What Marketing Can Learn From Brain Science

Nov 19 2013

Many of our intuitions about behaviour are now being confirmed by some of the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. Although market research is making great strides to incorporate this new understanding of the mind, there is a long way to go. Much marketing and market research practice continues to hold tightly to the belief that decision-making is rational. Which leads to three key questions for marketing:

  1. How important are emotions in advertising?
  2. How do we all really make decisions?
  3. How can we leverage emotional signals in marketing?

The evidence on advertising success is quite clear. Les Binet and Peter Field undertook a huge analysis of UK advertising for the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) last year. Their analysis was based on almost 1,000 advertising campaigns in the UK, from over 30 years of case studies submitted to the IPA’s advertising effectiveness awards.

Their findings, published as “The Long and the Short of It”, are best summarized by Peter Drucker’s comment, “Long-term results cannot be achieved by piling short-term results on short-term results” (see a summary here). While the analysis is based on UK advertising, the lessons are very relevant outside the UK. Other analyses, including in Asia, have shown similar results, but none have been as comprehensive.

I want to focus on one driver of long-term results identified in the analysis. Emotions.

Emotional advertising is twice as efficient and twice as profitable as rational advertising in the long-term. Emotional advertising is also more efficient than advertising which combines emotional and rational messaging. Moreover, emotional advertising leads to long-term effects on price elasticity, an important sign of brand strength. Rational advertising has no effect on price elasticity.

Binet and Field’s analysis shows very clearly that “the way in which long-term effects are generated is fundamentally different from how most short-term effects are produced. Although long-term effects always produce some short-term effects, the reverse is not true and long-term effects are not simply an accumulation of short-term effects.”

They also conclude that short-term response-focused campaigns (such as promotions) are not as successful as long-term brand-building campaigns. Emotional metrics are more likely to predict long-term success. Rational metrics can only predict short-term success.

Why is this?

Daniel Kahneman argues that there are two systems in the brain (and he calls them System 1 and System 2). The truth is that most of our brain’s immense power resides in System 1, which is outside our direct control. Much of System 1 is common to humans and our ancestors and comprises all of the automatic and instinctual behaviours that we use every day.

System 2, the more rational system, is the reflexive part of our thinking. But this system is incredibly limited compared with the vast computing power of System 1. You will not be surprised to learn that our emotions reside in System 1. That’s where almost all of our decision-making takes place, unless it gets referred to System 2.

What do we know about how System 1 makes decisions? Let’s look at some examples to understand how System 1 uses heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts or rules of thumb that help us to make quick and effortless decisions which are usually good enough (what Malcolm Gladwell calls “thin slicing”). A lot of mental heuristics are based on our environment. For example, we like to imitate those around us and we are very aware of what other people think and feel.

In one well-known experiment, the donations to the coffee and milk tin in a canteen were almost three times as much when the picture on the wall showed human eyes than when it showed flowers or abstract images. We all crave simplicity and tend to go with default options and choices that involve the least effort, which is why we don’t like change. One of the classic examples of this phenomenon is the take up rates of organ donation cards. These are the cards that drivers carry to indicate that their body parts can be used in the event of their death, to help the lives of others. In Europe, there is a big difference in the take up rates for the card, between 0% and 100% in some cases. The reason for these big differences is simple. In some countries drivers are asked, “Please tick this box if you want to participate in the organ donation program”. In other countries the drivers are asked, “Please tick this box if you do not want to participate in the organ donation program”. Researchers please note how reframing a question can give you completely different answers!

Studies shown that playing music influences sales in a wine shop (where classical music usually works best). Even more interesting is the impact of the music that is played. In one very well controlled experiment, sales of German wine increased and led those of French wine when German music was played. When the background music was French, French wine sales led German wine sales by a much larger multiple (perhaps because France is more strongly associated with wine than Germany).

We know that the brain remembers through making analogies (or associations) between ideas. For example, when you go into Abercrombie & Fitch, you see young and fit bodies, you hear a loud and pulsing soundtrack, and you have to pluck up the courage to dive into the dark of the store. You can immediately associate the brand with a more athletic, aggressive, courageous brand personality. This personality is deeply embedded in our culture and in the stories we read in mythology and watch in the cinema (the Warrior archetype).

Context and the environment have a profound influence on the memories and associations that we access in every situation, and therefore on the decisions that we take (including which clothes to buy).

Environmental cues and emotional goals are the key to understanding decision making in any category. For example, TapestryWorks recently collected data on the emotional goals of Hong Kong residents, across a wide range of different categories, with the help of ABN Impact and GMI. Comparing the ideal hotel against the ideal shopping mall, using archetypal characters to reveal the desired brand personality, reveals that shopping malls are much more about exploration, playfulness, originality and feeling different than hotels. These are expressed through archetypes of the Artist, Explorer, Rebel and Joker.

