The contrast principle in marketing

One of the most important and impactful motivations to target as a marketer is the human desire to make efficient and effective decisions.

When a prospect is browsing the web before making a purchase decision, they are effectively looking to achieve the best outcome.

Anything less can mean a waste of time, effort, and resources.

But in today's fast, information-overloaded world, they also need to balance the quality of their choices with the time it takes to make them.

Enter the contrast principle.

When we make decisions, we tend to do so by contrasting the decision item and a reference item.
When two things appear close to one another, we will tend to evaluate them against one another more than against a fixed standard or the option by itself.

The cool part? We do it all the time.

For prospects in the B2B SaaS space, it's normal to gather several quotes when they are looking to partner up with vendors or ask an industry peer or colleague for feedback on a couple of companies they're thinking of contacting.

The most famous hypothetical put into physical terms is to imagine putting one hand into hot water and the other into cold water, then move them both to lukewarm water. The cold hand will feel hot and the hot hand will feel cold.

I had the privilege to talk to Dave Gerhardt about the contrast principle in a virtual event organized by Point Nine Capital. He used the same cold water/warm water example.

Here's the video:

So where does the contrast principle take play in marketing?

I was initially inspired to write this after reading Mike Sonder's excellent post on the search queries with the highest purchase intent from SaaS buyers.

In the post, Mike goes through many examples of the keywords that are an indicator of prospects ready to buy. In this case, they're comparing options on pricing pages after searching for the term [brand name] + "pricing".

Personally, I like to look at the landing pages belonging to extremely competitive verticals, where the digital real estate is optimized to the extreme to deliver value to prospects. Let's look at N26, Mondo, and Monese.


This is most certainly one of the lengthiest pricing pages I've seen, but it's jam-packed with all the information you need to know to make a purchase on the spot.

You have to have engaged with N26 before visiting this page at this level, though. No one discovering a brand for the first time will take the time to read all the details or appreciate the transparency N26 is offering. This is where an omnichannel approach to marketing comes in handy.

📌 The contrasts in play: Pricing and all services.


In contrast to N26's thoroughly executed page, Monese minimizes the variables. The information that Monese believes is the most important to show is displayed. This is a landing page where many hypotheses are being tested continuously, I'm sure, and probably is in constant testing mode.

📌 The contrasts in play: Pricing and essential services.


Monzo's landing page is set up the same way that Monese is, perhaps with some additional info. But the real power play comes in this section:

Apart from comparing their own services and price tiers, Monzo adds an intelligent comparison section comparing rankings and services between themselves and their competitors.

This adds that extra layer of persuasiveness that nudges a prospect towards them. Monzo does the hard work of gathering all this info for the user, which adds a reciprocity effect to the experience, but ultimately puts Monzo in a favorable place in contrast to everything a user cares about.

📌 The contrasts in play: Pricing, services, and competitors.

Like George Mack points out: 

A feel-good example of the contrast principle

This one is from the book To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink.

He tells the story of two ad executives walking through Central Park and spotting a blind man asking for money with a sign that read, "I'm blind."

Seeing that the men had only collected a few coins, they decided to help. They asked the man if they could make a small change to his sign.

The man complied and the exec added four simple words to the sign.

Immediately, people began to give the blind man more money. This continued throughout the day and the blind man had his most profitable day ever.

The four words that the exec added to the sign? "It's springtime and..."

"It's springtime and I'm blind."

By contrasting the experience of the person walking by with the experience of the blind man asking for change, the sign was able to give people a better perspective on the blind man's situation.


The contrast principle says that perception is relative.

If you experience two similar things in succession, your perception of the second is influenced by the first. If there are two items and the second item is substantially different from the first, you will tend to see it as even more different than it actually is.

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