How the Contrast Principle Impacts Buyer Perceptions

The Effect of the Contrast Principle on Sales

Imagine if there was one simple messaging trick you could use to increase your prospect’s willingness to make a purchase. What if that technique could also increase his or her desire to switch brands, pay more for your solution, and recommend it to others? What if it also generated the perception that what you’re selling is different and better?

What if I told you that trick was real—something you can actually apply to your customer conversations to give yourself a messaging edge?

I’ve spent my career trying to gain ever-sharper insight into what kind of message convinces prospects and customers to leave their status quo situation to do something new and better. But what kind of messaging techniques actually make that happen?

That’s the question underpinning an experiment my company recently did in conjunction with Zakary Tormala, a marketing professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an expert in persuasion.

Specifically, we wanted to test the persuasive effect of the contrast principle, where you create a comparison between the current and future states in your message, pitch, or presentation. We designed the study with the intention of determining whether highlighting key differences between a desirable future state, such as new product features and benefits, and a problem-riddled current state would enhance the appeal of doing something different more than if you were to simply present the future state information alone.

Testing The Contrast Principle

Here’s how we set it up. We instructed two groups of participants to imagine they’d had their current smartphones for about a year and were reading some information about a new smartphone option. Prior to viewing the information, they were informed that they would receive some information about the new smartphone’s features and benefits, which would begin on the next screen.

What the participants didn’t know is that, prior to the study, they were randomly assigned to two different presentation conditions. Each condition varied two aspects of the information: the presence and location of information describing problems and issues with their current phones.

The first group viewed the non-contrast (future benefits-only) condition, in which participants received a list of four of the new smartphone’s features and benefits. Participants were exposed to no other information.

The second group viewed a contrast (current issues/future benefits) condition, in which they received the exact same feature and benefits list for the new phone. But next to this information, they received a list of four issues or problems associated with their current phones that correlated to each of the features and benefits.

As you see, the experiment tested a current state/future state comparison against the future state-only condition.

Which Condition Came Out On Top?

While all participants received the exact same information about the new smartphone features and benefits, the study revealed that this information was more impactful and more persuasive when it was juxtaposed with the shortcomings of the current smartphones.

The comparative, side-by-side presentation outperformed the future scenario-only presentation by a statistically significant margin across several areas, including:

  • Purchase intent: Participants in the comparative conditions reported greater interest in and a higher likelihood of purchasing the new smartphone. On average, these conditions created a 14-plus percent lift in purchase intent.
  • Willingness to change: Participants in the comparative conditions reported more favorable attitudes toward the new phone and a greater willingness to switch to it (and pay more!) by a margin of 14-plus percent.
  • Advocacy: Participants in the comparative conditions were 12-plus percent more likely than future state-only participants to advocate on behalf of the new smartphones–in other words, to share information about the phone and recommend it to others.
  • Perception of quality: Comparative condition participants found the new smartphone to have higher quality, be more innovative, and to represent a more clear-cut improvement over their current phones. In these dimensions, the comparative conditions outperformed the future state-only condition by a margin of 13-plus percent.

We confirmed these results even further by testing two other contrast conditions (putting information on separate screens or in different positions on-screen) against the future state-only one, and these comparative conditions also came out on top by the same statistical margins across all the areas above. So regardless of how you present the contrast, the new smartphone was more attractive when its features and benefits were directly compared against current smartphone limitations, rather than just presented on their own.

The crux of these results is clear: The contrast principle drives persuasiveness in your message. To unseat a prospect’s status quo, you need messaging, content, and skills that present a sharp contrast between the pain of where your prospect is today and the benefits and upside of where you could lead him or her tomorrow.

Check out our new eBook, “Good Intentions, Wrong Instincts,” to learn more about this study and other sales and marketing experiments we’ve conducted.

This article originally published in

Tim Riesterer

Tim Riesterer

Chief Strategy Officer

Tim Riesterer has dedicated his career to improving the conversations marketers and salespeople have with prospects and customers. His books, “Customer Message Management”, “Conversations that Win the Complex Sale”, “Three Value Conversations”, and "The Expansion Sale", focus on improving market-ready messages and tools that marketers and salespeople can use to win more deals. As chief strategy and research officer for Corporate Visions, he sets the direction and develops products for this leading marketing and sales messaging, content and training company.

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