Mr Amrit Thomas, marketing and digital transformation consultant, leads us through the intricacies of neuroscience on branding and its impact on marketing.
Though marketing is both an art and a science, it is the knowledge accumulated over time that helps in better decision-making and in perfecting the art of marketing. Brands are shaped by human memories. For example, Pond’s talcum powder is a brand, but what Pond’s stands for exists in the minds of people. Therefore, brands play two crucial roles:
- They stand for a certain promise and help in creating associations.
- They become a sort of heuristic for decision making. They enable choice among alternatives. They also become a part of our memory structure and narrative as either a reaffirmation of image about us or an affirmation of the image we want to project.
Memory and Decision Making
To understand brands and branding, we need to understand the basics of memory and decision making. With neuroscience, we can guide our marketing decision making. The art of flair will always be central to marketing—in managing campaigns, growing a brand, and dealing with brand challenges. We have many fields like neuroscience, psychology and linguistics. Combining the science and art improves marketing results.
We experience the world through our senses, which capture the stimuli in the environment and sends them to our brain through a set of neural structures. Our brain consists of a billion neurons: We all have the same brain but what differentiates us is the kind of connections that the neurons make in our brain. Each neuron is connected to a ten thousand other neurons. There are ten quadrillion synapses: A synapse is the gap between two neurons. Memory is encoded in this synaptic gap. Neurons use electricity to transfer signals from one to the other. The strength of structures in the synaptic gap varies among individuals, and is entirely based on our life experiences.
Pattern Recognition and Prediction
Our mind is a pattern recognition and prediction engine based on the simple neural interface. It continuously classifies clusters and predicts what is going to happen, and therefore, facilitates decision making. We learn through a combination of association and pattern detection. We are drawn towards novelty. Children are attracted to bright pictures and loud noises. They try to discern if these sounds were played before. So there is always a clash between choosing things of comfort and things of novelty. That is the underlying structure of the brain.
Neurons fire at 1000 times a second. As a result, people can decide if they have seen an ad in the first 800th millisecond. That is the time we take to decide if we are going to watch an ad or not. Based on the neurons firing, we build our memories. These memories respond to concepts, ideas, values and personality. Our feelings determine what we give attention to and are fundamental to our decision making. When we come across something unusual, we get autonomic or self-reported emotions. These last for a few seconds to a few minutes. The memory of it may remain for a few hours, whereas our personality and culture are based on how we have developed over many years. Our personality changes over the years but much more slowly. Next comes the impact of culture. Norms, rituals and beliefs become embedded in us and that becomes critical to decision making.
Consumer Choice Model
We see four rectangular boxes on the left of the diagram (Basic Model of Consumer Choice). Saliency and attention drive us to experience the world. There are two forms of attention—bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up means we are beginning to live our life. We are directing attention to whatever that grabs our attention. In top-down, our goals, objectives and tasks drive us to focus on something, leading us to experiencing our world. As consumers, we have not been really interested in brands. They play a useful role for us in either being a shortcut to decision-making or affirming or projecting our persona. As we experience the world, feelings, emotions and learning are encoded in memory. So our mind map develops and evolves.
Two Different Triggers
When we think about brand choice, there are two kinds of triggers that happen. One is the consumption trigger and the other, a purchase trigger. These two triggers need not be the same. I could buy a product and then store it in my kitchen for consumption later. I could buy a bottle of Penny and store it in my bar, based on a purchase trigger.
Then there is a consumption trigger. I also need a trigger to take that Penny out of my bar or cupboard and pour myself a drink. Both are important. As we go about living our life, there are situational contexts which are either consumption context or purchasing context. The monthly shopping is a purchasing context, which is devoid of the consumption context. The firing of neurons leads to an evocation and representation of the kind of things that are relevant to the trigger.
Let’s say I am going out shopping with a friend and I am feeling thirsty. That’s a consumption trigger. In this case, the consumption trigger and purchase trigger will be quite near in time. As I’m feeling thirsty, a whole lot of Gestalt memory begins surfacing from the mind. All this happens in fractions of a second, where in a non-conscious manner, I judge the value of quenching my thirst with water versus a carbonated soft drink versus a fruit juice versus an ice cream. I choose whatever is relevant, from what I have learnt for that situational context.
