Applying the principles of psychology to design

Marketers are increasingly tapping into the power of psychology to improve the impact of design and give their brands the cutting edge.

RAF design

There is more to design than meets the eye. In order to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, brands including Heinz, Oxo and the RAF are applying the principles of psychology and using neuroscience techniques to create designs that resonate with consumers in both an immediate and lasting way.

Psychological principles – concerning behaviour, attitudes, aspirations and motivations – can help brands understand how their logos or packaging make consumers react. All visuals create a pattern of attention, which is why it is so important for brands to give designs a clear focus, as humans have limited attention spans, explains psychologist Nathalie Nahaï.

“It’s also important to think about the principle of cognitive load, which relates to the energy it takes to process a task,” she adds. “Good design reduces the mental effort and makes it easier to take the desired action like buying the product you want,” explains Nahaï.

A sans serif font, for example, requires less effort to read, while some colours evoke an immediate feeling, such as red for feelings of love or anger and blue, which is associated with trust and calmness.

Designing for global appeal

With an estimated global audience of 400 million, the Premier League had to ensure that its 2016/2017 season rebrand, which was unveiled in February, could translate worldwide across social media, events branding, television, online and an app.

READ MORE: Premier League looks to shed ‘corporate’ image as it unveils new brand identity 


The redesign was a departure from its headline sponsorship model with former partner Barclays, giving the Premier League full ownership of all branding.

The result of a decade-long research project, including in-depth interviews and discussions with a 15,000-strong fan panel, the rebrand also represented an opportunity to communicate the Premier League’s “inclusive and inspirational” values in the wake of last year’s FIFA corruption scandal, says head of marketing Craig Edmondson.

“Being modern was at the forefront of our thinking and how to talk to an audience of millennials. We had to think how our new logo would fit with the other brands they commonly consume such as Spotify, Airbnb and YouTube,” he explains. “We moved away from our upper case serif font because we want to have a conversation with fans and it felt like we were shouting. Also, the standing lion looked slightly confrontational, which is not what we’re about.”

“Good design reduces the mental effort and makes it easier to take the desired action“

Nathalie Nahai, Psychologist

To give a feeling of informality the Premier League opted for a bespoke sans serif font. Although the lion remains, it has been simplified to a chunky representation of the animal’s head. The team consulted a professor of animal studies to understand how the lion translates across different cultures, discovering a general association with pride and strength, as well as  a distinctive hunting style involving playing in positions, like footballers.

The use of vivid pink, green, acid yellow and cyan, combined with the purple of the logo – a less corporate alternative to the traditional navy – is intended to speak to a diverse audience of men, women and children.

Instinctive and rational

Neuroscience – the monitoring of brain activity using technology such as MRI scans – can also be used to help marketers better understand why people remember certain designs over others.

According to professor of marketing at Warwick Business School Nick Lee the more references you can connect to a brand, the higher the likelihood the memory will be retained and recalled, especially if you can create a positive emotional connection.

Coca-Cola’s new design, for example, which features the same logo but ties all variants together with a red circle ‘brand code’ allows consumers to quickly identify the brand across all touchpoints thanks to the unified design.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Coke is smart to simplify its designs, but that won’t save it from decline

Vice-president for global design James Sommerville called this new approach “a global design language that utilises a historical brand icon to present the range of Coca-Cola products available today in a contemporary and simple way.”

To understand what makes consumers immediately connect with a brand, but also what engages them in the long term, marketers are increasingly applying the concept of System 1 and System 2 thinking to their design strategy.

System 1 is instinctive thinking, processed instantly on a non-conscious level, thereby lowering the cognitive load. By contrast, System 2 is a rationalisation stage involving cognitive processing, for example when consumers consider what they think of a brand and the reasons to buy it.

WEB_260516_SpecialReport_Image2
The Premier League opted for a customised sans-serif font in its redesign

If marketers can tap into System 1 thinking when working on their design strategy, they can make the purchase decision or call to action seamless for consumers, encouraging them to transact.

Working with agency Coley Porter Bell, the RAF used a process called ‘visual planning’, which involves using visceral System 1 thinking during the strategic planning process by distilling the brand vision into five words and translating them into images. This is especially important as 90% of System 1 thinking is visual.

“By doing so, we were more likely to ‘bake in’ the right visual triggers to communicate the right things from the start,” explains RAF head of media and communications Nigel Bradshaw. “We used these intuitively selected images as the blueprint for the design work.”

The result is RAF 100, a new campaign to celebrate the organisation’s centenary year in 2018. It is designed to honour the past while at the same time looking to the future and challenging traditional perceptions of the RAF.

The organisation wanted the campaign to appeal to millennials whose lives are heavily influenced by social media and therefore took inspiration from reference points such as Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. Based on its planning, the RAF opted for a graphic, simple and bold concept, designed to gain traction on mobile and apps (see image, top).

“The bold, block letter forms stem directly from the RAF logo, yet by filling in the [negative space within letters] it creates a bold and contemporary look,” suggests Bradshaw. “The type also acts as a window on to the past and we can use this layering to juxtapose historical RAF achievements alongside modern representations.”

The RAF opted for a vibrant colour palette of pinks and oranges, chosen to challenge traditional perceptions of the organisation and to help it appear credible alongside the lifestyle brands popular with millennials.

Virtual reality

The consistency of a bold typeface, strong colours and design simplicity also play an important role for stock cube brand Oxo. Despite going through a number of permutations the brand has built up a high level of recognition on supermarket shelves for more than 100 years. The overall design has evolved to include food messages, recipe ideas and icons of a knife and fork, all linking back to food imagery.

