As human beings, we generally like to think we make decisions based on things that matter. If we take on a project, it is because we genuinely feel it's a great opportunity. If we buy a pricey product, it is because its benefits outweigh its costs. And if we spend time and money on entertainment, we like to believe it's because we have good taste.

It turns out we aren't we aren't quite the masters of our own universe we see ourselves as.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc at the University of Michigan provides some insight into how people really make decisions. In three separate studies, he showed subjects a random selection of nonsense words, Chinese characters, and photos of strangers. He repeated each word or image up to twenty-five times. Zajonc uncovered a direct correlation between the amount of exposure to a word or image and the subject's perception of its favorability.

Laura Ries has built her career around this revelation.

Mastering Language To Masterfully Persuade

Ries first made a name for herself at the New York agency TBWA, running major accounts like Woolite and Evian. Eventually she went into business with her father, a man who knew a thing or two about marketing in his own right. Al Ries was the person who, along with coauthor Jack Ries, first described a new concept called brand "Positioning" in a series of articles in Advertising Age. A book based on the concept went on to sell 1.5 million copies and went on to be taught in about as many Marketing 101 courses.

Laura Ries went on to carve out her own area of expertise by reverse engineering what makes certain brand slogans explode while others flop. And as she tells it, the brain's default vocabulary is made up of images.

"Specific names that conjure up mental images are more powerful than abstract names," says Ries, "In the academic world, what do researchers call a 50-page document they might have spent months or years working on? A paper...What does a business executive call an appointment to serve on the board of directors of a Fortune 500 company? A seat. Burger King is a better name for a food chain than Sandwich King. Red Lobster is a better name for a seafood chain that Red Seafood."

Ries was certainly not the first person to remark on the benefits of using slogans that evoke imagery. But her unique contribution has been to figure out the more subtle elements that define which ones actually stick.

As Ries notes, human beings have been using hooks like rhyme, alliteration, double entendre, and concreteness for millennia to burn their ideas into people's brains. It is these hooks, when combined with imagery and relentless repetition, which really move the minds, mouths, and feet of millions.

Once you become aware of Laura Ries's philosophy of sloganeering, you start to see it everywhere.

The Power of Words

BMW was only the eleventh best selling European car import until it rolled out its slogan "The ultimate driving machine," a phrase that evoked an actual entity of steel and rubber zipping down an actual road. In less than three years, it was the most popular luxury vehicle brand in the world. But when it later abandoned it in favor of the vague replacement "Joy," Mercedes quickly overtook it again.

American public opinion was strongly tilted against entry into the First World War. President Woodrow Wilson tasked the Creel Commission to fix this, which they did by means of the alliterative and repetitive slogan "The war to end all wars." By 1917, 1.5 million young men had volunteered for the strong possibility of dying in a trench.

And then there was Aimee Semple McPherson.

McPherson emerged from her era's mess of tent show preachers, holy rollers, and self-styled prophets to become the first modern evangelist superstar. Her Angelus Temple became the first megachurch in the 1920's, and her International Institute of Four Square Evangelism brought in $1.5 million a year ($18 million in present-day money).

One of McPherson's favorite sermons kicked off with the preacher thundering into her church, straddling a motorcycle, dressed as a traffic cop. When she reached the front, she would spin her bike into a halt, blow her whistle, and shout--

"Stop! You're Speeding to Hell!"

In another, she described civilization as a carousel that periodically wore out, needing a master mechanic (such as Jesus...or Sister Aimee) to come along and fix it.

Her title for this sermon?

"The Merry Go Round Broke Down."

And then there was one of her best-known productions, in which members of her congregation would march throughout the church depicting figures like St. Paul, Joan of Arc, and Nero. McPherson's name for this theatrical display?

"The March of the Martyrs."

Rhyme. Alliteration. Reversal. Concrete action. And plenty of imagery. Sister Aimee may have loved her flock, but there was no way she was going to rely on mere explanations of God's Kingdom to get them to pin their banknotes to the clothing lines she regularly strung from one end of her church to the other.

How To Start...Right Now

Many entrepreneurs spend a great deal of their time thinking about how to master the newest social media, advertising, and marketing trends to grow their businesses. Fortunately, the evidence says you can stop worrying. With a bit of creative wordsmithing, combined with the persistent hammering of your message, you can take on the less enlightened juggernauts with whom you may be competing.

Instead of obsessing about the technology you're going to use to blanket the world with, start by thinking about the methods you're going to use to spread your message. Then deploy whatever you have at your disposal to get started. If you're concerned you'll have trouble cutting through the noise, finding the right beat and then relentlessly drumming on it will certainly give you a nice sharp blade to work with.