Small Wars Journal

Brand Loyalty as Currency: A Discussion of the Connections Between Fundamental Economics and Military Information Support Operations

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 1:42am

Brand Loyalty as Currency: A Discussion of the Connections Between Fundamental Economics and Military Information Support Operations

Matthew Martin

Influence can be a difficult weapon to wield. As the trained Psychological Operations (PSYOP) practitioner knows, any attempt to influence a target population to change their behavior requires an extensive understanding of that population and an expert application of the principles of persuasion. The guidance found in Military Information Support Operations (MISO) doctrine provides an excellent foundation and PSYOP practitioners often employ those foundational techniques with great skill to influence target audiences (TAs) to behave in specific, measurable ways using the concepts or methods described throughout MISO doctrine, which are grounded in established psychological theories and constructs, such as Cialdini’s Principles of Influence, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or prosocial behavior theory. But in some cases, those theories and constructs are not enough to decipher the mystery of a TA’s behavior. One key to potentially improving influence efforts may be found in economics, in a concept called Consumption Theory.

Consumption Theory proposes that consumers’ purchasing choices are the result of a rational decision making process.[1] While this is the case for many behaviors, using a rational decision making process is sometimes not how a TA’s original behavior choice was made. Or, the TA’s supposed reasons for its refusal to change an old behavior into a newer, more beneficial behavior are not founded in rationality or logic, even if the TA has responded well to influence attempts in the past.[2] So, despite having a well-researched and vetted Target Audience Analysis Worksheet (TAAW) and thorough pre- and post-testing, understanding why a TA did not behave in the intended or expected manner after a PSYOP series has been disseminated is often limited, with the PSYOP practitioner potentially finding it difficult to entice the TA to engage in perpetual or repeated behavior change. Even if the behavior intention exists at a high level, convincing someone to change their behavior is easier than persuading him or her to change their perception of the behavior itself,[3] so there is an argument to be made that the missing element to permanent or consistent behavior change could be transforming TAs into repeat customers.

A well-known economic principle states that an organization will achieve more cost effectiveness in retaining customer loyalty than attempting to obtain new customers.[4] So, it could follow that the PSYOP practitioner should be attempting to earn the TA’s loyalty to his or her brand[5]- however that may be defined in his or her specific Area of Operations (AO) - instead of a single-instance behavior change. With this in mind, the exploration of Consumption Theory can illuminate how a TA’s change in behavior more closely resembles a consumer transaction than a simple response to a stimulus, a term which can fairly describe a MISO product. A better understanding and application of Consumption Theory by the PSYOP practitioner could help in creating better series and products, strengthening the TA’s response to the practitioner’s influence, and increasing that TA’s loyalty to the PSYOP practitioner’s brand.     

This paper will explore the use of economic theory in conjunction with MISO doctrine and discuss a paradigm change that PSYOP practitioners might find beneficial. This article will also present the concept that brand loyalty is a sort of currency owned by the Target Audience which should be desired by the PSYOP practitioner, following with some ideas to obtain that currency by using Cialdini’s principle of reciprocity and the psychological law of commitment. Finally, this paper will discuss how brand continuity should be a factor considered in the practitioner’s analysis of each TA’s susceptibility to influence.

Consumption Theory and TA Behavior

Consumption Theory states that consumers decide how to spend currency through a rational and informed assessment of their current and future economic conditions.[6] While this theory is not specifically discussed in MISO doctrine, how a TA decides to change its behavior is discussed in some detail throughout FM 3-05.301, now updated as ST 33-01, The MISO Process. The doctrinal ideologies of susceptibility, recognition of behavior consequences, and Cialdini’s principles of influence, such as reciprocity, liking, social proof, etc.[7] can complement the practitioner’s understanding of how Consumption Theory might be reflected in a TA’s behavior.

