How the mind boggles and how brands boggle the mind

Want to know how to build more powerful memories and associations for your brand? Just think about Great Aunt Margaret.

Source: Shutterstock

The reason brands exist, at the bottom line, is to make the bottom line work harder.

They do that by making it more likely that customers choose one brand over another in a way which delivers a positive commercial benefit for the business.

Simple enough. But because brands are about the choices people make they are also about the way the brain works.

Brains are complicated things. Over the past couple of decades a lot of ‘brain-expert people’ have learnt a lot more about the brain. They still have big gaps in their understanding, so it’s a big leap of faith to expect us mere marketers to understand all the consequences of their work.

I’m a marketing-business person, not a brain-expert person, and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work on a lot of great brands – like Smirnoff and Dulux – that really do stick in customers’ minds.

However my hairline also reflects years of work grappling with brands and businesses that haven’t quite ‘got it’. Businesses where brands are thought of as an expense, purely there to drive revenue for Crayola (other colouring-in brands are available, just maybe less mentally and physically).

In the world of brands, Nike is something of a Great Aunt Margaret.

That spectrum has always intrigued me; as a CMO building a new-to-world aviation business – KinectAir – and as a consultant helping many others, it’s important to understand the reasons why some brands stick, and some brands don’t.

I’ve explored a lot of the research on how brands work and the simple answer is: it’s complicated.

But I love simplifying stuff and helping people make sense of things, so I’m attempting here to express in simple terms the brain science that is usually wrapped in technicalities and jargon, and how marketers can put it to work.

In doing so, I might upset some of the brain surgeons with my simplistic explanations, but this should be in the technicalities rather than in the practical implications for brand builders and marketers (and indeed; a lot of this is thanks to the input and advice I’ve received from Phil Barden, author of “Decoded – The science behind why people buy”)

That’s a fine cow you’ve got there

Let’s start with a visual metaphor, and the origins of branding. Cattle and cows.

In the days before electronic chips, farmers would identify cattle by branding them with a branding iron. The iron – wrought as a unique and identifiable symbol – would be heated up in a firepit and stamped onto the rump of the innocent milk-maker. This brutal procedure would create a burnt mark by which to identify the cow.

Source: Shutterstock

The brand is the mark left, by the branding iron, on the side of the cow.

This is important because often people mistake the brand – the mark left behind – for the branding device used to create it.

Brands in a commercial business sense exist in consumers’ minds in the same way, as marks left behind in the human brain. Literally.

When the brain creates a memory or an association with something, the physical fabric of the brain changes. A collection of synapses fuse together in a microscopic interaction, which we recognise as something we have come across somewhere in the past.

Most of the stimuli which come from branding devices are filtered out, passed over and forgotten about. That can be a bit of a surprise to marketers.

Or as the brain experts at the American Neurological Association put it: “The physical manifestation of a memory, or engram, consists of clusters of brain cells active when a specific memory is formed.”

The clusters which are left behind – as brands – in the brain are the memories and associations created by brand assets.

Brand assets are our modern day commercial branding irons.

They are stimuli (logos, colours, sounds, messages, etc) and experiences which leave a collection of memories and associations in the brains of the human beings who come into contact with them.

Understanding how we build powerful brands is actually about understanding how we build powerful memories and associations.

The brain uses those associations to calculate, subconsciously, the functional, emotional, social or psychological benefits on offer.

Put simply, they help the brain autocomplete an answer to the question ‘what’s in it for me?’.

Nobody cares about your brand – really

It turns out that creating brands as memories and associations in the brain is easier said than done.

The human brain is an incredible thing. It is a supercomputer of immense capacity and capability, processing gazillions of bits of information – stimuli – every day, week, month and year.

One of the brain’s most powerful functions is filtering through information and knowing what to pay attention to, and what not to.

There are some stimuli that the brain tunes into and actively notices, and others that are not very interesting and pass by subconsciously below the surface.

Brands fit into the category of ‘not very interesting’ to most normal humans. As a result, most of the stimuli which come from branding devices are filtered out, passed over and forgotten about. That can be a bit of a surprise to marketers.

Reach: Consumers aren’t sat at home thinking about brands

If we think about our own day-to-day lives, it becomes pretty obvious. The things that are really important to us are things like family, relationships, health, wellbeing, where the next meal is coming from and how expensive the electricity bill will be. Brands are of minimal importance.

That’s why building brands – memories and association in the minds of many people – is such a challenge. How do you build a memory and association for something that people don’t really care very much for?

So what? Who cares? Why bother?

Building brands takes a lot of effort, is difficult and customers don’t care.

Work that fits into those categories frequently takes valuable time, energy and money away from a business, so we need to ask ourselves, why bother?

The answer is because, while customers might not consciously notice brands, their behaviours are subconsciously influenced by them.

I have had many a tension-filled conversation with colleagues, friends and family over this.

