The Three Wise Men at Nuevos Ministerios Metro and Cercanías station, Madrid (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #328

Optimal Marketing Claims: The Power of Three

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Key Concept

When putting together an advertisement campaign, how many positive aspects of the product should you include? The temptation is to put in as many as possible, but according to this Idea, three is the optimal amount. Add more and you risk raising suspicions in your customers about the authenticity of all of the claims. 

Idea Summary

What makes a message persuasive? Marketing departments everywhere are constantly looking for the answer to this question and much research has been conducted on this subject; previous research has shown that messages that have content that is easier to process can be more persuasive. Similarly, message framing and sequencing can also influence how persuasive a message is. But what about the number of positive claims made about the object in question; what effect does that have on impressions of it?

This is an important question to consider as traditionally, marketers have gone with the assumption that the more positive descriptors crammed into a message, the better. However, new research from Georgetown University and UCLA Anderson School of Management suggests that consumer scepticism crosses a threshold at three claims; in other words, the optimal number of positive claims is three, but when a fourth claim is made, consumers become doubtful of all the claims.

In fact, it is not just four claims that trigger scepticism; doubt seems to increase the more claims there are, as found by Professors Kurt Carlson and Suzanne Shu. Six claims, for example, triggered the most scepticism in their experiments.

Carlson and Shu write that the “charm of three” stems from an inference due to perceptions that three claims is sufficient to draw a conclusion about an object. In fact, the strength of three positive claims in persuasion can be found in other domains as well; speakers, for example, often use three-part phrases to persuade the audience to applaud, and three is even considered the best structure for humour (“three men walk into a bar…”). Similarly, consider popular slogans and their use of just three words, such as Nike’s “Just Do It”, Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” and Avis Rent-a-Car’s “We Try Harder.”

Methodology: Carlson and Shu conducted four experiments, all looking at the relationship between the number of claims and object impression. Participants’ impressions were analyzed when they read descriptions of different objects, including a breakfast cereal, a restaurant, a shampoo, an ice cream store, and a politician.

Each message had as few as one or as many as six reasons to buy in. Their attitudes towards the objects were then measured, as well as levels of scepticism, in order to identify the point at which participants began to doubt the authenticity of the claims in the advertisements.

Business Application

Marketing executives can use these findings to minimize scepticism of their brands and products, and maximize positive impressions of them. Consider making a list of your products’ best attributes and strengths; narrow these down to the three most essential ones and focus your campaign around these three.

However, according to Carlson and Shu, the “charm of three” can not only be valuable when designing advertising campaigns and promotional materials, but also while developing your overall marketing strategy. Long-term brand success is strongly influenced by a clear and consistent image to consumers over time; exceeding three claims in such communication can potentially harm overall brand success.

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Idea conceived

  • July 2013

Idea posted

  • February 2014

DOI number



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