When attempting to influence a TA, the PSYOP practitioner should not necessarily expect a TA to change its behavior solely on the merits of the disseminated series or its arguments. Instead, the practitioner should examine the tradeoff he or she is asking the TA to make between its current behavior and the behavior desired.[8] The practitioner should also attempt to account for each TA’s rational and informed assessment of their economic, social, or reputational condition and how that condition directly influences the TA’s decision to maintain its current behavior or make the requested change. Instead of understanding this as the application of a psychological principle, it should be instead viewed as the employment of an economic principle:  An exchange of some kind of intangible currency “owned” by the TA for “goods” the PSYOP practitioner is offering by way of a specific behavior change.[9]

A practitioner’s proficient understanding of psychological theory and MISO doctrine should indicate his or her acceptance of the idea that he or she is asking the TA to make a trade:  Something in the TA’s possession or control- their time or reputation, for example- in exchange for the behavior the practitioner desires and its subsequent consequences. By extension, PSYOP practitioners are creating consumers out of their TAs, sometimes without completely understanding the method or currency of exchange or how much it costs the TA to change their behavior. The brand loyalty conveyed toward the PSYOP practitioner by the TA is a result of that TA’s perceived value of the practitioner’s continuous influence.[10] This loyalty can also be obtained by demonstrating or promising an expected return on the TA’s investment of said loyalty[11] by the disseminated series. Expressed as a transaction in which both the PSYOP practitioner and the TA participate, the behavior change is the purchasing act, the TA’s brand loyalty is that intangible currency, and the consequences resulting from the requested behavior change are the “merchandise” received by the TA.

Brand Loyalty as Currency

In a typical economy, consumers spend money on what gives them satisfaction, which is a concept known as utility. This is one of the most basic tenets of economics, upon which many other theories are built. Indeed, there is a certain utility gained by the TA when they act on a series and its products’ influence, so behavior choice can abide by this concept as well. This utility can also have a physiological component, as a TA could possibly be conditioned to act on a PSYOP practitioner’s products when they know or assume that their behavior will provide short term positive rewards or help the TA avoid short term negative consequences. The TA may remember that such actions in the past have provided similar rewards and/or consequence avoidance and recall the resulting physical or emotional reaction from obtaining the rewards or avoiding the consequence. Consider the shopper’s physical or emotional reaction when he or she purchases an item that gives him or her utility, such as a dress, a movie, a power tool, or a sandwich. It is logical that the TA could connect the positive results obtained from previous behavior changes requested by the PSYOP practitioner with potential benefits following future behavioral change requested by the practitioner.

Viewing this idea in light of Consumption Theory and through the prism of MISO doctrine, practitioners should view their TAs not simply as vehicles through which their influence can be wielded. Practitioners should view them as consumers who have a wide variety of behavior choices, or an abundance of opportunities to spend their loyalty on other brands or influences. Efforts should focus not just on short-term behavioral change, but in convincing the TA to repeatedly spend their loyalty-currency on the practitioner’s brand.

Loyalty Defined

To understand the method of exchange for this currency, one must understand the currency itself. What is loyalty? More specifically, what could drive brand loyalty in the sense being discussed here? The simplest explanation of brand loyalty in this context is that TAs which have an allegiance to the PSYOP practitioner’s brand will act on that practitioner’s series and products more readily than TAs without such loyalty. A brand-loyal TA would behave in the intended manner with less respect to convenience or consequence[12] as compared to other potential influencers. This might also reflect the TA’s desire to be efficient in their decision making, where they would rely on others that they might think know better. These might include key communicators, authority figures, family, or friends. These other individuals can influence the TA’s behavior or attitude toward that practitioner’s brand rather than the TA making the full decision themselves, as they might require less information about the brand before acting on its requests.[13]

However, a TA’s loyalty is not infinite. Too much can be asked of them. In other words, some actions simply cost the TA too much to perform. This would mean that those behaviors are too expensive, leading back to Consumption Theory: The TA will not spend their loyalty currency on desired behaviors if a future condition- such as a social position, intellectual stance, health, or reputational identity- would prohibit such an action. If one views loyalty as a limited resource, it makes sense to assume that a TA might not wholly commit themselves to a specific brand or influencer without forsaking a competing brand or influencer.[14] Indeed, it is even unlikely that a TA would commit themselves to any brand, i.e. faction, without certain assurances or expectations of a brand’s success in that specific geographical area or political cause.[15]

Obtaining Brand Loyalty

How can a PSYOP practitioner create a strong sense of brand loyalty or at least persuade the TAs to spend their loyalty-currency on his or her requested behaviors? There are no easy answers to that question, as economists, psychologists, and philosophers have been attempting to decipher that facet of human psychology for centuries. However, there can be ways to potentially increase a TA’s favorability toward the practitioner’s brand, using well-understood psychological principles.

