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Rhetoric in Marketing: How to Convince Your Audience to Buy


Whether you work in the marketing department or own your own company, knowing how to effectively use rhetoric will benefit you in your career and in your daily life. Rhetoric is one of those words that is often misused, so let's identify what rhetoric actually means. We are focusing on the Oxford Language's definition of rhetoric: The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques. To achieve success in business, it is essential that you learn the art of rhetoric to appeal to your target audience and convince them to make the purchase.

In Phaedrus, Plato wrote, Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men. While Plato's famous quote might make rhetoric sound like a manipulative art, it summarizes why rhetoric is used in the most effective marketing campaigns. Plato's student Aristotle, who is now known as "the father of rhetoric," defined rhetoric as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. Aristotle's definition expands on Plato's and suggests that those skilled in rhetoric must be able to adapt their message based on their audience, which is particularly important for marketing and advertising in the 21st century. Aristotle broke down rhetoric into three primary categories that are still used in marketing and advertising campaigns today: ethos (ethics), pathos (emotions), and logos (logic).

Writer Jay Heinrichs, author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion and Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever, is a modern-day expert on how to use rhetoric in marketing. In a podcast episode on MarketingProfs, Heinrichs explained Aristotle's rhetoric in terms that are more applicable for today's society:

  • Character (ethos): Heinrichs translated Aristotle's ethos to character and explained that it is about showing your audience (I.e., potential consumers) that you are trustworthy. Heinrichs stated that the goal for ethos is getting the audience to like and trust the speaker, product, or company based on the projected image.
  • Emotion (pathos): Heinrichs explained that rhetorical emotion focuses on changing a person's mood or getting them to want a particular goal. Heinrichs further clarified that the goal could be changing the person's mood. In marketing, the goal is most likely changing the person's mood from browsing to ready to purchase or convincing them that they desire your product or service.
  • Logic (logos): Heinrichs noted that rhetorical logic does not refer to the fact-based logic that we associate with math and science. Instead, Heinrichs explains that rhetorical logic is using the beliefs and expectations of your audience to your persuasive advantage. This requires actually knowing your target demographics and what they believe to be true about your product or service.

Now, let's break down Aristotle's three tools of rhetoric into applicable methods for marketing in today's environment. If you can effectively incorporate the Rhetorical Triangle of ethos, pathos, and logos, you will increase your sales and your chances of success.

Character (ethos)

Ethos, which Heinrichs defined as character, is all about whether the audience or potential consumer likes and trusts the speaker or the company. This is a critical point in marketing, because if the audience doesn't trust the speaker, they have no reason to believe what they're saying, and therefore no reason to make a purchase. The importance of a company's or spokesperson's perceived image is one reason that companies are quick to cancel individual sponsorships if a spokesperson gets caught up in a scandal.

You can see ethos at work just about any time you turn on the television and see celebrities and famous sports stars representing companies or products. The public has already developed an opinion of that celebrity, so they will most likely believe and trust what the person says. The use of character is particularly effective in podcast advertising, because the podcaster usually reads the ads and offers a personal touch that gives the product extra credence.

Even if you don't have the budget to pay celebrities to endorse your products, you can still use rhetorical ethos to sell your product in the following ways:

  • Examine your marketing budget and identify potential funds for hiring a representative or spokesperson.
  • Conduct market research to identify what characteristics or qualities your consumers value.
  • Evaluate micro-influencers (social media accounts or personalities with up to 10,000 followers) to see if any align with your brand's mission.
  • Research and consider sponsoring podcasts that appeal to your target demographic.
  • Consider reaching out to popular YouTubers with similar target demographics and ask them to feature your product or service. YouTubers have become powerful social media influencers, and they might feature your product for free or for a significantly lower price than an A-list celebrity.
  • Consider creating your own spokesperson, such as the Progressive lady, Flo. Flo is portrayed by an actress who was unknown before the successful marketing campaign, but through effective marketing, she has now become a recognized spokesperson.

Emotion (pathos)

Emotions are powerful tools for persuading people to act. Remember those haunting A.S.P.C.A animal adoption ads from 2007 that featured Sarah McLachlan singing as images of painfully precious animals flashed across the screen? If not, take a moment to watch the ad now, and see if you can keep from crying. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (A.S.P.C.A) used McLachlan's song "Angel" to evoke powerful emotions in viewers that ultimately ended with a call to action. This A.S.P.C.A. ad effectively combined rhetorical pathos (emotion) with rhetorical ethos (character) by enlisting McLachlan, a well-respected musician, in their campaign. The ad raised almost $30 million within a year and quickly became the A.S.P.C.A's most successful campaign and a landmark for other nonprofits.

Music is a powerful and proven way to appeal to people's emotions, but not everyone can afford the rights to popular songs. You do not have to use a popular song to evoke emotion; unknown or less popular songs can be just as effective but at a much lower cost.

Politicians are skilled in appealing to voters' emotions, particularly fear, in political advertising. Politicians conduct research to identify their constituents' fears, and they accentuate those fears to motivate people to vote for them and against their opponents.

To effectively incorporate emotion, or pathos, in your marketing campaign, consider the following points:

  • What emotion do you hope to evoke in your audience?
  • Do you want to create positive emotions that inspire people to act or negative emotions that make them feel that they have to act?
  • What tools or resources can you employ to evoke the desired emotion in your audience?
  • What type of music or images might evoke the desired emotion in your audience?

Logic (logos)

Take the time to identify your target demographic, conduct research on their beliefs and expectations, and tailor your message accordingly. Effective marketing often relies on confirmation bias, which the American Psychological Association defines as the tendency to look for information that supports, rather than rejects, one's preconceptions, typically by interpreting evidence to confirm existing beliefs while rejecting or ignoring any conflicting data. As election day approaches, you will most likely see many examples of confirmation bias and rhetorical logic used in political advertisements and speeches. Expert politicians are skilled in using an audience's' beliefs and expectations—regardless of the validity of those beliefs or expectations—to inspire them to act (i.e., vote).

Another way to incorporate rhetorical logic in your marketing campaign is through the use of buzzwords. Consider the widespread use of the word natural in advertisements: Companies recognize that consumers associate natural with healthy, so marketers have learned to use this word to suggest that their products are healthy. In reality, just because a product is natural does not mean that it is healthy (arsenic is natural but certainly is not healthy), but marketers use rhetorical logic to appeal to the audience's perception and effectively sell products.

In addition to appealing to what the audience already believes to be true, rhetorical logic in marketing often uses statistics or case studies to confirm the audience's beliefs and convince them to make a purchase.

To effectively apply logos, or rhetorical logic, in your marketing campaign, consider the following points:

  • Identify any buzzwords associated with your product or service and incorporate them into all marketing materials.
  • Conduct research to identify your target demographics' core beliefs and expectations.
  • Identify how you can appeal to those core beliefs to build trust and inspire action.
  • Include compelling research statistics or identify awards that your product or service has earned. This tactic can be used in tandem with ethos, or character, to gain the audience's trust.

While rhetoric might sound like an archaic concept, it is actually a crucial part of any effective marketing campaign. Now that you understand the importance of rhetoric, use these tips to increase your sales and brand awareness.

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