Neuroscience at the shelf – how design makes us believe

Research into human decision-making shows that feelings are very much in charge. Steve Osborne of Osborne Pike examines the implications for packaging design.

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Steve Osborne

It was Unilever’s founder Lord Leverhulme who famously declared: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the problem is I do not know which half”.

This sums up the central dilemma of marketing – we’re trying to predict and control the behaviour of people, who are both unpredictable and far less rational than we once thought. But as our understanding of the brain’s inner workings grows, we’re getting fascinating insights into human decision-making.

The specific area of decision-making that fascinates me is the one that consumers face, standing in front of the supermarket shelf. You really should spend a lot more time there, to appreciate just how visually noisy and confusing it can be; little wonder that we use all manner of mental shortcuts to decide what to buy.

So how can we help consumers come to the right choice, quickly and effortlessly? By ‘the right choice’ I mean ‘your brand’, because by agreeing to work for you I have suspended all disbelief and start from the assumption that it is the best choice for a particular group of people.

If this sounds like uncritical acceptance think again, but not too hard. The mind does something similar as it considers different propositions (such as a line-up of competing brands). In fact the psychologist Daniel Gilbert has developed a theory of believing in which he suggests that ‘understanding a statement must begin with an attempt to believe it – you must know what the idea would mean if it were true’.

Packaging design needs to tell a compelling story in three steps or less

A machine for jumping to conclusions

Economics Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman mentions this theory in his bestselling book: ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. A concise summary of a lifetime’s research, Kahneman’s book explains the two different ‘systems’ that the brain uses to make decisions. System 1 is intuitive and emotional and always has the first say. It represents the fast thinking of the title and is neatly described as ‘a machine for jumping to conclusions’.

But as Kahneman goes on: ‘when we think about ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do’. But crucially it takes effort and energy to activate System 2, which for sound evolutionary reasons makes it rather lazy.

As a result, when System 1 generates suggestions for System 2 (which it does constantly), these impressions, intuitions, intentions and feelings are usually adopted with little or no modification. As Kahneman puts it: ‘You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires’.

That means that much of the information that we overload packaging with is wasted, unless we manage to activate System 2.

Proctor and Gamble spends a lot of time thinking about on-shelf decision making, gathering hard data such as eye-tracking patterns and their relation to purchase intent. They coined the term ‘First Moment of Truth’ for the consumer interaction with brands on-shelf, yet many of their packs still find it hard to resist bolting on extra information that consumers are unlikely to notice.

The lesson I draw from the neuroscience is to make sure we create the best possible story for the intuitive, uncritical System 1 and do this with as few elements as possible. System 2 can have the back of pack, when it can be bothered to look at it.

Emotion and reason fight it out when we decide

What you see is all there is

Two further observations from Kahneman are highly relevant to the design challenge. Firstly the mind is strongly influenced by the order in which we read information. It wants to make up a story about how all the data it sees ‘goes together’, and it also wants this story to be consistent with what it saw first. So hierarchy of information, especially for the first three items in seeing order, is critical.

Secondly System 1 makes up its stories from what it can access (often unconsciously) from memory. Information it doesn’t have might as well not exist, which is why we (at least initially) prefer designs that feel familiar – the mind actively seeks information that confirms its view of the world.

Preconceptions can be changed of course, but it’s worth noting that successful innovation usually draws from existing knowledge, just put together differently.

Emotion, then post-rationalisation

In ‘How We Decide’, Jonah Lehrer cites examples of research into choosing products like breakfast cereals or jams. Experiments show that specific brain regions become activated when presented with the product, its price, and other information such as guarantees and offers. An internal ‘argument’ ensues between these competing brain areas, but here’s the thing: The rational pre-frontal cortex is largely a spectator, standing by whilst the dopamine pathway (responsible for desire) and the Insula (which makes us feel aversion to things we don’t like) fight it out.

Lehrer’s advice for consumers making purchases like groceries (as opposed to cars or apartments) is blunt: ‘the best choice is probably the cheapest; let the rational brain take over (especially since the emotional brain might be misled by spiffy packaging or some other irrelevant variable)’.

Irrelevant variable?!! Thankfully for our industry, most consumers don’t (can’t) take his advice – System 2 is lazy and expensive to run, so System 1 is mostly in charge of what we pick off the shelf and put in our trolley. And the evidence suggests that the quickest way to System 1’s heart is to tell it a story.

The first ‘moment of truth’ is an intuitive feeling

A brand is a story. Design makes it believable

In ‘The Storytelling Animal’, Jonathan Gotschall shows that not only are humans addicted to stories, but that the stories we want to hear are nearly all the same: ‘Stories universally focus on the great predicaments of the human condition: Sex and love, the fear of death and the challenges of life. And they are about power: the desire to wield influence and escape subjugation. Stories are not about going to the bathroom, driving to work, eating lunch, having the flu or making coffee -unless those activities can be tied back to the great predicaments’.

I’m glad he added that last bit, otherwise my work for the past 20 years or so would have been a bit of a waste. I’ve been telling stories about making coffee and eating lunch for as long as I can remember, all in the service of my clients’ brands.

Of course it’s natural to think of advertising as the medium that ‘does’ storytelling. If consumers want to dream of being attractive, a better mother, or supremely fit, then show them a 30 second movie of people like them enjoying these benefits. That’s fine, and it’s what we’ve been doing for most of marketing’s existence.

But packaging, or any designed object (like your car) can also tell a story. It uses its form, materials, brand and graphic metaphors to conjure up a time, a place, a mood and a moment. It tells you a tempting story in which you see yourself as the hero, or simply getting a lot of pleasure.

System 1 tries on the story for size, checks the price with System 2, and (if designed well) the brand lives happily ever after.

Steve Osborne

Osborne Pike
22 Circus Mews

T +44 (0) 1225 489269


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