‘Three’ is much more deeply embedded in our psyche than you might imagine – that’s why harnessing the power of three is such a useful skill for marketers to learn. But why is three so powerful? After all the binarians would argue that two is a more fundamental entity – left and right, right and wrong, black and white, male and female.
– By both nature and nurture, three is deeply rooted in each of us.
– We like three. It’s memorable, pleasing and reassuring.
– And importantly for us marketers, three can be powerfully persuasive.
If we understand how three works, we can use it to our advantage. The ability to appreciate three is an important differentiator in human development. It’s in our genes. Three is an evolutionary protection system – as human beings we’ve evolved to seek alternatives (originally as an escape route from danger), but too many options leads to indecision and he who hesitates is lost (or eaten). For intelligent beings three alternatives is optimised decision making. It’s not just fight or flight – that’s so Neanderthal.
Three is strength and stability. The triangle is an immensely powerful geometric concept. For mathematicians it’s a fundamental of Euclidean geometry. For engineers it’s the minimum statical determinacy in structural mechanics – look at roof trusses, girders and cable arrangements. For geographers is the number of coordinates to locate (i.e. triangulate) your exact position. In fact look at just about every science and you’ll find examples where three has an elementary significance.
From birth our brains are strongly attuned and attracted to symmetry. You might think it’s two, but symmetry is really about three. Left, right and centre. We ourselves are symmetrical (at least externally), most things we see are symmetrical and we reinforce this by building a largely symmetrical world around us. Symmetry gives us familiarity, constancy and reassurance.
Three is a learning device. Children learn their A,B.C and play stone, paper or scissors. We also use three as a reward system – think of gold, silver and bronze medalists. No-one remembers who came fourth.
Three is a belief system – father, son and holy spirit, mind, body and soul. There are lots of other examples of three as the basis for charm and spirituality – the three jewels of Buddhism, the Hindu Trimurti. In Eastern philosophy it’s also a metaphor for certainty – something that happens once will never happen again, but something that happens twice will surely happen a third time.
On that note, three is a prediction strategy. Businesses and financial institutions typically look at optimistic, average and pessimistic forecasts and statisticians categorise high, medium and low probability. Sales and marketing people tend classify the quality of their opportunities as A, B, and C or hot, warm and cold.
Three is aesthetic and rhythmic. Our eyes are attuned to three primary colours. Artists use the intersection of the thirds to draw the eye to a focal point. Our ears are attuned to threes – snap crackle and pop – one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock. Musicians know that combing thirds (we guitarists know them as triads) produce pleasing major and minor scale harmonies.
Where does it all come from?
There are many theories as to why three has such a hold on us. They range from three being a fundamental mathematical concept (the three spatial dimensions, the first unique prime, the root of Pi etc) through the various religious foundations, to the Earth being the third planet from the Sun. What is clear however is that the cause and the effect have become hard to distinguish.
Whatever the reasons, the consequence of all of this is that many people have learned to tap into the power of three in order to exploit its deep seated significance. As marketers it’s a powerful concept that we can use to our advantage.
Firstly, three is easy to understand and remember. If you want your message to be easily digested and be readily recalled, then using three is often a winner. Focus on three key points, and if you need to expand, branch these into three more to develop each point. It works graphically too. It’s no surprise that compelling speakers often represent their ideas using a triangle. Upwards or downwards pointing, it doesn’t matter, it’s a concept we all intrinsically understand.
Secondly, people are strongly influenced by three. Two can seem inadequately considered and inflexible. It can seem like forcing the issue. Three is reasonable, well considered – a balanced proposition. It taps into our sense of the middle ground and by recognising our expanded decision making capability it makes us feel in control. We like that.
Thirdly, marketing is about persuasion. Three is great for this because it shows both passion and commitment. Repeat your point three times for compelling reinforcement. Studies show that a double repeat is often lost on the audience while four repeats indicates insincerity and can generate scepticism. If you want to see it in action just listen to the politicians. From President Obama to your local electoral candidate, they are masters of this – our priorities – education, education and education.