A New Branding Playbook - Part 2: Brands with Resolve

In the 1980s, two brilliant researchers at the University of Rochester reported a surprising finding. They showed that extrinsic rewards, like discounts and coupons, don’t work in driving customer loyalty and over time may only need to be escalated (language adapted to fit marketing context). Neither do messages that strongarm customers or guilt them into buying.

But more importantly, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci found what does work. Their research indicated that intrinsic motivation, where consumers are self-disposed to act (i.e., buy or be loyal), is driven by just three things– Autonomy, Belonging (relationship with others) and Competence (ABC). These are powerful because they are the only three and each intimately connected to people’s innate desire to flourish in life.

What does all this mean for brand marketers?

It means that when a marketer positions his brand as a stepping stone for consumers to enhance their autonomy, belonging or competence (the ABCs), they will be intrinsically motivated to buy it. It will be in their DNA to do so. Thus, brands that want to forge lifelong relationships with customers should pay close attention.

So also, should brands that have had trouble motivating hesitant consumers to buy their products.

Pharma companies often face the latter problem. For example, many patients with psoriasis, who could benefit from hi-tech drugs like Abbvie’s Skyrizi or Janssens’ Tremfaya, stay stuck taking older, less effective drugs like Humira or Remicade. It is not because they haven’t been told about the benefits of these newer drugs (each brand spends over $100 million annually on multi-channel promotion), but simply because they are not motivated enough to act and make the switch.

Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory (SDT), the science underlying all of this, is considered one of the greatest advances in Psychology. Over the last few decades, it has been tested in over a thousand studies and applied in fields as disparate as the design of primary education and video games and proven successful.

I spoke at the 2023 International SDT Conference and shared how my company has been leveraging SDT to build iconic brands. I call them “Brands with Resolve” because they motivate customers from the inside, without bribes or pressure, to move beyond indecision and indifference, buy and stay loyal.

To understand how to design Brands with Resolve, let’s take a fresh look at some brands that we all know well – and re-examine why they have been so successful.

Building Brands with Autonomy

According to SDT, a key aspect of our psychological well-being is related to having autonomy, meaning that we like to be in control of our actions and willingly engaged in them. In pharma marketing, it is a useful strategy.

For example, Amgen positioned Enbrel, its drug for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), as the steppingstone for patients to regain their lost autonomy. In one of their widely acclaimed ads (watch it here https://www.ispot.tv/ad/duOK/enbrel-my-moms-pain-girl),  they show various vignettes where a mom who suffers from RA is engaged in activities common in motherhood – helping the daughter draw, practice piano, etc. In the accompanying voiceover, the little girl expresses her concern for her mom – that if her pain (arthritis) gets worse, she would lose her ability to be mom and do all those things she does every day with her.

The voice is the little girl’s, but Enbrel’s message, as you may suspect, is for the mom to wait no more, see a doctor and start on the drug before the worst happens and she loses her autonomy.

Remarkably, patients that suffer from slow progressing diseases often fail to seek treatment, sometimes until it is too late. Motivating these patients through threats does not work because they recede further into their shells. Motivating them to act volitionally, even when the symptoms don’t feel so bad, is essential to improving their quality of life and outlook. And that is exactly what Enbrel’s strategy here is.

What about your brand? Can it be the instrument that helps a consumer have more options – open doors and pathways in life or work to choose from?

Building Brands with Competence

Think about the challenge that the US Navy faces in finding young recruits. What they’re selling is a product that in a war could cost the prospects their lives. In the US, service is voluntary, so there’s that.

The Navy targets 17-to-24-year-olds, many of whom don’t view service in the armed forces positively. Just 2 percent of the eligible youths are motivated to serve, and many of the remaining say “never” to a possible Navy career.

On the other hand, an E-1 Seaman recruit can make almost $67,000 in salary and benefits, including housing, food allowances and health coverage. For many, the Navy offers a steady job with a future pension.

Nice as that is, it is not at all the Navy’s selling pitch.

Instead, in its “Forged by the Sea” campaign, the Navy talks about how it can transform people into a different and better version of themselves. When you work at the sea, you are forged by it – what with all the experience you get and the responsibilities you take on. Anyone who has worked with veterans, know that these men and women have a special ethic, discipline, and confidence, that stands them apart from others.

That is what the Navy builds – extraordinary people; and that’s what it sells in its ad campaign (brilliantly developed by Y&R).

The TV campaign (see it here at https://youtu.be/NFcCkXZrGtg) which opens with dramatic music (like from the movie “Jaws,” but uplifting) shows navy seamen in heart-stopping, non-stop action, working on everything from leviathanic aircraft carriers and levitating hover crafts to faster-than-sound fighter jets and menacing attack helicopters. If you are eighteen years old and watching that, you’re thinking “I could keep frying chicken wings at KFC or climb aboard one of these.” That is when you want to know where the dotted line to sign is.

In this case, the Navy becomes the steppingstone for a prospective recruit to reinvent themselves. Even though the Navy has a tough product to sell, the message has worked in encouraging more youth to apply. And all because SDT discovered that we are all wired to want to be more competent.

Can your brand help people transform themselves and be better? How?

Building Brands with Belonging

Finally, SDT also showed that we, as humans, have a natural tendency to be connected to and experience caring for others. We do so because it makes us feel more fulfilled, happier, and vitalized in our own lives.

Guinness Beer draws on just that.

Anyone that is familiar with Guinness knows that it is quite unlike any other beer. For one, it doesn’t look much like a beer – what with its black ruby color full of dark mystery and thick creamy head that leans persistently over the rim of the glass its poured in. It doesn’t taste much like one either, with its hoppy bitter taste and toasted malty aroma.

So, Guinness marketers made the brand not about how different their beer was, but rather about how different the people that drank it were.

In one of the most iconic ad campaigns ever (see it here at https://www.ispot.tv/ad/7bSd/guinness-wheelchair-basketball) Guinness opens its TV commercial with rapid fire scenes of men in wheel chairs playing basketball. The game is rough – there are chairs crashing into each other and there are the ball and people flying over in every which way.

Suddenly the game ends and to our surprise, everyone gets off their wheelchairs and walks away. All except one player – who is the one that does need a wheelchair.

You ask yourself, “Hey, what kind of people would strap themselves into a wheelchair just so they could even the playing field for their one friend?” The answer of course is – people who are “Made of More” just like the beer they drink. The commercial finishes in a pub with the group enjoying their moment of camaraderie, downing pints of the delicious brew.

How can your brand become the steppingstone for connecting people to each other and enhancing their relationships through genuine and mutual care?


The name “Self-determination Theory” does itself injustice. It is not just a theory anymore. SDT has been proven in application after application and the results measured quantitatively through in-depth structured equation (SEM) modelling techniques.

Its extension to branding is work-in-process – much of which my company, Cerenti, has been proud to champion.

But the opportunity to build epic “Brands with Resolve” is there for the taking for the rest of world!

This article by Sandeep Dayal, the author of “Branding Between the Ears,” is part of a series of six that present a completely new playbook for building brands, by leveraging the latest advances in psychology and behavioral science.