in-depth research on consumer motivations, Dichter’s article explained consumers reject advertising messages because they are “more a sales tool than information and guidance.” He goes on to explain consumers reject advertising claims because they feel “threatened” by the “cold commercialism” of advertising messages.

However, his research from the mid-1960s revealed. “When the consumer feels that the advertiser speaks to him as a friend … the consumer will relax and tend to accept the recommendation.”

Whoa! Where’d that knowledge go for the last half-century?

Imagine how much further along we’d be if more marketers in 1966 had taken note of Dichter’s smart findings on the importance of humanizing brands.

In this article, Dichter goes deep into in reviewing the psychology of word of mouth recommendations by outlining the motivations for why people talk about a product/service. He also lists the motivations for why people listen to and act on a recommendation. Keep in mind, the following marketing perspective is nearly 50 years old. Reading it now feels like we’re going back to the future of marketing.

Reasons Why People Talk

Dicther’s research revealed that a person will talk about a brand if he “gets something out of it.” Meaning, the talker receives self-satisfaction from mentioning a product or service to someone. In particular, Dicther outlines four motivations for why people talk about a brand.

1. Personal Experience
First-hand involvement with a product will spark someone to talk because “… it is talk about the product which confirms for the speaker his ownership and joy in the product, or his discovery of it.”

2. Self-Confirmation
Dichter details eight types of self-confirmation people seek through talking about products and services, including: “gaining attention,” “showing connoisseurship,”having inside information,” and “spreading the gospel [by] converting the listener to use the product.”

3. Being Nice
Here the prevailing attitude is the need and intent to help, to share with the other person enthusiasm in, and benefits of, things enjoyed. Products serve mainly as instruments which help to express sentiments of neighborliness, care, friendship, and love.”

4. Influenced by Advertising
Since it is difficult for consumers to avoid exposure to advertising, many people have turned to accepting it for its independent attraction and entertainment value. Thus entertainment value and originality of ads have become topics of talk.”

Reasons Why People Listen

In Dichter’s study, he analyzed nearly 500 instances of purchases made resulting from word of mouth conversations. His analysis found that people determine whether to listen or ignore brand-related word of mouth conversations based upon if (a) “the person who recommends is interested in him and his well-being” and (b) “that the speaker’s experience with and knowledge about the product are convincing.”

Dichter dug deeper to identify speaker types who have the greatest influence in making a word of mouth recommendation click with the listener. The most influential of these speakers are:

1. Industry Experts
Under this header are those persons who, on the basis of their training and/or work, appear to be closer to the product and more knowing about it than the average consumer.”

2. Celebrities
Included are movie, theater, TV, and radio personalities whose ‘authority’ is attributed to prominence in show business.”

3. Knowledgeable Passionate Fans
The connoisseur may know as much or more about the product and its background than the expert, but he does not make his living in connection with it; he merely enjoys it and his know-how about it.”

4. Closest Ties
What is meant here is the influence of mother, father, big brother or sister, husband wife, boyfriend or girlfriend which expresses itself not necessarily by means of verbal communication, but by the speaker’s actions.”

Reasons Why People Act on Word of Mouth Recommendations

Dichter writes about the critical factor of having an “A-ha” experience for people to act on a word of mouth recommendation. His analysis explains how mass advertising fails to effectively produce “A-ha” word of mouth experiences.

Instead, Dichter reasons that a “… recommender is often much more capable of establishing … a dialogue of conviction … [leading to an] A-ha experience” than is traditional advertising.

According to Ernest Dichter, four factors make word of mouth marketing more effective than traditional advertising. These four factors are:

1. Authentic Passion
The real meaning of a product and of its effect to the user is revealed not only through the choice of the speaker’s words, but also through the discharge of emotions in inflection, face, and body expressions, and gestures.”

2. Genuine Compassion
That the speaker is genuinely concerned with the listener’s well-being or has his advantage at heart becomes eminently believable in cases in which the recommendation is geared to, and takes into account, the individual needs or special circumstances of the listener.”

