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  • Writer's pictureKevan Oswald

Unconscious Branding

When did they stop singing the jingle in Kit-Kat commercials? I don’t watch a ton of TV, so I’m not the best judge of this, but I think its been a few years since the Kit-Kat jingle was actually sung in a commercial. It’s all sound effects now, but when a Kit-Kat commercial comes on, I still sing the words in my mind along with the sound effects. I can’t help it. It’s as if I don’t even have a choice in the matter. “Gimme me a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar.” Having me repeat those words in my mind is of course far more effective than simply hearing those words.

So much of what we think, believe, and even decide occurs without our own awareness. In his book “Unconscious Branding,” author Douglas Van Praet provides several insights into the way our mind works when it comes to forming opinions about brands. The following is my effort to summarize some of his key points. As a marketing researcher, much of the book resonated with what I have already come to know, but he also provided several new insights that I know I will find applicable to much of what I do with regard to focus groups, survey development, and consultation.

Attracting new people to your brand often requires changing their routine, their behavior. We are creatures of habit. We crave security. However, we are also attracted to what’s new and different. Pattern interruption is the first of several “steps to behavior change” that are covered in the book. These are steps that marketers can use to get people to take notice and build a desire to take action. Below are the five that I found most thought-provoking.

Interrupt The Pattern: Our brains create models of the world and compare incoming information to those models. When things we observe fit our expectations, we don’t think about them and they become largely unconscious. We notice what is different. A hundred cars may pass us on the highway without us really taking note until a pink pick-up truck goes by. It’s different, it interrupts a pattern, we notice it.

The human brain is fundamentally attracted to what is different. If it were not, we would never learn. However, disruption must do more than grab out attention, it must engage us. Pop-up ads on the Internet disrupt, but if there is no interest in the product (as is probably the case 99% of the time), we click off and are left with a negative association of the brand… if we happen to remember it.

Create Comfort: This is about understanding your customers. Before you get consumers all excited about your product or brand, you need to first reduce their apprehension about trying something different. You must create comfort (i.e. trust) through a believable message, showing empathy (“they get me,” “they understand me”), demonstrating authority, creating familiarity, and the synchronization of shared values.

People don’t just buy brands; they buy into values. One of the best examples of this was Doves “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which used real women, not models, in its advertising. The authenticity, believability, and empathy shown in the ad created a high degree of comfort with the brand and resonated perfectly with the target audience.

Lead the Imagination: Nike’s famous “Just Do It” slogan left “It” to the imagination. The openness and vagueness of this message connected with everyone on a personal level and inspired dreams. Our imagination and the real world both engage the same neural circuitry in our brains. If you can get someone to imagine something vividly enough, you are well on your way to making the suggestion real. It becomes their idea and they do things because they want to, not because someone else told them to.

Another great example of this is Apple’s outdoor advertising campaign for the iPod in 2003. The ad showed black silhouettes of people listening and dancing to their music. People were able to easily project themselves into the experience using their imagination.

Satisfy the Critical Mind: We are driven by emotions and feelings. A desire is created, but our neocortex (the rational thinking part of our brain) puts the breaks on until it is given logical facts to justify taking action. Only then will it give us permission to act on our emotions and urges.

A campaign for Trident several years ago urged people to “chew on this” followed by a message that chewing gum after a meal helps fight cavities. Those people who wanted to chew gum but perceived chewing gum as a social stigma, now felt justified to act on their impulses without guilt. They weren’t chewing gum, they were “fighting cavities.” The campaign was a huge success.

Change the Association: It’s not just about what the brand says about the product; rather it’s what the brand suggests about the person. What is the brand associated with? The message of the Marlboro Country campaign was “come to where the flavor is.” However, this message wasn’t about the flavor of the cigarette, but the flavor of the cowboy.

Back to Kit-Kat. No words, only sound effects, that’s different, that interrupts a pattern. I’m certainly comfortable with the brand. As far as leading the imagination, I literally couldn’t help but repeat the words of the jingle in my head. My critical mind was satisfied with the thought that I deserve a “break” with a Kit-Kat bar. I want to take a break and enjoy a Kit-Kat, as demonstrated in a tempting and fun manner in the ad, so the commercial definitely leaves me with a positive association.

The book actually goes into two other steps that marketers can use to get people to build a desire toward a brand: Shift the Feeling (which is about emotion) and Take Action. However, many of the points made in those two sections were touched upon by the other five.

I always try to come up with acronyms to help me remember steps, lists, or associated points. Maybe this isn’t the best one, but hey, it works for me: P.I.C.M.A. Interrupt the Pattern, Lead the Imagination, Create Comfort, Satisfy the Critical Mind, Change the Association.

Below are a few additional thoughts from the book that I enjoyed:

  • Decision making is about making predictions, and our brain does this largely through the release of a chemical in the brain called dopamine. This “gimme more” neurotransmitter is responsible for wanting, craving, and motivating us to do nearly everything.

  • Dopamine is also the feel good “drug” of anticipation. We don’t need to experience the product to get a rush of dopamine. We only need to imagine and anticipate it in our minds.

  • When presented with choices, memories and learned associations link the choice with what we know. The data is summarized in consciousness as a feeling.

  • Brands are mental shortcuts that bring our minds relief from the confusion and effort of having to evaluate choices. This relief comes from our past experience with the brand or from observing use of the brand by our peers.

  • The goal of most of us is to satisfy our own needs, not to “consume” a product. Brands need to fulfill a need through a product.

  • Link the brand to an associated benefit. If I say “Melts in your mouth,” your mind automatically completes the thought “…not in your hands.”

  • Our purchase affiliations with strong iconic brands like Apple, Harley-Davidson, Target, and Nike are not just a reflection of our interest in a product or service, but also an identification with a group of like-minded people bound by a common sense of purpose—Apple for the creative-minded, Harley for the free-spirited, Target for the smartly hip, and Nike for the achievers.

  • The desire to associate and imitate is perhaps the number one reason why most people do what they do.

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