How Socrates and Science Can Make You a Better Marketer

Here’s how you can take the teachings of a guy who’s been dead for centuries, combine that with some modern-day science, and walk away with a foundation for marketing mastery.

Check it out:

As a marketer and blogger, your visuals and your text are going to matter a lot. You have, on average, 8 seconds to persuade your audience to take some course of action. When it comes to your website or blog copy, that 8 seconds is trying to get the visitor to either read more, click on something, or enter some of their information.

Seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?

That depends on how you look at it.

See, human beings aren’t as complex as we make them out to be. At our base, we’re really just predictable little nuggets running around in fancy clothes.

Marketers have known for a long time what stimulates customer responses. They’ve had several hundred years to test it, so they darn well should, if you ask me.

What takes over our brains when we look at stuff:

First off, the brain uses what’s called heuristics to scan and learn new information. It’s not a perfect system (it can lead to errors in judgment), but it evolved from us needing to process information quickly and easily and to make snap decisions.

This, in essence, is what people are doing when they scan your site, display ad, copy, etc. They’re making snap judgments about YOUR QUALITY, my friend.

They want to know, and they want to know quickly, if they’re wasting their time being there.

All of this boils down to a very simple, long-held tenet: What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?

WIIFM is the radio station the world tunes into. WIIFM is what everyone on two feet wants to know the second they land on your site. WIIFM is what Hubspot proved with this graph:


You’d better get your ducks in a row about what you want that message to be.

Here’s how to do that:

Luckily, Socrates and Google have done much of the legwork for you.

First up, Socrates decided all those centuries ago that he needed a way to make his speeches superlative, top-notch, something to be remembered for well… centuries. He wanted to maximize his ROI, if you will. What he came up with is still taught in schools today.

(Guess he succeeded, no?)

What Socrates developed was the idea of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. He concluded that in order to convince someone of an argument, you have to touch upon these three things.

Ethos, pathos, and logos – the three-headed dog of marketing

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are the three cornerstones of an effective argument, be it spoken, written, or visual.

When you’re writing your marketing copy, when you’re designing your website, you need to know what will convince people of what you’re trying to sell them (what your argument is, so to speak). Advertising is too expensive to get wrong, (amiright, America???) so your punches have to count.

Here’s what’s what:


Ethos is the credibility factor. It’s things like social trust, celebrity endorsement, jump-on-the-bandwagon approaches, that sort of thing. For a marketer, it’s our brain rationalizing the decision to buy certain things because it’s safe and acceptable to do so (Ex: “Beyonce is doing it, so I can too!”)


Logos is the logical part of the argument. Logos, for a marketer, is the cherry on top. It’s the “Now 25% off!” banner hanging outside your local mattress warehouse. Logos tries to win over the inner critic in you by quieting the voice that says: “Hmm… it might not be wise to purchase that dress right now,” by providing evidence to the contrary.

Now, Ethos and Logos are powerful and convincing methods of persuasion. But Socrates learned that they don’t hold a candle to Pathos.

Pathos – god of passion (don’t quote me on that)

If Ethos is all about credibility, and Logos is all Spock-like logic, Pathos is all about emotional response. Pathos is why you paid extra for the red sports car instead of the yellow sedan. Pathos is why you can’t commit to forking over $300 for a phone that, though better on paper than an iPhone, just doesn’t impress you with the way it looks and feels.

Logos says budget is best. Pathos says sexy is supreme. Guess who wins?

Why ethos and logos aren’t as powerful as Pathos:

Take a look at this magazine ad:

Photo courtesy of

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this ad is primarily geared towards men (it was taken from an issue of FHM (For Him Magazine)).

But riddle me this: why is this ad effective at all?

It does nothing to espouse the wonderful taste of the Silver Bullet. (I come away knowing nothing about what the product does, or what, even, it is.)

But what the ad does do is make me feel something. Specifically, it makes me feel an association with three things.

Three very powerful things:

1.) lust – sex is a very primal (and therefore powerful) motivator.

2.) fun – this goes hand in hand with lust – it’s a great time, and that’s something that a company might want a potential customer to associate with their brand.

3.) strength – this one isn’t as abundantly apparent, but notice the black and white color schemes, which are a classically powerful color pattern. The black bottom with a hard red font in all caps, the mountains in the background, the women on their knees in an overtly sexual post, the snowman behind the blond, grinning wildly as if he’s been outfitted with two carrots (sorry, but… c’mon) – all these lend themselves to the idea of strength and dominance.

So there we have lust, strength, and dominance. All from drinking a beer!

But do you notice a pattern here?

None of these things have anything to do with credibility (ethos) or logic (logos), do they? Nope, it’s all passionate, emotive forces at play.

Does that strike you as odd? It shouldn’t.

Here’s why:

Human beings are emotional creatures. Our decisions are based on our emotional reactions and little else. We’re SO emotional, in fact, that in a study done by Antonio Damasio at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has shown that humans whose emotional parts of the brain have been damaged are physically incapable of making a decision – even for something as mundane as whether or not to fasten your seatbelt.

As in, these poor souls just sit there trying to decide whether or not to fasten their seatbelts. Without an emotive response, they’re literally paralyzed.

