How neuroscience can help to build your brand

Understanding the implications of what scientists are teaching us about System 1 and System 2 thinking can help marketers implement more effective plans, writes Vickey Bullen, chief executive of Coley Porter Bell.

Understanding neuroscience can help improve marketing effectiveness
Understanding neuroscience can help improve marketing effectiveness

Over the past year or so, I have become increasingly interested in the latest learnings from neuroscience, in particular System 1 and System 2 thinking. Not only does it give a scientific basis to what many of us have instinctively felt about how people make decisions and choices about life and brands, but also, more importantly, that understanding can help us do our jobs better.

Rapid-response and logical

Neuroscience has shown that most of our decision-making is automatic, intuitive and instinctive – and it’s made in the System 1, ‘rapid-response’ part of our brains. After that initial ‘autopilot’ response, we then rationalise those decisions in the System 2 part of our brains – the reflective and logical section.

It’s why we desire the sleek minimalism of an Apple product or the elegant lines of a BMW first, then convince ourselves it’s because of the interface or engineering.

As brand owners, brand strategists or brand designers, we need to create brands that connect with System 1 (that seduce the subconscious), while also talking to System 2 (convincing the conscious).

And so, as brand owners, brand strategists or brand designers, we need to create brands that connect with System 1 (that seduce the subconscious), while also talking to System 2 (convincing the conscious). That all makes a lot of sense, but the question is, how do you actually do it? As in the field of behavioural economics there are ‘rules’ that you can look to for guidance.

Here are three that you might consider as you define and create your brands:

Rule 1 System 1 learns by association. Throughout our lives we build association networks in our brains – we learn how to decode symbols and visuals and unlock mental concepts or meaning from them. For example, see a pair of people holding hands and we immediately understand that this is an image of protection and security – we learned that in childhood when our parents held our hands to keep us safe.

Understand cultural codes. For brand-owners and designers, this means a need to understand what cultural codes, symbols and visuals will unlock the right meaning. Take the design of upmarket conserve brand Bonne Maman. It unlocks the associations of homemade with its gingham lids and simple black-and-white labels. Similarly, our work for coffee brand Nescafé Azera aimed to create out-of-home coffee cues with an identity reminiscent of enamel-badged Italian coffee machines.

Associations can change over time. Keep up with evolving visual trends. The health category traditionally used a lot of pale blues and whites and a pared-back aesthetic – a visual language of deprivation. New attitudes toward a more positive, holistic approach to health have created a new set of visual codes – rich, vibrant colours, as seen in the likes of Waitrose’s Love Life range and the Ella’s Kitchen brand.

Rule 2 System 1 is goal-oriented. It directs our attention to that which looks most likely to fulfil our goals. So, we need to understand the design cues associated with that fulfilment of particular goals or needs – look at segmentation studies through a visual lens. What visual codes will appeal to that segment? Get it wrong and your visual identity will, at best, be at dissonance with other communications, or, at worst, repel your target audience.

Rule 3 Use the learnings from neuroscience in the execution of brands, but also consider it in the definition of them in the first place. Most strategic processes are inherently biased toward System 2. Lots of words, research, brand models – all ‘heavy lifting’ thinking for the brain.

Perhaps we need to embrace new ways of developing strategy that embrace the use of gut, intuition and our System 1, and force us to use it. One way to do that is by temporarily putting System 2 words to one side and working with visuals – the dominant language of System 1. Create strategy visually and maybe you will get to better words – better brand definitions that incorporate System 1 and System 2 cues.

These are just three ways of applying the lessons that neuroscience has taught us regarding decision-making, and there are many more. Just knowing about neuroscience doesn’t help us to do a better job – the key is how we apply it.

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