The Rule of Commitment

Start with obtaining small commitments from the TA. This is known as the “foot in the door technique,” or more technically, the rule of commitment. The request should be small but not trivial, as the non-trivial commitment will incline the individual to examine his or her own motives for behaving in such a way. This self-examination should lead the individual to the conclusion that he or she acted in such a way on his or her own.[16]

Too often, practitioners only communicate with their TAs when they want those TAs to engage in a significant and public behavior change. In some cases, the PSYOP practitioner is asking for too great a commitment from a TA that is not ready to make such a commitment or needs a psychological nudge in the right direction. Instead, TAs might be willing to participate in those smaller commitments which could then lead to eventual larger commitments out of an innate desire to remain consistent.

For example, through a Tactical Radio Station message or printed product, a PSYOP practitioner might ask the TA a simple Yes or No question and to text the response anonymously to a monitored cell phone. This would compel the respondents to make a psychological commitment to a line of thinking.[17] The initial response would still be measurable, but would be less demanding of a TA that might not yet be willing to publicly demonstrate their commitment to US interests. For such a minor commitment, the request should be uncommon, unexpected or memorable, and should be related to the target request, i.e. the future products in the series.[18] Those future products would take advantage of the TA’s desire to remain consistent in their commitment to the original line of thinking, as requested by the text message to the monitored cell phone.

Rule of Reciprocity

Consistently make investments into the TA or to the TA’s interests and remind them of actions or operations conducted for the betterment of their own well-being and community. They may feel obligated to return the favor. This is Cialdini’s principle of reciprocity, meaning that the recipient will feel indebted to the giver, whether or not the gift was asked for or even if the recipient has a favorable opinion of the person to whom he or she is indebted.[19]

In some AOs, especially where the US has operated for long periods of time, many already-approved products can be used to proclaim the numerous generous donations and services that Coalition Forces have provided to the local population. Practitioners could also disseminate messaging that “compliments” or thanks the TA for their participation in a recent activity or engaging in a requested behavior.[20] Or, as a sort of “reward,” publicize the positive results of a different TA’s actions in an effort to compliment that TA in their actions to affirm the desire of a new TA to behave in a similar manner (i.e. bandwagon appeal). A large amount of literature has contributed to the understanding of “making deposits” into relationships, which the TA and PSYOP practitioner share, in a manner of speaking, and the idea can certainly be applied in this context.

Much like how the law of commitment works, this rule works best when the reciprocating party is asked to act immediately, or very soon after the investment is made. Otherwise, the obligation diminishes quickly.[21] It would be in the PSYOP practitioner’s best interest to pair his or her series requiring more significant behavior changes with humanitarian actions or contingency operations that directly affect the TA. This will likely increase the opportunity to measure the series’ effectiveness.

Understanding Brand Recognition in an AO

PSYOP practitioners seeking to employ this concept of loyalty-currency or the above suggestions should consider the long-term effects of the United States' and the PSYOP practitioner’s presence in an AO by taking an inventory of the psychological disposition of their TAs. This inventory is partially estimated through the Target Audience Analysis. However, the practitioner should also understand that the TA already has an impression of the practitioner’s brand and that every past and future product has and will contribute to or detract from that brand identity. One method of performing such an inventory is determining if various TAs in the AO associate US products with a brand mentality, assessing how strong that association is, or establishing if they do not associate US products with any brand at all, viewing them as standalone or individual efforts to change behavior. The latter could also be an important measurement. The brand established in every AO is unique and every practitioner has the opportunity to establish a higher level of rapport and positive brand recognition than their predecessor.

Even though PSYOP products are US-approved and produced, the TAs may not view them as such, or may view the US’ brand in a way the PSYOP practitioner might not prefer or anticipate. Brand recognition and loyalty are developed over time, with each product contributing to the strength or weakness of that brand, including products that may have been disseminated months or years prior to a practitioner’s term in that specific AO. In an attempt to understand the operational environment, the practitioner should endeavor to take stock of the existing TA’s brand loyalty, if possible, before seeking to exert any influence. This assessment could be used as a factor when rating a TA’s susceptibility to influence.