People like to believe that they are freely making their own decisions, that marketing and advertising don’t influence them, and that given a choice between one or more products they will choose based on rational, factual evidence and information.

Like most things in life which involve choice, and therefore the inner workings of the human brain, it is more complicated than that.

The brain filters out most information it is exposed to, operating on autopilot.

Our autopilot (‘reflexive processing’) consumes vastly less energy than having to  consciously evaluate everything we see, feel, hear and touch (‘reflective processing’).

Where weak memories and associations get filtered out by the autopilot, stronger memories and associations get filtered in. They become the default flight path for choices we make.

Memories and associations – brands – are built and get stronger over time. The more consistent the stimulus, the stronger the memory.

Easy choices are the ones which are built into the autopilot operating system, in the form of memories and associations.

Powerful brands become default choices because the autopilot recognises them as a safe and easy flight path. A decision which is unlikely to put the plane at risk. A trusted choice.

Those memories and associations set customers on a frictionless flight-path towards us; they filter in our branded product as a trusted choice, making customers more likely to choose us instead of choosing somebody else.

Building stronger brands

Building brands is difficult, but fortunately there has been a huge amount of research over the past two decades combining the understanding of how our brain works and how it interprets information, with how brands grow and how businesses can do better by using that knowledge better.

Here are five ways to build more powerful memories and associations – brands – in customers’ minds.

1. Consistent brand assets

In order to create memories and associations in the mind of many humans, the stimulus that creates brands needs to be consistent.

Suspend reality for a moment, and imagine that every time you meet Great Aunt Margaret her face is different.

You’d never remember what she looked like. You’d be unable to greet her with the enthusiasm and deference she deserves (or indeed, ignore her and shelter from the slings and arrows she launches at anyone not connected to her by blood).

Brand memories and associations work the same way.

If branded stimulus changes each time a brain is exposed to it, then creating memories is made more difficult.

Memories and associations – brands – are built and get stronger over time. The more consistent the stimulus, the stronger the memory.

The list of brand assets is a big one, but the more easily recognisable ones are brand names, logos, colours, fonts, mascots, sounds, packaging, messages, experiences and characters.

Each one has the potential to be a useful asset; and each asset becomes more useful with consistent application.

Some are stronger than others, but even the strongest take time to make a mark.

Creativity turns us off autopilot and into active attention, registering stimulus in a way which creates stronger memories and associations. Stronger brands.

It’s like the steps in an old cathedral. When the monks and nuns first started up the steps hundreds of years ago, each was a clean-cut block of stone; but over many years the application of the same soft footsteps created indentations.

If you want to know how long, look at the Dulux dog, who has been walking up cathedral steps for over 60 years. And who looks a bit like Great Aunt Margaret.

Dulux dog celebrates 60th anniversary as the brand jumps on decorating boom

Memories and associations are the same; the soft marks of brand stimulus need to be consistent to create stronger brand indentations in the mind.

2. Consistent brand assets, expressed in a variety of different ways

Where a branding iron is a single ‘asset’, a modern commercial brand is built using a number of assets, and they need to be expressed in a variety of ways.

Memories and associations in the brain are actually networks of synapses that fire together. “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” said neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, and the more extensive those networks become, the more powerful the brand.

There’s an important distinction between consistency and variety. Consistency is about the asset triggering the same sense, while variety is about triggering senses in different ways. For example:

  • I see a bottle of Mermaid Gin in a bar I love
  • I read about Mermaid Gin in a magazine article about brilliant summer cocktails
  • I watch a boat in a round-the-world yacht race with the Mermaid Gin logo on her sail
  • I hear Chris Evans talking about Mermaid Gin on Virgin Radio while cooking breakfast
  • I notice the bottle of Mermaid Gin in the supermarket and gin is on my shopping list
  • I serve Mermaid Gin to my friends (properly, with plenty of ice)

Brands – memories and associations – are made stronger when the brain experiences the same consistent assets in a variety of different ways.

Without trying to explain the brain science, this is essentially because the brain is a supercomputer rather than the backside of a cow.

This supercomputer connects dots for us. It recognises when one memory or association is connected to another and makes a link between them.

Providing consistent and intuitively connected stimulus creates more powerful links; The more links we create the bigger the network of associations, and the more powerful the brand.

3. Consistent brand assets, expressed in a number of different ways, creatively

If brand assets are consistent each time the brain is exposed to them, the memories and associations get stronger.

If the brain is exposed to consistent assets in a variety of different ways, then a network of memories and associations is created; which is stronger still.

Creativity is like a supercharger for those networks of memories and associations.

It acts like a hotter firepit for a branding iron. It applies the ‘creative heat’ that makes deeper marks in the brain.

The brain is wired to ignore most things. It’s a survival instinct; there’s just too much going on for us to notice everything, so most stuff goes into the supercomputer’s autopilot and we pay little attention to it. Until we need to.

That’s where creativity comes in. It causes the brain to register something – as unexpected, out of place, or curious – and to pay attention to it.

