by Mark Travers, Ph.D.
If you were a bottled water brand, would you rather be associated with convenience store tile floors or a tropical island paradise? Construal level theory might give you pointers on how to build better associations with your brand.
Construal level theory (Trope and Liberman, 2010) is undoubtedly one of the most unifying psychological theories of the past decade, bringing together previously unconnected research literatures under one common conceptual umbrella. At a general level, construal level theory refers to the way in which people, places, objects and events are represented in our minds. Construal level theory proposes two types of mental representations:
- The first, referred to as a low-level construal, is something that is construed in terms of its specific and immediate qualities.
- The second, a high-level construal, is something that is construed in terms of its distant, essentialized, and higher-order qualities.
For a simple example of construal level, consider the mental representation people create when they are asked to imagine the idea of reading a book. A low-level construal might represent reading in terms of specific details, e.g., “flipping pages,” “scanning words for meaning.” A high-level construal, on the other hand, might conceptualize reading in terms of “attaining knowledge,” “learning something new,” or “expanding one’s horizons.”
Why does construal level matter? Well, researchers have shown that the level at which people construe a given concept can influence judgment and choice in predictable ways—and this has real consequences for brand marketing and consumer engagement. Consider, for instance, the mental representations created by thinking about two brands of water. The first brand of water is a convenience store brand water. Given our familiarity with convenience stores, we are likely to develop a low-level construal of this brand of water—maybe thinking about walking on a semi-sticky tile floor toward a refrigerator shelf crowded with bottled beverages to select the low cost convenience store branded water. (Probably not the mental representations marketers are shooting for.) Now, imagine a second brand of water, Fiji water. Yes, we may pull that Fiji water off of the same shelf as the convenience store brand water, but our mental representation of Fiji water exists at a much higher level of construal—we might imagine a small tropical island surrounded by crystal-clear ocean water. Oftentimes, when brands are conceptualized at lower levels of construal, customers are more likely to think about their products in terms of their flaws and shortcomings. High level construals, on the other hand, tend to be more abstract, positive, and less critical.
Sure, representing products in a way that engenders high-level construals may be desirable from a marketing standpoint, but how do we get there? Construal level theory offers insight to this question as well. Although any object, person, or place can be represented at a high or low level of construal, research has shown that level of construal tends to vary predictably with its psychological distance—i.e., the closeness or distance from one’s “here and now.” To continue with our previous example, since Fiji is very distant from the average American’s here and now, it is likely that products associated with Fiji will be construed at a higher level. (This is not to mention the added benefit gained from the popular perception of Fiji as a serene island location.) Likewise, since convenience stores are psychologically close for most Americans, we will be more likely to construe this type of bottled water at a lower level. Manipulating the distance (either in terms of time or space) at which a product exists vis-à-vis one’s present psychological experience is likely to influence the level at which products are construed. And this, in turn, can have a big impact on consumers’ likelihood to purchase.
For an example of construal level theory in action (and continuing with our bottled water scenario), imagine you are marketing a new brand of bottled water called Lakeside Water in the Midwest. Manipulating the proximity (e.g., psychological distance) from which the water is believed to be sourced can have big impacts on psychological representations of the water. If, for instance, you market the water as coming from Lake Michigan, Midwestern consumers will probably develop a concrete, low-level construal of the water brand—perhaps thinking about the view of Lake Michigan from Lakeshore Drive in downtown Chicago. However, if you create the perception that the water is coming from a lake in the north of Sweden, Midwesterners may develop a higher level construal of the water—imagining a crystal lake in an untouched landscape of fjords and mountains. Because higher level construals tend to be more positive, marketers, in most cases, are better off positioning products in ways that catalyze high level mental representations.
As can be seen by the research cited above, there is no shortage of advancements in psychological theory. It is up to us, as marketers, to capitalize on this wealth of information.
As a member of the Decision Science team at Burke, Inc., Mark Travers helps clients across a range of business sectors discover data-driven consumer insights. Mark has served on the editorial staff of the journal Motivation and Emotion and has also served as an ad-hoc reviewer for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological review, 117(2), 440.