Editor’s note: Alex Xiaoguang Zhu is manager, and Mike Mabey is VP client solutions Americas, of SKIM, an international research firm.

The field of decision behavior research is of growing interest to market researchers. One of the more compelling forms of decision behavior strategy assumes the form of messaging tactics aimed at encouraging customers to not take action (i.e., not switching to a new product or service). New products, disruptive competitors and category shrinkage are inevitable in today’s hypercompetitive marketplace. For existing products, other than price, messaging strategy is one of the most important defensive levers available.

Most product advertising, except perhaps for brand positioning, has a positive call to action: buy this, do that, etc. This article is about a call to inaction: don’t take this action, don’t switch. These strategies are aimed at creating the emotion of inertia in order to delay the switch to new competitors and disruptors. This is very important for retention strategies and extending the life cycle of legacy products. Another important use is defending against a generic or store brand.

While politics and brand-marketing are distinctly different, political campagins can provide great examples of how decision behavior research is put to use. For example, Donald Trump is using one of the primary emotions of inertia – risk aversion – in his fight with Ted Cruz. Trump has raised the issue of where Cruz was born as a concern about choosing Cruz as a presidential candidate, pointing out the looming lawsuits about his citizenship and raising doubt about Cruz’s ability to run for president. If this is discussed enough, it could become part of a set of reasons for primary voters to choose a different candidate. The issue creates doubt or questions in the minds of voters. In other words, it causes hesitation. The creation of doubt and alerting decision-makers to the risk of a choice is one of the primary emotions of inertia. In this case, which is quite unusual, it is being used offensively. In most cases it is used to defend. Of course, companies tend to be a lot more subtle in their messaging than Trump.

What are the emotions of inertia and how can they drive messaging strategy?

There are three general categories of emotions of inertia: doubts, hesitation and denial. The emotional change curve in Figure 1 illustrates all three. First, consider traditional messaging. The primary purpose of traditional product messaging is to appeal to the emotions on the right side of the change curve, such as commitment, in order to drive the adoption of a product. “Talk to your doctor about Product X,” “switch to AT&T” and “look for Dove antiperspirant in the deodorant aisle” are examples of such messaging. It is a call to action messaging strategy.

However, in a call to inaction strategy, the goal is to encourage a non-decision by appealing to the emotions on the left side of the change curve, such as resistance or doubt about the new product.

Why appeal to the emotions of inertia?

In FMCG, telecom and pharmaceuticals messaging research, reinforcement of a negative emotion seems like a counterintuitive strategy. We usually recommend staying on the positive side of emotions. However, traditional messaging often falls short in addressing the unique competitive dynamics of defending a legacy brand against a disruptive competitor. Here’s why:

  • The goal is different. Inertia messaging aims to shift the adoption curve by delaying the adoption of a new competitive product as opposed to increasing market share for the company’s own product.
  • There is a dominant choice. Switching to an attractive new product seems to be the dominant, perhaps even easy, decision.
  • Risk-aversion is a key emotion. Deliberation over the risks of switching products or services naturally resonates with emotions such as resistance and loss aversion.

From a behavioral science perspective, messaging against a dominant choice is more difficult and less effective than messaging to the cognitive biases (e.g., risk aversion) being used. The key is to appeal to emotions such as resistance or hesitation without coming off negatively, which is a very fine line. Simply throwing darts at competitors may backfire.

Other factors are important in risk aversion, including:

  1. number of competitive offerings – the more competitors the lower the perceived risk of choosing a new one;
  2. frequency of the decision (if you make the decision every week, then the worst that can happen is you choose a different brand next week);
  3. literal risk of the decision (particularly important in pharmaceuticals); and
  4. long-term cost of the alternative choice.

How do you measure the impact of inertia messaging? First, it is necessary to establish a new set of metrics – a set based on the emotions of inertia or inaction. To do so, you need to flip your thinking on the metric end-points. In traditional messaging research the metrics are heavily focused on adoption and positive outcomes, such as the likelihood of purchase. But in inertia messaging, there are different goals and measurements:

  1. likelihood of not choosing the new product;
  2. length of time a consumer will wait before trying a new product;
  3. degree of hesitation before making a choice (using implicit or swiping exercises);
  4. change in perception of risk for the new choice; and
  5. reduction in the size of the early-adopter share and the increase in the late-adopter share.

Of course, even with inertia messaging, one should still use the standard message metrics such as recall and believability.

Inertia messaging is often  vital part of an overall defense strategy. As in the Trump example, inertia messaging can be an important part of your overall messaging plan. There are a number of reasons to add inertia messaging strategy to the marketing toolbox, including: extending a revenue stream, shifting the adoption curve and buying time to bring out a competitive product of one’s own.


As part of a legacy brand defense strategy, a multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical brand wanted to identify and optimize a message platform to defend against an expected new, lower-cost competitor.

Researchers used a quantitative trade-off exercise combined with a clickable word and phrase analysis to identify and optimize the most effective message platform. In addition to understanding the hierarchy of messaging, a message combination was identified that maximized the impact of the new message platform.

The winning message combination doubled the stated share of non-prescribers and increased the anticipated wait time by 25 percent before respondents were willing to try the new competitor.

An upstart telecom provider was targeting a specific segment of the population and the incumbent supplier wanted to know how to defend against this disruptive new provider without getting into a price war. In addition, it needed time to introduce its own competitor brand.

The traditional strategy would be to promote the brand and long-term legacy and hope for the best. In this case, the incumbent wanted to test the potential of an inertia strategy to augment the more traditional messaging strategy by questioning the viability, quality, service and coverage of the competitor. The message success metrics included increased resistance to change, reduction in the early-adopter segment, impact of specific phrases on other client segments and increase in doubts about the new competitor.

How well did inertia messaging work? The winning message combination increased the stated share of non-switchers by one-fourth and increased the degree of hesitation about the new competitor by 18 percent.