Refresh Yourself with Cola
If my friend and I have decided to have a soda and want to make a category choice, implicitly the representations of brands surface. Brands have many structures and mind maps. Coca-Cola’s advertising is more associated with refreshment, its refreshment properties, social situation of being amongst friends and even having it along with a snack or a food. So I may choose a Coca-Cola carbonated beverage and Coke that has got the best value for that particular situation.
You sit with friends and order something that is right for that context and your mood. These are all in sync with each other. On the other hand, you buy wheat flakes or corn flakes on a weekly or monthly shopping basis. It goes into your kitchen and the consumption is wholly different.
From attention, we move to prediction of value. As we buy and drink Coke, we experience it and find out if it quenches thirst. There is an interplay between the prediction and actual experience. The experience is what happens in the moment. After we have had our Coke, we feel satisfied and energized and therefore, we get remembered value, which is a memory of brand liking and feeling. This is encoded in memory and that goes back into our memory structure. So, there are four steps in a Consumer Choice Model. There needs to be a trigger, which could be either a consumption trigger or a purchase trigger. What comes to mind is a representation and evocation of choice. We make an implicit, non-conscious, detection of value.
We then get an experiential value, which in the case of purchase is about the nature of shopping and in the case of consumption, the usage of the product. Finally, there is the remembered value. That’s the basic Consumer Choice model that has guided me. The way I have used neuroscience is to decode how consumers and aggregates of consumers view the category and the brand and what really the challenge for a brand is.
I’ll take you through some more examples. In a bar, your purchasing and consumption triggers are almost synonymous. You sit with friends and order something that is right for that context and your mood. These are all in sync with each other. On the other hand, you buy wheat flakes or corn flakes on a weekly or monthly shopping basis. It goes into your kitchen and the consumption is wholly different. There is a challenge of fitting it as an experience and a morning breakfast habit. It is not enough if people buy it but they should consume it. I have witnessed in Europe where people buy certain brands once in a year that go into a bar. So when the next purchase cycle comes, they say that they already them in their bar. We therefore have to trigger consumption.
Takeaway from the Model
So the first takeaway from the model is: always be conscious about any of the categories in the shopping context. Byron Sharp refers to this as buying situation. I think of it as consumption and buying situation or a consumption and purchase trigger. This has implications for category creation and what you associate at the time for category creation. The other aspect is, our brain has two ways of encoding memory. It encodes what a product stands for; and where and how to use it, in different parts of the brain. Therefore, when you launch any new category, you need to educate consumers. They must learn through a process of education and experience, watching marketing campaigns and learn what a particular category stands for and where and how to use it.
Body Soap to Shower Gel
Let us take soaps to use a really popular example in the personal care category. We have lived with soaps through our lifetime. We have used it all over the body and then we moved on to qualifying a liquid soap and branding it as a body wash or a hand wash.
While that creates a clear role for a ‘what’ in the product versus how to use it, by labelling it as a shower gel, not only do you get the same idea as that of a body wash, but you also get a certain set of premium associations being encoded with it. These are real choices that we need to navigate. There is no right or wrong. You might do different things for different brands and that’s how you must manage your portfolio architecture.
New Versions of Coffee
We have always been used coffee either in a powder or granular form. Now ITC has come up with ‘a pasty form’ where part of the process of mixing the powder has been simplified. It is no doubt a good innovation. But does the category name as ‘Beaten Caffe’ convey what the product is and how it is to be used? Strike a balance between leveraging existing associations and leveraging/creating new ones. These are choices which have to be carefully made and they can make or break a brand. In Packaging, make use of the combination of predicted and experienced value for effectiveness. Neurovision can be used as a tool for Point of Sale (PoS) design for greater effectiveness. Use visual processing simulation. Do not have visual clutters and distractions in arranging PoS merchandise. In designing ads, design for improving memory activation and emotional engagement. In ad films, try different versions (like 60 sec and 30 sec versions) and evaluate the impact. ‘Universal Needs Mind Map’ can be used as an effective tool in creating ads.
Music is extremely powerful in evoking emotions. Brands must move beyond a visual identity and have a sonic identity too, which evokes appropriate emotions. Position the brand in the minds of the consumers using proper emotional triggers. A diagnostic toolkit can be used to evaluate the consumer choice. Ethnographic studies, branded and unbranded neuro-research and traditional qualitative research are some of the tools.