Premier Foods category marketing director for flavours and seasonings Helen Touchais explains: “We want to convey the fact that people can use our products to make their food taste delicious, so it is important that the visual cues link to food.”

With consumers spending an average of eight to 10 seconds looking at a fixture in the supermarket, it is crucial to grab their attention. For this reason Oxo has invested in a virtual reality suite to test packaging in a simulated physical environment, using cognitive eye tracking. Consumers wear special glasses through which they see a picture of the shelf laid out in front of them.

To test the best colour and messaging Oxo asked consumers to find the beef stock cubes using three different packaging variations, tracking where their eyes travelled. The tests found the red packaging with the classic Oxo typeface was 40% faster than other options to find on the shelf.

OXO box colours
Oxo’s virtual reality suite uses cognitive eye tracking to test the best colour for its packaging

“The bold, curvaceous typeface has a jovial appearance and being a palindrome it stands out really well on the shelves,” says Touchais. “The simplicity of the design equates to the simplicity of use, while the colours and typeface suggest a sense of dynamism and the fact Oxo helps liven up food.”

Brand recognition

Having a timeless, confident design that is easily recognisable is also key for Heinz, which looks to play on System 1 thinking to create products customers instinctively want to pick up.

“We are building a shortcut for the brain through the packaging and the design credibility we have built up over decades,” explains Colin Haddley, director of strategy, insight and capability.

“We use lots of research techniques, such as talking to consumers in focus groups and carrying out implicit research. For example, we test the recognition of design by timing how long it takes a shopper to find a new design on a shelf. We also create a heat map of sentiment, overlaying the rational results with the emotional.”

Heinz packaging is designed to convey brand values of confidence, timelessness, accessibility, warmth, comfort and quality. This is communicated through specific food cues, such as the drip of juice on a tin of baked beans or steam rising from a bowl of soup.

For the launch of its Seriously Good Mayonnaise in February, Heinz used visual cues to emphasise the quality of the stripped back recipe, ranging from a large spoon bearing a big dollop of mayonnaise to a picture of a chicken to signal the use of free-range eggs.

Integrating psychology into the design process early on is giving brands the ability to tailor their message to the instinctive, System 1 processes that rule our unconscious decision making, using visual cues, vibrant colours and a distinctive aesthetic as unmistakable calls to action.

Chang beer goes premium with new design

Chang beer

Thai-based Chang Beer unveiled a redesigned bottle in May, swapping the brown glass with emerald green glass and a gold motif, in a bid to offer a “more elevated drinking experience”.

The green was chosen to convey a premium, modern appearance, while the addition of gold on the cap and a satin sheen label are designed to add a sense of luxury, explains Chang Beer UK & Europe marketing manager Eleanor Huddart.

“Green is generally perceived as being a more premium bottle colour as per the likes of Heineken, Stella Artois and Peroni. The redesign also helps Chang stand out compared to the brown bottles of other Thai and Asian beer brands,” she adds.

The redesigned bottle has a taller neck and an elevated shoulder for a “strong silhouette”, coupled with an embossed waist for a better grip.

“The response in Thailand [where the redesign launched in November] has been beyond expectations,” explains Huddart. “Early indications in other Asian markets have been very positive and we are confident this success will be echoed in international markets.”

Dorset Cereals keeps it simple

Dorset cereals range

In a bid to stand out in the busy breakfast cereal category, Dorset Cereals stripped back its packaging to promote the simplicity of its recipe and belief in the slow food movement.

Unveiled in February, the heart shapes and quirky woodland animals introduced for its 2014 redesign have been replaced with a simple sprig of flowers, a motif repeated across the muesli range.

The team resisted the temptation to list the vitamin and nutritional benefits on the front of the box to avoid bombarding the consumer with too much information and instead create a moment of calm on what is generally a packed shelf.

Teaming up with agency Big Fish, Dorset Cereals tapped into the fact that shoppers buy on impulse and respond to taste stimuli by using colour blocking to define the characteristics of each flavour, ranging from rich purple for its berry mix to orange for its nutty muesli. The plastic window on the box is intended to show shoppers how the small batch blending process creates a well-mixed muesli.

Marketing manager Alexandra Naranjo believes the box shape and premium design ensure Dorset Cereals stands out. “The simplicity of the design and variety of colour palette generate interest, driving people to reconsider the world of wholesome cereals by making them desirable.

“Dorset is a high-quality, honest and generous brand and we reflect these values in everything we do. It’s all about real breakfast pleasure for us and that’s why we invest in beautiful, evocative packaging.”

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Comments
  • Phil Barden 30 May 2016 at 11:29 am

    Nice article. However, the description of system 1 and 2 needs clarifying. BOTH systems use ‘cognitive processing’, and both systems use ‘affective (emotional) processing’. The key distinction between the two systems is that system 1 processes are automatic, whereas system 2’s are controlled. Take the example of walking; you don’t have to think about it, it happens automatically without conscious effort or control. Therefore it’s a system 1 activity but one would hardly describe walking as ’emotional’. It is, however, a cognitive process.

    One other point; what’s ‘cognitive eye trackng’ and how does that differ from ‘eye tracking’?

    • Daniel John Bennett 31 May 2016 at 4:04 pm

      Whilst intriguing, this article strays dangerously into the territory of nonsense psychology, which is increasingly prevalent in modern marketting.

      It feels as if people think if they add ‘system one’ or ‘cognitive’ to a concept or principle it adds some nature of scientific validity, whereas as is often the case, it does the opposite because they misuse the terms or use ‘system1 /2’ in a way that is totally divergent to what Kahneman proposed when he suggested the framework.

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