Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

I don’t care for chicken fried steak. I prefer hamburgers. Normally this isn’t an issue, but in high school it became a concern of mine.

Back in the day I was a cheerleader. This involved a whole lot of fun, quote a bit of practice and some very long road trips. Each year our football team traveled many hours across the wide open prairies to play our chief rivals. To make the trips more bearable, and in an effort to motivate the team, the coach promised chicken fried steak at a restaurant famous for its chicken fried steak if we won. If we lost, it would be hamburgers.

I didn’t have a direct role in the outcome of the game, but found myself conflicted each time this happened. I wanted the team to win, but I preferred hamburgers. The incentive wasn’t motivating to me, but it was to those who had control of the game in their hands.

Incentives may be powerful. Everyone has certain things that will motivate them to perform a certain behavior. Additionally, in many cases, offered incentives will encourage individuals not to perform a certain behavior. Understanding what will motivate a given audience is key to successful marketing.

When speaking to groups I often remind people that positive incentives work, and they make everyone feel good. Correctional, or negative incentives don’t work as well, and frequently leave people feeling disappointed or even angry.

Consider a grocery store that wants its customers to stop using plastic bags. Company A decides that it will provide free reusable bags to its customers, and discounts for when customers bring in their own bags. Customers are rewarded for their behavior, and the business is rewarded, over time, by not purchasing so many plastic bags. Others feel good about the company because they perceive that the grocery store is doing something proactive for the environment and to keep costs down.

Grocery store B determines that customers should use less plastic, so they begin charging extra for each plastic bag used. They also charge for reusable bags that they provide. Instead of creating a feeling of goodwill, the plan angers people who don’t feel that they should be charged extra for something that used to be free. It becomes a situation of conflict. Customers may feel punished. Ultimately, the business may or may not make an impact with this style of incentive. The risk? No one wins.

Understanding what motivates people depends upon your target. What moves a Baby Boomer to action may be quite different from what will motivate a Millennial. Men are different than women in many cases. Single people may behave differently than married couples. Psychology, though not often mentioned, plays a major role when trying to modify behavior.

Some of the most effective incentives involved discounts for loyalty shopping. Not only does it keep your customers coming back, but it makes them feel good about being your customers. Service businesses often offer discounts for first time clients and often first visits are free of charge. More and more businesses cross market, and offer incentives that apply in more than one business or organization. Be creative.

Our football coach knew that his team liked chicken fried steak very much. It really didn’t matter, in that case, what people who weren’t on the team preferred. He knew that the guys would play hard no matter what. They were in it to win. But, he knew they may play harder if the reward was on target.

Ultimately, I prefer winning to hamburgers. But, I’m still not keen on chicken fried steak.

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising. 
She may be reached at 303-651-6612; scornay@comm-concepts.com; www.comm-concepts.com; Facebook.com/Communication Concepts; Twitter @CommConceptsPR; or Linked In.

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