Exploration is also a need for hotels (given the association with travel), and control, care and intimacy are more important than for shopping, expressing the needs for security, comfort and connection (Caregiver, Ruler and Seducer). How do different hotel brands leverage these needs?  Some of you may have stayed at The Westin Hotel on other occasions, with their Sensory Welcome program, Heavenly Beds and Heavenly Baths that have been very successful. By contrast, Le Meridien has introduced the smell of “old books and parchments in a library” and a 24-hour lift soundtrack made with musicians from around the world. Guess which archetypes Westin and Le Meridien are following …

Context and emotion are at the heart of storytelling. Westin and Le Meridien’s use of sound, smell and other senses is all about telling a story about who they are and what they value. Great storytelling is at the heart of successful brand communications, because the brain learns and remembers through stories. And stories are not random, but follow structures that are predictable. Although each story is different, some have argued that stories follow archetypal patterns in the same way that the characters within the stories do. One example of this is Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots, and he argues very persuasively that all great stories fall into one of the seven: Overcoming the monster, Rags to riches, Quest, Voyage and return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth.

For example, Cinderella (and modern updates such as Pretty Woman) follow an archetypal rags to riches story. This is a common story in the beauty products category too. If you’ve read the original version of the story, you will know that the Ugly Sisters resort to some shocking tactics to try and win the Prince, by cutting their feet to try and fit them into the slipper.

Is that so different from today’s beauty industry, where rates of cosmetic surgery continue to rise across Asia, including here in Thailand?

Dove brand has done something very different with the myth of rags to riches, by focusing on natural beauty rather than the artificial beauty that typifies most brands of beauty products. Their vision of beauty is wholesome, natural, simple and pure, coming from within their customers. They communicate this vision through their Real Beauty campaign, but also in sensory imagery that supports their brand as nourishing, wholesome and pure. Sensory imagery is particularly powerful in stirring human emotions, as it has the effect of recreating the experience of product usage in the brain.

The Dove campaign is a very different take on rags to riches, one that is based on strongly held ideals rather than short-term fixes (the emotional territory of many other cosmetic brands).

Why are archetypes so powerful in communicating ideas? The reason is that the brain is a highly sophisticated pattern recognition machine primed to recognize patterns that help it make predictions about future events. Sometimes, our brains find patterns where none exist, but most of the time it finds patterns that are useful. Patterns are useful when they have become associated with predictable outcomes which that match emotional goals. Neuroscientists use the term “fire together, wire together” to express the associative basis of learning and memory. When two things happen one after another, and the same pattern is repeated, then the brain learns to associate the two events.

The reason that the Marlboro man was such a powerful icon, was that the imagery was associated with a rich vein of mythology, film and stories that resonated with the emotional goals of many people. Metaphors and analogies are the fundamental building blocks of thinking and many of them invoke sensory words, as these are the language of experience.

Synesthesia occurs when information from one of the senses gets blended with another sense, most commonly when letters and numbers become associated with colours (it’s a great way to improve your memory). Synesthesia is much more common among artists, poets, musicians and creative people than among the rest of us. However, we are all born with synesthesia, and we all blend the senses every day of our lives.

Consider these two shapes. If I were to tell you that these are from a newly discovered ancient language, and that one of these symbols was named kiki and the other bouba, which would you guess was which? Normally around 99% of people, in any language, agree that bouba is a rounded figure and kiki is a sharp, angular figure, and they do that because they are making an analogy between the visual shape and the soft or hard sound of the names. Even the letters ‘K’ and ‘B’ reflect these shapes.

Metaphors help us to see common patterns, and archetypes are common patterns too. They have appeared in every culture’s mythology for thousands of years, and at their core they reflect the common emotional stories that we all share in our lives. The need for independence (versus belonging), and the need for stability (versus change).

Great brands have a distinctive personality, focusing on key emotional goals of their customers, such as nurturing and idealism, in the case of Dove, or creativity in the case of LEGO. That puts LEGO in the top right hand of the model as an Artist. The Artist is all about being expressive, original, creative and imaginative. The LEGO brand uses this personality not just in creating advertising that focuses on imagination, but also in building brand experiences that match.

The challenge for advertising and branding is one of signal detection. Great brands maximize their signal by focusing on core messages and minimize noise by avoiding distractions across all touch points.

Whatever is communicated about a brand is only one part of how a brand is perceived. The most important aspect of a brand is to make the experience deliver on a promise of helping users reach their emotional goals, be they creativity, idealism or courage. Great brands use all available elements of sense, symbol and story to build a distinctive and consistent emotional profile.

In summary:

  1. Always understand the context in which a behavior takes place to ensure your brand is relevant
  2. Use emotional stories to engage an audience, using the senses as much as possible
  3. Unify, simplify and amplify your core message to reflect the emotional goals of your customers

[This is a written version of a paper for TMRS/APRC conference "Sense and Sensibility" in Bangkok on 1 November 2013.]

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