Brand Identity and Signal Detection

Nov 08 2013

“Turn up the signal, wipe out the noise” – Peter Gabriel, Signal to Noise

Successful marketing builds the physical and mental availability of a brand. Robert Woodruff, former Chairman of Coca-Cola once said that the brand should be “always within an arms reach of desire”. Coca-Cola does a great job of building physical distribution. How do brands build salience in customers’ minds? The key is to create a rich network of relevant associations with the brand and ensure that the brand’s signal is always heard above the noise of the marketplace.

Signal detection theory was originally developed to explain the behavior of radar operators who sometimes missed or misinterpreted signals. It is known that the brain’s neural system is “noisy”, with neurons active even when they are not reacting to a real stimulus. Similarly, concepts of signal and noise are well understood by scientists who study multi-sensory processing, the way in which the brain interprets stimuli from more than one human sense.

It is well understood that multiple sensory signals are enhanced when they come from approximately the same place and occur at approximately the same time (spatial and temporal rules). More importantly, even when a relatively weak signal comes from one sense, a weak “congruent” signal from a second sense can boost the overall signal, creating what is called a “super-additive” effect (the whole is more than the sum of the parts). On the other hand, when two different signals contradict each other they can be ignored or produce unpredictable results.

So how can brands “turn up the signal and wipe out the noise”? Firstly, by sending the same signal through multiple sensory touch points to multiply its impact. A sharp taste, combined with a sharp shape has more than double the impact of the individual sensations. And the more senses that are added, the bigger the multiplier effect.

Secondly, the brain interprets signals with congruent meanings faster than those with incongruent meanings. And the most important meaning of any signal is its emotional relevance. We all have short-term and longer-term goals, and the needs of the moment and the immediate environment shift our focus and make it more difficult for irrelevant signals to rise above the background noise. Emotionally relevant signals, especially when amplified across multiple senses, can cut through the noise and be heard.

For example, Abercrombie & Fitch send signals across a number of different touch points. They use young and athletic talent in their advertising and in their stores, their talent is often dressed in red, their stores are closed and dark inside, they use loud and up-tempo dance music in store, a strong fragrance permeates the store and their clothes (named ‘Fierce’), and they keep the lights low and focused in store so that customers have to pluck up the courage to dive inside. All of these signals speak to the emotional goals of being courageous, brave, competitive and strong. In the language of archetypes, Abercrombie & Fitch are a Warrior (a word they have been known to use in their advertising).

At the other end of the spectrum, a brand like IKEA has a very different set of cues. Their advertising often features bare wooden furniture (unpretentious values) or the coming together of many different people (equality). Their stores are also bare and basic, with a well-worn path that everyone follows around the store (rich and poor), ordinary everyday furniture shown in realistic settings, efficient and cost-effective packing and unpretentious and value for money food served after the check out. All of these touch points speak to IKEA’s value of bringing good design to all (the Everyman archetype).

And does Coca-Cola manage to keep their brand ‘always within an arm’s reach of desire’? Coca-Cola has consistently followed archetypal values and touch point signals that speak to similar values to those of IKEA, with a large dollop of idealism and innocence. From “I’d like to teach the world to sing” to the latest “Open happiness” campaign they have always communicated the ability of Coca-Cola to bring people together. “Always within an arm’s reach of desire” expresses their equality, optimism and innocent values perfectly.

You can read more about the role of sense, symbol and story in branding in Brand esSense: Using Sense, Symbol and Story to Design Brand Identity.

[This article was first published at]

2 responses so far

  1. I like this commentary a lot, it links almost seamlessly with a recent post made by Martin Weigel at his blog and an ongoing debate some planners are having in a FB group.
    I have a question, thou. Is this book as academic and throughly researched as ‘Seducing the Subconscious’? Compared to your commentary on that book, this one sounds anecdotical rather than academic.
    Personally, I think that if you, as an author, want to make such claims (academic in essence), you better do your homework and dig into hypothesis that have been proven and replicated under different circumstances, otherwise it’s just bad science.

  2. Miguel

    I hope you read the book and judge for yourself. There are 7 pages of references there, including ‘Seducing the Subconscious’.


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