Connecting on a deeper level

Editor's note: Sandeep Dayal is managing director of Cerenti Marketing Group and author of the new book “Branding Between the Ears – Using Cognitive Science to Build Lasting Customer Connections.”

Advances in behavioral sciences and neuropsychology have given marketers a whole new level of understanding of how the human brain makes choices. We know that branding is all about influencing consumer choice. It always has been. Thus, you put the two together, you go “voila!” Brands that leverage this new knowledge have a chance to be truly epic.

What I call cognitive brands are brands that are designed to work the way our brain does. They act as keys that unlock sensations of past experiences or fantasies that live consciously or subconsciously in our minds. Those sensations are in fact thought patterns and rules that we live our daily lives by. Decoding them gives us powerful pathways for positioning our brands.

But how do we do that? How are thoughts different from brand equities or product attributes? What kind of qualitative and quantitative research can help us understand them?

Not the same

The first thing to recognize is that thought patterns are not the same as product attributes or emotional equities. When we interact with brands, there are certain thoughts that cross our minds, consciously and subconsciously. Researchers claim that 95% of the decisions we make are done subconsciously or with low vigilance. How does that happen?

As we go through our lives, we start planting certain rules in our brains, hundreds of them, which are simply our learnings from all our experiences. For example, if we have seen that products that are really cheap, often break and are costly in the long run, our brain makes a little rule that says “cheap = bad.” When we see a cheap product, we assume it’s bad and don’t buy it. For some of us, the decision is made in an instant without our dwelling needlessly on it. Occasionally, that may be the wrong decision, and the cheapest product might be the best one, but generally the rule works well for us and we use it over and over. Other people may have a different rule.

In this way, the challenge for the market researcher then is how to uncover the rules that the targeted consumer is using to make brand choices in their category.

Three elements 

My research has shown that there are three possible elements in a cognitive brand: I call them brand vibes, brand sense and brand resolve. I say “elements” because they are a part of the brand that says something about its nature. 

  • Brand vibes build a unique bond between the consumer and the brand such that they feel that it understands them or shares the kind of values they have. They allow marketers to create “brands with empathy” and “brands with values.”
  • Brand sense helps consumers make instinctive or reasoned sense of their choices using System 1 easers or System 2 deliberators, respectively. This dual processing model of the brain’s processes is best described by psychologist Daniel Kahneman.
  • Brand resolve helps consumers consider whether it is all worth the bother and prompts them to buy the brands that would make them happier. This is through a psychological process of intrinsic goal pursuit.

So, how can market researchers and customer insight experts get to these elements?

Coherent idea

The first step in any brand strategy is to develop the richest possible set of distinct brand ideas. Each brand idea may have its own vibes, sense and resolve. Together they form a coherent idea that will consciously and/or subconsciously appeal to the consumer.

Psychologists and behavioral economists have identified over a hundred different cognitive biases, such as the choice supportive bias, Occam’s Razor bias and anchoring bias. I like to refer to them as cognitive wisdom rather than biases. They are simply the rules that consumers use to make sense of their brand choices. You can start with their list (easy to find on the web) and identify the seven or eight that might fit with your product category.

Similarly, cognitive behavioral therapists have identified numerous ways in which patients deliberate on their issues and subsequently change their behavior positively. Those same methods are useful for brands that need conscious choice adjudication for driving preference. The list of these methods are also available on the web easily.

The best way to validate which of the seven or eight concepts might work is qualitative research. There is no great substitute for the insights that emerge from one human talking to another. I recommend that researchers use a variety of methods, i.e., in-depth discussions, focus group discussions, metaphor elicitation studies and ethnographic observations. They each have limitations but also yield their own unique insights.

With the advance of AI and machine learning there are additional options for using natural language processers to monitor consumer sentiment across a broad range of blogs and online interest groups. But it is important to go beyond your category.

When Unilever was introducing Dove soap, it found that the real angst that women felt was that cosmetic brands in their commercials always depicted super-thin, perfectly beautiful women that most could never hope to be like. It made them feel worse about their own bodies and turned them off and away from those brands. This led Unilever to the “Real Beauty” campaign for Dove that featured women with normal bodies, thinner or heavier, younger or older and lighter or darker. 

The campaign did mention Dove but not how it was better than other soaps and body washes. Yet, it became the No. 1 in its category across many markets in the world with the campaign. And if Unilever marketers had only talked about the quality of the soap and not gone broader into the vibes that women felt from the cosmetic brands in general, it would have lost that incredible opportunity to build a brand with empathy as it did.

Things get tricky

Once marketers have identified cognitive branding concepts, they need to do quantitative research to identify which will be the one they go to market with. This is where things get tricky.

Brand research has for the most part been designed to test for the importance of specific product attributes or emotional equities. Those are then knit together into some kind of a thought or tagline. However, that is misguided, as the brain processes concepts and arguments as thought patterns and not as individual equities.

Thus, research methods must focus on testing entire concepts with brand vibes, sense and resolve elements all knit together as a coherent bundle. Some companies have already ventured into the arena of neuromarketing to measure consumer reaction as they are exposed to a concept.

It is tempting to ask if there is a way to stick a probe through customers’ ears and get a true reading of their thoughts and intent, maybe even the subconscious ones that they are not aware of. For marketers, that would be nice and convenient. With advances in brain science, there are many different tools for peering into the brain. You can strap consumers to electronic devices, expose them to a brand stimulus and see what lights up. While these techniques are still not completely developed, there is enough underway that it is worthwhile for marketers to start dabbling in such research and get their feet wet. New Balance, the shoe company, now routinely uses such tools to fine-tune its commercials.

The neuromarketing techniques range from eye scanners, which detect what part of visual stimuli the consumer focuses on and for how long, to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can see which parts of the brain activate by measuring blood flow. 

Despite these technological advances, we are far from reading anybody’s mind. And don’t hold your breath because we are not about to get there anytime soon. Even with the most advanced brain scanners, we can see that there is something going on in the brain but interpreting what exactly it means is a whole different matter. You may see that a subject is having an emotional reaction to your ad but you can’t tell what the emotion is or even if it is positive or negative. Research shows that the brain does not have hundreds of distinct neural areas dedicated to interpreting the multitude of emotions we feel. Instead, there may be just one core effect that we feel, which is interpreted by the brain in a thousand different ways based on context.

In certain limited scenarios, researchers have had phenomenal success with neuromarketing-based methods. Researchers at Emory were able to predict a song’s future popularity more accurately by observing fMRI signals within subject brains than by simply asking them how much they liked the music. Similarly, a team led by Moran Cerf at Northwestern was able to predict the future success of movies with 20 percent greater accuracy than traditional methods by using EEG readings of audience members.

So, yes, there’s something there. If you have the budget, it is worthwhile for you to figure out which areas of your marketing research can benefit from neuromarketing. But don’t ditch your conventional research anytime soon.

Additionally, with the advance of AI-based methods, new analytical approaches for causal analysis are becoming available that need closer attention for applying to cognitive branding. Even some old tricks, like presenting consumers a concept and asking them to highlight the phrases that appeal to them, can sometimes give good insights. Just because it is old, does not mean it cannot work.

Need to be creative

The field of cognitive branding is opening up. Market researchers and customer insight experts need to be creative in drawing on a mix of tools and methods to get inside consumer minds. The good news is that there is a lot of that already available. The real question is whether the researchers are ready to shift their own mind-sets away from the illusions of the past.