In my new interview series, I caught up with Tom Asacker, who focuses on creating marketplace success in times of uncertainty and change. His new book, The Business of Belief, “pulls back the curtain on the workings of the mind and reveals the hidden logic to motivating behavior.

Steve Yastrow: In describing The Business of Belief, you say, “The next big idea in business is belief.” I completely agree with you. Why do you think beliefs are the next big thing?

Tom Asacker: Because we’re overwhelmed with choice, and frustrated by conflicting information and opinions about everything and everyone. We simply don’t know where to turn or who to believe. So we turn towards the one thing we know we can always trust; ourselves and our beliefs.

The word “belief” comes from the Middle English “lief,” which means to wish. It’s a working assumption about something or someone driven by what we wish it to be. In our age of abundance, it’s our unique desires, fueled by our assumptions, which move us to choose particular brands.

SY: What kinds of beliefs should businesses want their customers to have about them?

TA: Primarily that those businesses can uniquely provide a pleasurable aesthetic experience, an improved sense of control over their situations, and advancement in their personal narratives. Smart businesses design and evolve their products, services and communication to stimulate and satisfy these universal human desires.

SY: How do customers’ beliefs affect their actions?

TA: People’s beliefs drive their actions. We wrongly assume that people’s actions are motivated by information, by knowledge. But that’s simply not true. Have you seen the new, very costly marketing campaign the FDA is hoping will reduce youth smoking? One television ad shows a girl peeling skin from her face and handing it to a store clerk as a form of currency to purchase cigarettes? That’s a totally backasswards approach.

This idea, of showing people what you believe they’d like to prevent as a way to induce behavior change, is one of the most mixed up concepts in the world of communication. It assumes that conveying information and gaining understanding—albeit in an emotionally powerful way—is what creates belief and motivation, when in fact people’s beliefs are driven by their desires. And no one desires what he or she doesn’t want, including imagery and information about it.

SY: You quote psychologist Richard Gregory as saying, “The senses do not provide a picture of the world directly; rather they provide evidence for the checking of hypotheses about what lies before us.” This implies that people’s beliefs are based on preconceived notions, and are not objective interpretations of the world. What kinds of challenges does this create for businesses? What kinds of opportunities?

TA: The essence of business success lies in influencing people’s decisions, which is about understanding their motivations and thinking patterns. But—and this is a critical but—choices in the marketplace are not influenced by changing someone’s thinking, which then leads to a change in their feelings and behavior. Instead, you must appeal to their feelings first. People’s thoughts and behavior follow their perceptions and feelings.

The truly significant business challenge, and I know this because I’ve been studying and teaching business influence for the past twenty years, is to get people to embrace the counterintuitive notion that people’s perceptions drive their feelings, and those feelings, in turn, drive their thoughts and decisions. Once a business “gets” this distinction, the opportunities are boundless and constrained only by imagination, budget, and guts. However, it is a very difficult distinction to grasp.

SY: Here’s a line you wrote in your book that I really loved: “People are drawn across the bridge of belief by the anticipation of a better experience and a better life.” How does this affect your beliefs about marketing and sales?

TA: It goes back to my previous statement about today’s greatest business challenge. Instead of communicating in a way that uniquely brings a future scenario to life in customers’ minds—one that stimulates their imaginations and feelings, most marketing and sales tries to persuade people with facts and figures. Or, they try to get people to like them with emotional advertising or clever online interactions and content. Now, I have nothing against being smart, human and interesting, but it should always be framed around what matters most to customers. And that’s the anticipation of a better experience and a better life, enabled by the brand under consideration.

SY: What are some brands you believe in?

TA: There are two types of belief: belief “that” and belief “in.” There are many brands, which I use habitually, that I believe that—based on the evidence—will do the job for me; e.g. toilet paper, shampoo, gasoline, my gym, etc. But there are only a few that I believe in, in which I have faith in the organization’s core concept, ideals, and ability to deliver over time. Amazon and Apple are two that come to mind. There are probably a handful more.

SY: I recently wrote a book, Ditch the Pitch, about engaging in persuasive conversations because sales pitches don’t work. Based on your work, do you think canned sales pitches are an ineffective or effective way to inspire belief in customers?

TA: Is that a rhetorical question? Look, people’s resistance to persuasion is the single most problematic aspect of getting customers to believe in one’s offerings. And you’re absolutely right about the solution (I loved your book, by the way.) Why? Because a conversation lets the customer believe that he or she is in control of the decision. If people believe that they have provided the arguments for a particular course of action, they are much more likely to believe those arguments and act accordingly.

SY: How can salespeople help customers create powerful beliefs about them?

TA: The simplest and most compelling way is to exude passion. And by “passion,” I don’t mean drama or charisma. Exuding passion is not about creating a carefully-honed image. It’s about making a statement about your values and convictions—the bigger cause that drives you. Today’s customers are smart, savvy, and very well-informed. Competence, confidence, warmth, and enthusiasm, in both words and actions, are what moves them.

SY: How can leaders create powerful beliefs in the minds of the people they lead?

TA: First and foremost, they should stop trying to fix and control people and instead work on fixing the design of the business. Because the design, the model, is what produces the results. The people, all of whom desire to do a good job, are simply working within its constraints.

The great statistician and quality consultant Dr. W. Edwards Deming wrote, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” I’m finding far too many executives trying to manage the results of the operation by managing their people, especially their activities and reporting. It will never work. Instead, they need to better understand and manage the purpose and process, and then let the people and their beliefs—in themselves, each other, and that process—drive the results.

SY: Thanks Tom. I really enjoyed learning from you through this dialogue, and I’m sure my readers will too.


  • Jon Pietz
    Aug 19, 2014 - 01:13 am


    Thanks. This is a perfect distillation of Tom and his philosophy. In fact, he recommended it to me himself!

    Nice job with your interview—it contains several memorable passages. I hope marketers out there are paying attention.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Oct 12, 2014 - 15:01 pm

      Jon – thanks. Tom has a lot of great advice for all us, doesn’t he?


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