As the owner of a Toyota Prius, I took notice when a research report suggested that the sole motivation for my purchase was to impress others by doing my bit to save the planet. Mind you, I am rather attached to Mother Earth. Still, it occurred to me that my motivations were not as simple as my fellow scholar implied.

Interestingly, Northridge Toyota appears to get this, as evidenced by the differences between the parent organization’s national advertising campaigns and the promotional piece that showed up in my mailbox from the local dealer in the waning days of 2016. (More about that later.)

The fact that a sales tactic used to attract initial attention may be quite different from the one used later to close the sale is true not just for automobile manufacturers and dealers. It also applies in my business (higher education) and others where gaps in time and space arise between initial consideration and ultimate purchase – even in politics. This came to mind in the recent presidential election when it became clear that Donald Trump’s forces had unexpectedly done a better job of closing the deal than their Hillary Clinton counterparts. Why? Perhaps it has something to do with Construal Level Theory, or CLT.

Drop the name “Hillary” to the average person almost anywhere in the world and the reply is not likely to be “Hillary who?” The same could be said of “The Donald”; who else has a first name preceded by the definite article? With such celebrity status at the heads of the tickets, the election was bound to be a battle for brand dominance.

While analysts have hashed and rehashed how the forecasters could have been so wrong, none have looked at it from the perspective of a recent development in marketing-communication theory. CLT, conceived by Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman (psychologists at New York University and Tel Aviv University, respectively), may shed some light, not only on the craziest election in memory but also on how area businesses can transition from brand familiarity to closing the sale.

CLT posits that four dimensions of psychological distance – spatial (near/far), temporal (short-term/long-term), social (in-group/out-group), and hypotheticality (likely/unlikely) – determine the extent to which consumers respond more favorably to abstract or concrete marketing pitches. An abstract or politically ideological message may win attention, familiarity and some favorability among prospective buyers or voters who are removed in space or time from their ultimate decision. When, however, the purchase or balloting is immediately at hand, the winning brand will likely be the one that answers concrete “what’s in it for me” questions.

In the early and middle parts of the campaign season, Clinton ads were ubiquitous and Trump’s almost nonexistent. Both candidates hit the campaign trail, but the Trump organization closed the spatial distance between their candidate and prospective voters more effectively than did Clinton’s operatives, as evidenced by the average turnout at rallies. According to one analyst (Jim Hoft,, there were 530,000 more participants at Trump than at Clinton rallies between August and October. Simon Dumenco, writing in Advertising Age, characterized Clinton’s final get-out-the-vote ads as “a variation on the theme that Donald Trump is a big jerk.” Trump’s ads, though containing ample reciprocal demeaning of his opponent, attempted to close the distance for voters by spelling out benefits of potential personal relevance to his targeted voters – e.g., “In Donald Trump’s America, working families get tax relief, millions of new jobs created, wages go up, small businesses thrive.”

The campaign was not conducted as a test of CLT, but its outcome suggests that the theory’s propositions warrant consideration, among businesses as well as politicians.

To some extent, marketers recognize this intuitively. Toyota (corporate) knew how to build awareness and an early favorable attitude toward the Prius for this moderately environmentally aware prospective buyer with ecologically based ad pitches like “Considers your environment too” and “Recycles Sunshine.” Northridge Toyota, on the other hand, attempted to attract buyers immediately to its showroom for a year-end clearance sale with a piece that, while showing a Prius as its first featured vehicle, focused on mundane benefits akin to those I was considering at that last stage of my purchase decision – financial deals, credit terms and selection – rather than the environment. Like “The Donald,” they focused on the right benefits at the right time.

I am in the business of higher education. The fact that California State University Northridge’s David Nazarian College of Business and Economics is home to some of the highest-ranked accounting, financial-planning, and graduate business programs in the nation may draw prospective students and their families to our website and information sessions. But once we have their attention, we can’t expect to enroll them in our programs unless we can demonstrate such concrete benefits as caring and expert faculty, scheduling that will allow timely degree completion, support services that will facilitate their ability to succeed, course content delivered on a Tuesday night that will give them a competitive advantage on the job on Wednesday morning, and a network of professional and executive mentors who can help propel their career success, all at a competitive price.

What is the abstract appeal of your brand? What are the concrete benefits your buyers are seeking at the time of purchase? As CLT suggests, knowing and delivering both at the right time and place may well be the key to outperforming your competitors, whether or not they are household names.

Kenneth R. Lord is dean of the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics at California State University Northridge.