Great brand expectations

Science tells us there's nothing rational about our relationship with brands, which is a good thing for advertisers. By Amelia Torode.

Great brand expectations

It sounds a bit like a bad joke: a swami, a merchant banker, a magician and a planner walk on to a stage.

Actually, it was the start of a TEDx organised by London Business School entitled "Magic". I was asked to talk about brands. The only parameters were that the talk had to be 12 minutes long and had to adhere to the TED mantra of "ideas worth spreading". More than a billion TED/TEDx talks have been viewed online. To say that I was daunted by the expectation would be to downplay my trepidation.

One of the many wonderful things about TED is the support system that it fosters. So many kind people listened to my early theorising, for which I will be forever grateful. It was a conversation with Jeremy Bullmore that helped find a centre of gravity for my orbiting thinking. "Of course brands are magic," he said, and proceeded to tell me about a clinical study published by the British Medical Journal in 1981. A team of researchers were looking into the impact brands had on analgesic painkillers.

One set of respondents was given a painkiller in a branded package (the brand was well-known and advertised), the other was given exactly the same pill but in an unbranded package. What happened next took the researchers by surprise. The presence of a brand changed the physical performance of the product – to be precise, the brand increased the level of pain relief by 30 per cent. These results have never been challenged. The expectation of the brand changed the experience of the product. Expectations alter experiences.

It reminded me of a story about Horlicks. In India, Horlicks is marketed as an energy drink – it is the market leader with 85 per cent of the energy-drink market. The packaging features children performing BMX wheelies and handstands. In Britain, we know Horlicks as a night-time drink to put you to sleep.

The same product is sold in both countries, with the same name, but two brands and two different human reactions.

So is it mind over matter? A case of "we think, therefore it is"? Do brands control us and do our minds have power over our physical reactions? Or is it that, when it comes to brands, mind and matter are so intrinsically intertwined that pulling them apart and assessing what is cause and what is effect is next to impossible?

I suddenly had an idea that I wanted to share: if brand expectations change brand experiences and product performance, then what exactly is going on inside the brain?

Everyone knows of the taste tests in the 60s in which respondents overwhelmingly chose Pepsi when tasted "blind" but switched preference to Coca-Cola once the brands were revealed. These experiments have been repeated with the addition of neuroscience. Using non-invasive MRI scanners, researchers have looked at what is happening inside the brain. The brain activity demonstrated the power that a brand has to change an experience. When respondents tasted both colas "blind", the ventral putamen – the area associated with the evaluation of flavour – lit up. The initial sugary hit of Pepsi was preferred over Coke. But when the brands were revealed, a different area of the brain became active: the prefrontal cortex. This area is associated with memory, judgment and a sense of self. The researchers concluded that this sense of emotive brand identity was so strong for Coke that it overrode the taste preference.

We hunt for reasons, but human beings are feeling creatures who think, not thinking creatures who feel

One of the first things that I remembered being told years ago as a WPP fellow was that brands are a blend of the rational and the emotional. Left brain and right brain. Ambidextrous. That is what makes them so interesting.

We hunt for rational reasons to justify a purchase, but human beings are feeling creatures who think, not thinking creatures who feel. The construction of brand preference in our brains reflects that ambiguity.

With brands, every touchpoint matters. In my TEDx talk, I share examples about how it is proven that wine changes flavour as the price tag increases, how ice-cream becomes richer and smoother with the addition of two words – "full fat" – on the packaging, and how beer becomes fresher and tastier once it is in a branded glass. I also talk about "the challenge of the baby carrots" and how brands can be used as a force for good.

The reaction has been hugely positive: even my co-speaker Radhanath Swami, who I thought would see me as a marketing manipulator, told me how interesting he found it. The talk is on the TEDx YouTube channel ( and a write-up is on my blog, Life Moves Pretty Fast ( If expectations can change experiences, then the onus is on us in advertising and marketing to change more people’s expectations more often and for good.

Amelia Torode is the director of strategy at The Good Relations Group