Monday, August 6, 2007

Reason Vs. Rationale

This story, and its many variations, have occurred countless times over many generations. It goes something like this.

A boy named Timmy finds a cute little stray dog. Timmy falls in love with the little dog. He coaxes it to follow him home. When Timmy gets home, he tries to convince his skeptical mother to let him keep the little dog.

“But Mom, raising a dog will teach me responsibility. Don’t you think it’s a good idea for me to learn responsibility at a young age?”

“But Mom, I’ll train this dog to be a great watchdog. You don’t want any burglars to come into our house and steal our prized possessions, do you? With this dog, you can rest easy, knowing that you are safe from unwanted intruders.”

“But Mom, in case our house catches on fire at night, this dog will wake us up and make sure we get to safety. He could end up saving our lives.”

Eventually the mother gives in, but only after Timmy promises to take care of the dog by feeding him, taking him for walks, and bathing him.

Well, over time, the Timmy’s promises regarding the dog fall by the wayside. He no longer wants to feed him and walk him all of the time (Guess who ends up with the chore—you guessed it—“Mom”). The dog never becomes a watchdog and the dog would sleep through a fire. And the dog is always filthy.

However, Timmy got what he really wanted: a canine companion who provides unconditional love.

In the story of Timmy and the dog, there are two types reasons given for why the Timmy wants the dog. The first is an emotional reason—Timmy wants a canine companion who provides unconditional love. The second is a rational reason—the dog teaches responsibility, the dog will protect the family, the dog might even save the lives of the family.

Timmy doesn’t really care at all about the rational reasons. They do not motivate his desire for a dog at all. All he cares about is the emotional reason—his emotional bonding with the dog as his canine companion.

Yet, without all of those rational reasons, there is a good chance that his mother would not have let him have the dog in the first place. So, from that perspective, the rational reasons are important to Timmy as a means to get the emotional desire satisfied.

In the business world, we try to sell products or services to customers. Sometimes, we may try to sell the product or service with just an emotional appeal. Sometimes we use just a rational appeal. In reality, it is often best to use a dual appeal: an emotional appeal (you’ll really love this dog and this dog will love you) and a rational appeal (it teaches responsibility and protects the family). Each serves a different purpose in the process.

The principle here is understanding the difference between reason and rationale. Reason refers to the true reason why you desire the product or service. It is usually emotionally based. Examples include the following. If I owned this product or service….

…I would feel more manly (or more feminine, depending on gender)
…I would be more popular with the opposite sex
…I would feel more secure (safer, more protected, less at risk)
…I would have more fun
…I would eliminate stress in my life
…I would gain more stature (have more bragging rights) with my peer group
…I would feel better about myself

In Timmy’s case the reason was unconditional love. Reasons such as these tend to be the principle drivers which create the desire to want to make that purchase. However, reason alone is often not enough to clinch the deal and make the sale. That’s where rationale comes in. This is how we justify our seemingly irrational desires and make them appear to be the sensible thing to do. Sometimes we need this justification just to get that rational part of our own mind to give in to the emotional side which already wants to do the deal.

Sometimes, as in the case of Timmy, there are others who have a say in the decision (like Mom), and since they do not experience the same emotional attachment, they must be convinced more through the logical rationale. Other times, we have to justify the expenditure to a skeptical spouse before we are allowed to make the purchase. Sometimes, the rationale is most important after the purchase, so that we can explain to others why our purchase was not wasteful extravagance, but rather the wise thing to do. After all, we might not mind looking stupid to ourselves if we get our emotions satisfied, but we don’t want to look stupid to our friends.

This does not just apply to children and dogs. Perhaps you can recall an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer really wants to buy a big truck. It’s all about his emotional desire to own a big truck. His wife Marge needs extra convincing to get her to agree to the purchase. So Homer pulls out the rationale: “If we put a plow on the front, I can make money plowing people’s driveways. This truck doesn’t cost any money. It will pay for itself through the income from plowing.” The rationale cinched the deal.

What about beer? On the one hand we subliminally sell that message that if you drink this beer all the beautiful women will love you. This is the reason to get you to choose this beer. But then comes the rationale: less filling, wins taste tests, low in carbs, won’t slow you down.

There are a lot of sexy looking new washers and dryers out there in hot colors and slick designs. They also look all “high tech” for those who are lured by that sort of thing. Their looks cry out to your emotions to “purchase me.” Yet, to appeal to your rational side, they also claim to use less water and less electricity. Why, you are a wise protector of the environment if you purchase these sexy looking machines. Never mind the fact that they often don’t clean as well as the old machines and that much of the money you save in water and electricity is sucked up into the premium price you pay for the machines. As long as the rationale makes you look good, and you get the sexy machines you desire, all is good.

And then there is life insurance—a product very few have a natural desire to want to load up on. Therefore, the insurance agents need to conjure up emotional desire for you—the desire to feel secure, to eliminate stress in your life fretting about the future. Then they pile on the rational guilt—good, sensible people provide for their loved ones in case the unthinkable happens. You’re a good sensible person, aren’t you?

When developing a strategic position for your product or service, one needs to consider developing a position which can tap into both the emotional yearnings (the reason) as well as provide justifications for why it is the wise thing to do (the rationale). The more you can tap into both in your singular position (without creating confusion), the greater the likelihood that you will succeed.

To do so, one side usually has to be the dominant overt message, while the other is more subliminal, in the background. Sometimes the reason is the dominant message. Sometimes the rationale is the dominant message. But both are there.

Right now, off the top of your head, can you tell me what the reasons are and what the rationales are for what you sell?

Positioning is the process of placing the image your product or service into the mind of the customer in a way that will cause you to win. Since our minds are both rational and emotional, winning usually requires creating advantage in both the rational and emotional aspects of our thinking. You may want to sell the manliness of owning a truck, but you’d better have that snow plow equivalent in there somewhere, too. What’s your version of the snow plow?

I wonder what Timmy would have told his mother if, instead of desiring a little dog, he wanted to bring home an elephant. I’m sure, if he wanted it badly enough, he would have come up with all sorts of rationale for why that would be a wise move.


  1. Haha, very good article. Loved the story followed by analogy and explanation. Good job.