3. Actual Proof
Tangible evidence” that a product works, as seen in real life, “…serves to strengthen the impact … of a recommendation in cases in which personal intention or product relationship are not sufficiently convincing in themselves.”

4. Semblance of Secrecy
When the speaker displays a “reluctance to divulge the source or brand name of a product” it can serve as sign to the listener that the product is so uniquely desirable the speaker doesn’t the want masses to know about this secret brand. “This refers to the well-known psychological phenomenon that the harder it is to get a desired object, the more desirable it becomes.”

It’s amazing this article is nearly 50 years old. So much of Dichter’s word of mouth marketing analysis rings true today. As mentioned earlier, imagine how much further along we’d be if more marketers in 1966 had taken note of Dichter’s smart findings on the importance of humanizing brands to spark word of mouth marketing conversations.

SOURCE: Dichter, Ernest (1966), “How Word-of-Mouth Advertising Works,” Harvard Business Review, 44 (November/December), 147–66.


  • Naili says:

    I was in the shop in April 2007. I would never disagree that E. Csuka made loads of aiznmag bikes over the decades he was building, but something about that trip lifted some of the mystique I had felt towards Singer frames being one of the great constructeur builds. Perhaps it was the abrasive attitude of Csuka’s son Olivier. I had showed up to the store with my wife who was there to translate my needs to French. Olivier was not eager to speak any english with me, or really even help us for that matter. I tried to order a stem for a friend at Box Dog Bikes who was building a touring bike of mish mash parts. Instantly Olivier started barking at my wife that he was sure I had plans to flip it on ebay to make a buck, but in fact this time my intentions were pure. Was it that he sniffed out the shark I was otherwise at the time, or was he just that snobby French dude living in the posh and boring suburb of Levalois (excuse my spelling, I don’t feel Levalois is even deserving of a google search unless of course you need to find directions to the shop, which none of this reply is trying to dissuade you to visit.)At about 20min into my visit Ernest walks in the shop with lunch box in hand and a gentle smile as he passed us on the way to his workbench in the back of the shop. He was dressed just as he is in this photo that Sean has found and he looked about the same. Right then the spirit of the dozen or so Singer bikes on display came to life and the old world feel of the shop was complete. I decided to ignore Olivier and absorb all that was, and is good about the remaining classic French cycling culture.I don’t know if I should mention that later on that same trip I took a train out to Geneve Switzerland to buy a 70 s Singer from Olivier’s cousin. When I arrived he took me around Geneve on a day tour which was nice and awkward and unexpected. One little fun fact I walked away with is that on the lake there in Geneve they have a bird like a duck, but in fact it is and is called a water chicken . I wanted one. Well after my day long excursion with the dude (forget his name), Olivier’s cousin, he took me back to his pad for some macaroons and a 2L of Fanta soda. Ahh how indulgent the French, or Swiss French He brought me to the garage to show me the bike I was buying for 2K euro. In fact I was buying it for a guy I knew from a forum here in the states. He paid for my trip there to get the bike for him. And I did, but had the seller ship it to us here in the states since that is what everyone preferred. It took him 2 months to get the bike boxed and shipped after I was there. When he finally did he forgot to include in the box any shipping materials i.e. shit to keep the frame from being destroyed by the removed bars and wheels bouncing around. I popped it open and what did i find a quarter sized dent in the seat tube just below the decal, more than a 3rd of the way into the tube. Sad deal. His reply when I asked for some compensation off the price we paid but I tell you this type of hit could have happened anyways . I guess that was all quite a long and unnecessary addition to this memorial post on E. Csuka (as it reads on his decals). So, anyways, in the end here I would just like to say adieu Ernest. You work lives on. And graphically I prefer your decal over the simple hand painted marque on the Rene Herse bikes. Not to mention when Herse bikes evolved to the tacky logo on stickers they evolved to in the late 70 s. Yuck. They might as well just slapped on some Billabong stickers and called it a day.

  • johnmoore says:

    Naili… Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.