Take-Home: EVERY decision is emotionally based.

Crazy, no?

It gets deeper, my friends.

But before we go there, let’s bring it back-to-home by pointing out that these marketers knew that they had one shot with their magazine ad, and they knew that they wanted to convey strong emotive connections between their brand and these feel-good emotions.

Ethos and Logos are important, but depending on your budget, and depending upon the size of your campaign, you should always be sure that your potential customers are leaving with a positive emotion, and preferably the emotional association you want to link to your brand.

The Coors Light marketers went over the top with their message, but they were successful in their goal because they stopped the reader long enough to associate their product with three emotions they were targeting.

When you’re designing your ads, you’ve got to think about the goal of your campaign. If you get just one shot, you want it to count.

Know your target customer, and know what moves them to action, then put the hardest-hitting message you can in front of their face.

What you and lions have in common (*spoiler alert*: it ain’t your heart)

James Clear recently wrote a great post on Buffer (a great social media tool, btw) about how to tame lions by presenting them too many options.

Have you ever seen the lion tamer in the ring with a whip and a chair, bravely warding off three hungry lions? It turns out that the reason this is successful isn’t because of the whip; it’s because of that seemingly-stupid little chair.

But that’s not just some object chosen by random. The chair, positioned correctly, offers the lion four potential focal points.

Lion tamer with the four-pronged chair of confusion. Photo courtesy of

The chair, along with the whip and the man wielding them, presents the lion with too many things to focus on, and the options immediately capture the lion’s attention (the whip and the chair, that is) it can’t eat.

The lion, after having its stimulus (food) taken away, becomes preoccupied with the clutter of other things in its face, can’t decide on which one to attack, and so instead decides it isn’t hungry after all.

Score one for the lion tamer, but human beings are little different: if we are presented with too many choices we stall and walk away.

The same is true with web design. If a design is too cluttered, it becomes confusing. We’re not ready to take on too much information. We see a wall of text and our first instinct is to balk and run away:

Too much.

Visitor: What is this?

You: It’s a site about nonprofit governance.

Visitor: Oh. Why’d I have to ask? [walks away]

Instead, aim for a clean design that strips away all but your primary objective. Airbnb does a great job of this:

AirBnb. Well played, sir.

Why is this good web design?

1.) Because it uses larger-than-life cool images of travel that entice but don’t overwhelm.

2.) Because all extraneous elements are stripped away and you don’t have to waste time wondering what the hell it is you need to do; the call to action is large and in charge, front and center.

3.) Because it’s simple, it loads fast, and there’s additional information pushed to the background, there only should someone need/request it.

In short, it’s successful because it remembers WIIFM – Your website isn’t about you and what you do. It’s about serving your clients and giving them what they need.

The take-home? Three parts:

1.) We need an emotional response to make a decision.

2.) Don’t present your visitors with too many options (cleanliness is next to godliness).

3.) Remember WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)

Now, back to the Coors Light Ad.

These marketers got rid of the now-metaphorical chair and dangled what they were selling in front of their target audience – that is, they’re selling the idea of sex, fun, and power. Coors Light will give you that. This is the meat of their message, so to speak.

They could have used other factors: “9 out of 10 doctors recommend Coors Light,” or “Now 25% off!” but that would cloud their message.

Don’t get me wrong. The “9 out of 10 doctors recommend Coors Light” and “Now 25% off!” are good marketing tactics in their own right, but given the one-shot opportunity that this magazine ad had with its intended audience, these marketers decided (and rightly so) that the main message should be meat, so to speak.

These emotional engagements people have with your product/brand ARE HUGE. They’re so important, in fact, that big brands spend $millions$ every year in order to make sure that they remain in their client’s good graces.

Come fly the friendly skies.

Relax, it’s FedEx.

We’ll leave the light on for you.

People want to have a sense of what they’re getting into before they get into it. Therefore, your first marketing message should be an effort to convey trust and confidence. Additionally, you want your customers to come away feeling good about your brand.

Bonus: More Science to Blow Your Mind: Surprise and Conquer

The nucleus accumbens is the part of the brain associated with pleasure. Studies show that it gets more excited (read: that people have a better experience) when it is surprised.

Surprise, therefore, can help put your brand in your audience’s good graces.

Check out these creatives:

Photo courtesy of Hongkiat
Photo courtesy of Hongkiat
Photo courtesy of Hongkiat
Pretty clever, no? All of them are clean, uncluttered messages that make you pause, think, and smirk. All get you excited about their brands, and all of them link a target emotion to their brand.

Use surprise wisely and you’ll have your customers all:

How this makes you a better marketer

1.) If you’re trying to sell something, push passion to the forefront. Let Logos and Ethos be Robin to the Batman of passion.

2.) If you’re trying to sell something, don’t give your customers too many options. It stalls them. There’s been a great deal said about this by others like this amazing post by Peep Laja.

3.) Surprise your audience to give them maximum pleasure.

In Sum:

If you’re trying to sell something, if you’re trying to dangle, say, a steak in front of your visitors, keep it simple, keep it passionate, keep it fresh.

Got it? Great.

-Hudson Hornick
Alchemy On Demand