Take a look at this list. All of the following concepts share a common characteristic. Can you identify it?
- Primary colors
- The Godhead
- A musical chord
- U.S. government
- The makeup of a human being
Now that you’ve had a little time to think about it, could you make a good guess? Maybe you’re wondering, What does this have to do with marketing?
What these all have in common is the number three:
- There are three primary colors: red, yellow, blue.
- God reveals Himself as three persons: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
- A basic musical chord has three notes.
- There are three branches of government: executive, legislative, judicial.
- God created us with three components: body, soul, and spirit.
One, two, three
Let’s keep following this thread.
Jesus taught the three aspects of loving God with all our being: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
That last one illustrates a technique writers and speakers use even today: three parallel words or phrases to create effect. In his Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln said, “. . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Say that line aloud. Can you catch the rhythm, the catchiness, and the strength of that repetition? That’s why it stands as one of Lincoln’s enduring quotations. Two more quotes:
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that God gave people certain rights, “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A poem on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty includes this line: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Can you think of other examples of triplets from the Bible besides heart, soul, and mind? (Holy, holy, holy. Faith, hope, love. Ask, seek, knock.)
Ecclesiastes 4:12 tells us that a three-fold cord is not easily broken. That principle of three-fold strength applies to triangles. A triangle is the strongest geometric shape, something that those in construction probably realize (Are there any truss-builders reading this?).
The power of three
This phenomenon of three is sometimes called “the power of three” or “rule of three.” We can easily remember a list of three, but four or more becomes challenging. (Sets of three digits in phone numbers make them easier to remember.)
Wikipedia says, “The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers. The audience of this form of text is also thereby more likely to remember the information conveyed because having three entities combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern.”
In graphic design, three elements make a strong impact. Photographers follow the “rule of thirds” in composing a photograph. This divides a scene into thirds horizontally and vertically. The major points of interest in the photograph should be positioned near those lines or their intersection.
For example, an amateur might produce a photograph with a gorgeous autumn tree in the center. In contrast, a photographer following the rule of thirds would create a more interesting picture by composing the photograph with the tree off-center, about a third of the distance from the edge.
Using the power of three in marketing
How we can we use the power of three in marketing? Here are some ideas to consider.
Three bullet points. Three points are easy to digest and remember. Do you typically list a long line of features or benefits? For some uses, such as lead generating content, try condensing those down into three key points with a punch.
A three-part plan.Three examples for behavior coaching. When dealing with a recurring behavior problem with an employee, HR professionals recommend giving three examples of the behavior. This makes sense from the employee’s point of view. One instance is an anomaly in the employee’s mind, two instances can be explained away, but three is conclusive evidence of recurring behavior.
Giving at least three case studies, three examples of your work, or three testimonials follows this same logic.
I ran across a study that showed people start to disbelieve us when we make too many claims. The results of the study were published in a paper entitled, “When Three Charms But Four Alarms.”
The report says, “In settings where consumers know that the message source has a persuasion motive, the optimal number of positive claims is three. More claims are better until the fourth claim, at which time consumers’ persuasion knowledge causes them to see all the claims with skepticism.”
While I wouldn’t rule out giving more than three benefits of your product, keep the rule of three in mind and apply it as you can. A customer may subconsciously begin to feel that what you are saying is too good to be true.
Three-part value proposition. Gino Wickman, creator of the Entrepreneurial Operating System, teaches the “Three Uniques” concept for creating a value proposition in marketing. What are the three reasons your customers do business with you? A competitor may share one or two of your differentiators, but not all three. Your “Three Uniques” create value combination that is, well, unique to you.
In a related-but-different concept, Jim Collin’s book Good to Great shows a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles. To become great, a company needs to identify the following:
- What are you deeply passionate about?
- What drives your economic engine?
- What you can be the best in the world at?
Collins says that where these three circles overlap is the place to focus your goals and strategies.
Three-word slogans. There’s no secret formula for the number of words or syllables in a slogan or tagline. However, it is important that a tagline have the right rhythm and feel. Sometimes that is achieved with three words:
- Built Ford Tough
- Just Do It
- I’m Lovin’ It
The U.S Marine Corps tagline consists of three statements: “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.”
Three levels of problems. Your business is successful because you effectively provide a solution to your customers’ frustration or problem. In his book Building a Storybrand, Donald Miller teaches that customers face three levels of problems or conflict: external problems, internal problems, and philosophical problems.
Here’s how that might look for a homeowner:
- External: My growing family needs more space.
- Internal: I want to be a good provider for the family.
- Philosophical: A home should always have room for everyone, including guests.
Miller writes, “Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but people buy solutions to internal problems.” In other words, your marketing will be more effective if you connect with the internal problem, doubt, or frustration dogging your customer.
Three options. Providing three models or prices (high, medium, low; gold, silver, bronze; deluxe, premium, classic) gives the customer more options to choose from. On the other hand, providing too many options can complicate the choice and overwhelm the customer. Simpler is usually better.
Three options make it easier for customers to compare the relative value of each because there are three data points instead of two. In addition, we human beings tend to gravitate toward the middle option as being not too high, and not too low, but just right. The most expensive option and the least expensive option frame the middle option as the reasonable choice, not an unneeded luxury and not too cheap.
This concept can also be applied to sales proposals. Present three options at three different price points. This strategy can change the question in the prospect’s mind from “Yes/No” (if they don’t accept the proposal you are out) to “Which one?”
This article doesn’t intend to communicate that three is a magic number, a silver bullet, or a secret weapon that will revolutionize your marketing. Like so many other good practices and tips, using the power of three to your advantage is just one small step toward stronger, clearer, and more effective marketing. Apply it in cases where you want to simplify and/or create memorable messages.