Creativity turns us off autopilot and into active attention, registering stimulus in a way which creates stronger memories and associations. Stronger brands.

The healthy tension between consistency and creativity makes good creativity hard to come by; creativity requires disruption, while consistency thrives on steadiness.

As a rule of thumb, having a powerful and emotional meaning behind everything enables brand builders to be consistently creative, as well as creatively consistent.

Powerful, emotional meaning helps avoid marketing that makes you go ‘meh’.

‘Meh’ is a cold, wet branding iron.

4. Consistent brand assets, expressed in a number of different ways, creatively and distinctively

Let’s return to Great Aunt Margaret.

Consistently, she looks the same. Indeed, she has somehow been the same 87 years old for the past 100 years.

We see the same Great Aunt Margaret in a variety of different places. Whether at Daisy’s wedding, Donald’s birthday, or in the photos you flick through at Christmas.

The moments of creativity that burn ‘Brand Margaret’ into our memory are the occasions where she managed to turn us off autopilot and capture our attention:

  • Great Aunt Margaret in a hammock
  • Great Aunt Margaret riding a horse
  • Great Aunt Margaret in deep snow

But there are a lot of aunts out there. In the Where’s Wally of aunts, what makes our Great Aunt Margaret distinctively Great Aunt Margaret?

  • Great Aunt Margaret is small. Surprisingly small, but blisteringly loud
  • Great Aunt Margaret always comes with a mongrel terrier lapdog
  • Great Aunt Margaret always wears fingerless gloves and sunglasses
  • Great Aunt Margaret makes everyone feel uncomfortable and inadequate
  • Great Aunt Margaret never takes her coat off or lets go of her stick

These are the things which make Great Aunt Margaret distinctive. She’s the small one, with canine company, who terrifies everyone she comes into contact with.

In the world of brands, Nike is something of a Great Aunt Margaret:

  • Nike looks the same everywhere
  • Nike looks the same everywhere and only ever looks like Nike
  • Nike looks the same everywhere, only ever looks like Nike but in a lot of different places
  • Nike looks the same everywhere and only ever looks like Nike, in a lot of different places, and in ways which capture our attention.

5. Consistent brand assets, expressed in a number of different ways, creatively and distinctively, leveraging pre-existing memories and associations

Building brands is difficult.

We’re trying to create new memories and associations in the minds of many people, who don’t really care much about what we’re trying to do, don’t really notice what we put in front of them, and everything we do put in front of them exists alongside a lot of other people trying to do the same thing.

The job of creating memories and associations – brands – in people’s minds is made easier when we recognise that in most categories a large number of those memories and associations already exist.

In every established category, there are codes that are always at play.

A lot of marketers will have played the game of ‘guess the brand’. It’s the one where you get shown a small snippet of a logo, an unbranded product or an end-line without the creative context, and have to guess the brand.

That game works as an example of how our brain carries around predetermined signals as signposts that guide us.

In our daily lives, the commercial categories we interact with all have similar pre-established signals built into them:

  • Aeroplanes have wings
  • Three dots on a screen means ‘more’
  • Apps are free, until they are not

If you go against the grain of these pre-established signals you’re working against pre-existing memories and associations that support your brand.

You’re inventing a plane without wings.

Imagine you are launching a new chocolate bar, with a lot of fruit in it.

Now imagine you design the packaging so it looks exactly like a piece of fruit. Who is more likely to pick it up; someone looking for a chocolate bar, or someone looking for a piece of fruit?

If you design it to look like a chocolate bar, containing lots of fruit, who is more likely to pick it up; someone looking for a chocolate bar, or someone looking for a piece of fruit?

Maybe both? That should be the ambition. Brand assets need to stand out in a category not stand out of the category.

So, that’s it. Simple right? We create consistent brand assets, express them in a number of different ways, creatively and distinctly, and in a way that leverages pre-existing memories and associations. Sadly not.

We all know that brand building is difficult.

It takes time, energy and money which are scarce resources; today more than ever.

But if, in that world of juggled budgets and competing priorities, you’re looking for something simple to grab hold of, then grab hold of Great Aunt Margaret and follow her example:

  • Great Aunt Margaret always looks the same
  • Great Aunt Margaret appears in all sorts of different places
  • Great Aunt Margaret does things which are unforgettable
  • Great Aunt Margaret does unforgettable things in a way only she can…
  • …but always in a way which a great aunt would

If you want a slightly more serious conclusion to grab hold of, then grab hold of the thought that brand building is difficult precisely because it’s important.

Building brands in people’s brains is a critical part of making people more likely to choose one business’s stuff over another’s.

Done badly it holds everything back, because it becomes forgettable.

Done well, it makes everything work better, because it makes it memorable.

That’s well worth remembering.

Johnny Corbett has worked in marketing and commercial leadership roles for large corporate businesses and startups, across food and drink, technology, financial and professional services, as well as politics and the public sector. 



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