Will I Still Know Me Tomorrow?-Marketing “future-oriented” products by reversing temporal discounting

Paul Conner

Before we get into the “business” of this article, if you have 3 minutes and 33 seconds to spare, we invite you to listen to Amy Winehouse’s version of the classic song Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? It’s a great track and we think you’ll enjoy it.  Just click on the picture below.  When you’re finished, return to the article and we’ll explain how it applies.

Welcome back.  We hope you enjoyed that.  But how does this song relate to behavioral science applied to consumer behavior?  To make the connection, if you slightly modify the song title to Will I Still Know Me Tomorrow? you’re ready to learn how “knowing yourself tomorrow” can impact consumer behavior.

Behavioral science has long confirmed an evaluative bias known as temporal discounting.  Temporal discounting manifests itself when we “discount” (i.e., lessen) the value of more valuable future outcomes in favor of less valuable present outcomes.  For example, would you rather receive $100 today or $125 a month from now?  If you would rather receive $100 today, as many people would, you’ve temporally discounted the value of the extra $25 you would have received a month from now.

Temporal discounting impacts many different consumer decisions, but it’s often cited as a deterrent to saving money, particularly saving for retirement.  Temporal discounting lessens saving for retirement because the value of interest gained over time is discounted vis-à-vis the value of having the money right now.  So a goal for companies that offer savings products – or any other products that rely on future benefits – is to find ways to reverse temporal discounting.

To the rescue come Hal Ersner-Hershfield and several colleagues.  In a series of studies[1] they investigated the phenomenon of “future self-continuity” (i.e., having a consistent present and future self-image) to see if it could explain differences in temporal discounting.  Using two ways to measure future self-continuity, they found that people with high future self-continuity temporally discounted less.  Pertaining to saving money, these people were inclined to save more.

Their measures of future self-continuity came from self-reports and from brain activity.  Regarding self-reports, they developed questions that validly indicated whether people have strong or weak consistency between their present and future self-images.  Regarding brain activity, they showed that when people consistently matched attributes of their current self with their future self, certain parts of the brain involved with processing messages related to one’s self (the mesial prefrontal cortex [MPFC] and rostral anterior cingulate [rACC]) showed increased activity.  On the other hand, when current and future self attributes did not match, these parts of the brain showed decreased activity.  In temporal discounting tasks, people who exhibited more future self-continuity, whether through self-reports or brain activity, showed less temporal discounting.  People who exhibited less future self-continuity showed more temporal discounting.  In other words, “knowing yourself tomorrow” leads to valuing future benefits moreand temporally discounting less.

These results are nicely explained by the “for me” or “for a stranger” analogy.  Deferring gratification (i.e., reversing temporal discounting) via enhanced future self-continuity can be seen as imagining future rewards “for me.”  Temporally discounting via diminished future self-continuity can be seen as imagining future rewards “for a stranger.”

What does this mean for marketers, particularly of products and services with benefits that are more future- and less present-oriented?  It means they should either find ways to create future self-continuity or identify and target people who naturally exhibit future self-continuity.  In other words, they need to get people to see themselves tomorrow much like they see themselves today or choose people who already do.  Here are some general guidelines for doing that:

  • Segment potential consumer targets based on a validated future self-continuity scale and market to those high in future self-continuity.  (We can help with that.)
  • Employ messages and/or visuals that show your consumer targets as staying fundamentally the same as they age.  For example, look at the “evolutionary” visual next to the title of this article and below; the man ages, but remains recognizable as the same man over time.

  • When communicating directly with your consumer targets, tie present self-identity information (e.g., what you know about their current life situation, current product ownerships, physical characteristics, even their current address) to the future.  For example, open a letter or conversation with, “assuming your love for [product] will continue into the future…”
  • Assuming you can get permission and have the budget, convert the song Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? to Will I Still Know Me Tomorrow? and relate it to your product!  (Kind of kidding with this one, but who knows…it might work.)

So, “will I still know me tomorrow?”  With help from marketers, I certainly can.  And I’ll likely be better for it, especially when it comes to reaping the benefits of future rewards.

[1] Ersner-Hershfield, H., Garton, M.T., Ballard, K., Samanez-Larkin, G.R., and Knutson, B. (2009). Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: Individual Differences in Future Self-Continuity Account for Saving.  Judgment and Decision Making, 4:4, 280-286.

Ersner-Hershfield, H., Wimmer, E.G., and Knutson, B. (2009). Saving for the Future Self: Neural Measures of Future Self Continuity Predict Temporal Discounting.  Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4, 85-92.


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