The Distraction of Data: How Brand Research Misses The Real Reasons Why People Buy

In the latest in his series on neuroscience and marketing, Douglas Van Praet discusses why traditional research on “brand awareness” misses what really drives a buy, and the power of positive and negative associations in moving markets.

The Distraction of Data: How Brand Research Misses The Real Reasons Why People Buy

Along with sales, marketers primarily gauge their performance by measuring awareness and brand attributes ratings in surveys. And this seems to make sense. That’s how the mind works–by recognizing and responding to associative patterns.


But here’s the rub. People are often aware of the ad messages; what they are unaware of is how they are influenced by the messages. The attributes that drive decisions are often unstated because they are unconscious, or what cognitive scientists call non-declarative or implicit memory.

We simply can’t explicitly declare what we don’t know.

I Like It, But I Don’t Know Why.

These implicit associations often determine preferences through gut feelings that override critical thinking.

Melanie Dempsey of Ryerson University and Andrew A. Mitchell of the University of Toronto demonstrated this when they exposed participants to made-up brands paired with a set of pictures and words, some negative and some positive. After seeing hundreds of images paired with brands, the subjects were unable to recall which brands were associated with which pictures and words, but they still expressed a preference for the positively conditioned brands. The authors of the study labeled it the “I like it, but I don’t know why” effect.

In a follow-up experiment, participants were presented with product information that contradicted their earlier impressions, offering them reasons to reject their brand preferences, but they still chose those with the positive associations. Conflicting factual information did not undo the prior conditioning. The associated feelings superseded rational analysis.


Learning Without Knowing

This happens partly because the brain’s emotional systems can function independently from the cortex, the seat of consciousness. Therefore memories and response repertoires can be formed without us ever knowing.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux gives an example of how this might happen. Let’s say that you have an argument during lunch with someone while seated at a table with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. The next day, you meet another man who happens to be wearing a red-and-white checkered necktie and you have this gut feeling that you don’t like him. As LeDoux explains, “Consciously, I’m saying it’s my gut feeling because I don’t like the way he looks . . . But in fact, it’s being triggered by external stimuli that I’m not processing consciously.”

Similarly we fabricate positive meaning about product attributes without logic or awareness. Take, for instance, our dual brand purchases of teeth whitener and mouthwash. Why would anyone brush with toothpaste clinically proven to whiten teeth and then rinse with a brightly colored green mouthwash containing blue dye #1 and yellow dye #5?

Through repetition of exposure to other colored products, our unconscious minds have learned to associate the color green with the feeling of fresh and clean, overriding the reasons for buying whitening toothpaste.

This is why Coke Clear and Crystal Pepsi failed in the early 1990s. People didn’t prefer clear cola, because the rich brown hue of cola is steeped in fond memories that color our beliefs not just the drink. We see with our brains not just our eyes.


A Brand Is Like A Peacock’s Tail

The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes that humans display brands like proud peacocks exhibit their tail feathers, as “fitness indicators” that advertise their potential as mates. Peacocks spread their intricate plumage to imply their natural beauty conferred by good genes, their ability to find ample food to sustain the health of the tremendous tail, and their speed and agility in avoiding predators in spite of its cumbersome size. Generally animals don’t have any conscious awareness as to why they display these indicators; the urge simply comes to them and they reap the evolutionary benefits of greater attractiveness.

Humans also advertise their “fitness” to our fellow kind. The brands we choose are symbols that signify traits that mark our success and worth in the pecking order. And, like the peacock, we often have no conscious awareness of why we are doing it.

I have created a seven-step process to scientifically unveil how marketing really works. These are the seven steps:

1) Interrupt the pattern.
2) Create comfort.
3) Lead the imagination.
4) Shift the feeling.
5) Satisfy the Critical Mind.
6) Change the Associations.
7) Take Action.

Step 6 is: Change the Associations. If you don’t know the associations you need to change, you don’t know the most important part of branding.


When Associations Shift, So Do Markets.

That’s because when associations shift so do market shares because we learn and make decisions through vast neural networks of associative memory.

Take for instance what many industry experts consider the most brilliantly successful ad campaign of all time: the revered and reviled Marlboro Man.

When ad executive Leo Burnett conceived the cowboy he created the most remarkable about-face in ad history. Previously positioned for women, as a milder cigarette, the filter was even printed with a red band to hide lipstick stains, and the ads openly targeted feminine sensibilities with the ladylike slogan “Mild as May.”

The rugged, masculine symbolism of the American cowboy, transformed the brand’s image by claiming attributes about the character not the product. Offering intimations of rebellion, adventure, fearlessness, and strength, the ads celebrated the heroes and villains of the time popularized by Western films.

When the campaign rolled out nationally in 1955, sales jumped 3,241% to $5 billion and the Marlboro Man would become among the most widely recognized cultural symbols.


The explicit message of the Marlboro Country campaign was “come to where the flavor is,” but it was the flavor of the character that motivated smokers by offering oblique access to the defiant spirit of wranglers. While this may seem intuitive to ad creators up front, all too often marketers test these same ads with the wrong metrics on the back end, forgetting that “tastes good” and “makes me feel like a badass” are worlds apart.

And even when we uncover the deeper meaning with projective qualitative tools like storytelling, imagery, and metaphors, etc., we still can’t reliably measure these elusive associations in evaluative quantitative tests because respondents remain unaware of them or simply choose not to admit to them.

The challenge for marketers defies logic and awareness. We must identify sometimes illogical traits we unknowingly aspire to have as people and communicate those in advertising. Because it’s ironic that smoking can display our fitness to our social groups, but so, too, is the human mind.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also a marketing consultant whose approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to business problems. He has worked at agencies in N.Y. and L.A., most recently as executive vice ppresident at Deutsch L.A., where his responsibilities included group planning director for the Volkswagen account.

[Image: Flickr users Dennis Jarvis, Ivan Gonzalez, Christine Roth, and Daniela Vladimirova]