In a perfect world, a TA would receive a PSYOP product and act on it immediately, and do so with the same diligence after each instance of product dissemination. Ideally, a well-developed series would create a strong loyalty to the PSYOP practitioner’s brand, however that may be defined. But that ideal world does not exist. TAs constantly wrestle with competing arguments and influences, many of which may be innately stronger than expected due to the TAs’ native connections.  Those influences could include strong key communicators, religious ties, and often a forced acceptance of competing arguments through threatened or actual violence.

Despite these competing arguments, brand loyalty can still be established. The PSYOP practitioner should seek to influence every TA to spend their loyalty-currency on the practitioner’s brand by informing that TA of better psychological, economic, and social conditions should they submit to a persistent or long-term behavior change. Such a level of loyalty is a noble and achievable goal in AOs over which each PSYOP practitioner is responsible. Ultimately, that brand loyalty is a form of currency that the TA trades for the results of the series’ requested behavior. Therefore, engendering brand loyalty in specific TAs is what could make influence attempts more effective.

End Notes

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica. Consumption Theory. 2014.

[2] For instance, social norms, religious convictions, or even conditioning might drive a TA’s behavior, even if that behavior is illogical or harmful.

[3] Ajzen, Icek (1991). "The theory of planned behavior." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 50 (2): 179–211.

[4] Pfiefer, P. "The optimal ratio of acquisition and retention costs." Journal of Targeting, Measurement and Analysis for Marketing (2004): 179-188

[5] It should be noted that the “brand” in question is, ultimately, the US and its policies. However, it is conceivable that the PSYOP practitioner may work in an area where the TA potentially views the US’ brand differently than how it views the operating practitioner’s MISO efforts as a non-native influence.

[6]Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014

[7] Cialdini, R. "Principles and techniques of social influence." Cialdini, R. Advanced Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill, 1995.

[8] Indeed, there is considerable research on the subject of behavior trade-off in the animal kingdom, and how behavioral utility determines survival in the wild.

[9] The “goods” that PSYOP attempts to “sell” might include safer neighborhoods, more secure elections, or something else that promotes US interests but might also be beneficial to the TA in question.

[10]Lam, S.K., et al. "Resistance to brand switching when a new brand is introduced: A social identity theory perspective." Journal of Marketing (2010): 128-146.

[11] McCormick, G.H. and F. Giordano. "Things come together: Violence and guerilla mobilisation." Third World Quarterly (2007): 295-320.

[12] Stanford University. Loyalty. Jul 11, 2013

[13] Khan, B.M. "Consumers and their brands." International Journal of Business Insights and Transformation (2009): 84-92

[14] Stanford University. Loyalty. Jul 11, 2013

[15] McCormick, G.H. and F. Giordano, p. 297.

[16] Dolinski, D. "The nature of the first small request as a decisive factor in the effectiveness of the foot-in-the-door technique." Applied Psychology: An International Review (2012): 437-453.

[17] To be effective, the asked question would compel the TA to answer in a manner that is consistent with US interests, not merely asking an opinion. A later series concerning the same topic, or even products with the same series, would likely oblige the TA to act in the preferred way, so as to compel it remain consistent.

[18] Dolinski, D., p. 440

[19] Cialdini, R., 390

[20] Drehmann, D. What is loyalty currency and does your company have any? Jan 23, 2014.!W6BDz.

[21] Dolinski, D., p. 439.


About the Author(s)

Matthew Martin is a Psychological Operations Sergeant in 5th PSYOP Battalion at Fort Bragg, NC. In his experience within the PSYOP Regiment, he has held positions of Tactical PSYOP Team Leader, Plans and Exercises NCOIC, USAJFKSWCS Instructor and Course Manager, and is now a Detachment Sergeant. He has deployed to Kuwait, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Korea. His education includes a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, a Master’s Degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, a Graduate Certificate in Media Neuroscience, and he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. His professional works include published SMA papers on Influence Inoculation, Narratives, and Applying Neuroscience to the PSYOP Process; he has given talks on using neuroscience tools to increase effectiveness of PSYOP products, and the role of propaganda in the radicalization of vulnerable populations. He lives in Whispering Pines, NC, with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.