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The Unconscious Power of Brands

by Daryl Weber

No one thinks ads work on them. When we buy something, we think we know why we bought it. Certainly we’re not so gullible as to be influenced by advertising and marketing, right?

But clearly, advertising and marketing do work. Corporations spend many millions on marketing because they see the results, and tons of research shows that it works. So what’s going on here?

It seems marketing and brands work in very subtle, unconscious ways. As recent research in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics is showing, we humans are not nearly as conscious, rational, or in control as we like to think. Instead, our brains evolved to unconsciously monitor and learn from the world around us, and then to use this information to guide our behavior. The trick is, we normally have no idea this is happening.

So when it comes to brands and purchasing decisions, often our preference is guided by a subtle “gut feeling” about whether or not a product or brand appeals to us. We may have a general inkling towards or away from something, and then can consciously choose or override that impulse if we want.

So what is a marketer (or anyone building a brand) to do? How can we build the right unconscious “gut feeling” for our brands?

Here’s a few ideas:

Everything you do is branding.

Branding is not just about marketing. The feel you build around your brand is influenced by every little touchpoint someone has with your company. This can be where they see your product, who they see it with, the price, customer service, interviews with employees or founders…everything adds another piece to the pile of how they think about your brand and company.

For example, did you know UPS trucks don’t make left turns? The company claims in their marketing that they “love logistics.” But that doesn’t really ring true until you learn that the company obsessively, scarily, loves logistics to such an extent that they calculated that having their delivery trucks only make right turns saves tons of gas and reduces accidents. That doesn’t just say they love logistics, it proves it.

So in your company, make sure everything you do connects and ladders up to the same overall brand idea, not just your marketing.

How you say something matters as much as what you say.

The conscious message you try to communicate on your website, in emails or ads is only part of what consumers will take away. As importantly, or maybe even more importantly, they’ll also get the feel and personality of your brand, and this will have a profound impact on how they view your brand.

Think about when you pass a billboard on the road. You’ll likely forget the conscious message seconds after you drive by. But, studies show that the underlying tone and feel of the brand probably crept into your unconscious and is likely to stay there for a long time. This has been shown to be true even if you don’t recall seeing the ad at all!

This means the style may matter more than the substance. So make sure the tone and look of everything you do fits with the style and personality you want for your brand.

Don’t take consumers at their word.

Consumers are often just not consciously aware of why they buy something, or if they’ll buy something in the future. So you have to be very careful when conducting market research like surveys or focus groups. Their conscious answers may lead you astray.

You’ve probably heard of the New Coke debacle. In 1985 Coca-Cola decided to tweak the formula of its flagship product to better compete with the sweeter taste of Pepsi. Surveys showed that consumers seemed to like the new product better. But what the surveys didn’t show was that people had a deep connection to the Coca-Cola brand, and they didn’t want it changed, even if most had said they would buy it in focus groups.

The key is to listen behind their words to look for clues as to what’s really driving them, and what their real needs are.

BrandSeduction Flat cover (2)Branding consultant and Atlanta resident Daryl Weber takes an in-depth but fascinating  look at the unconscious side of brands in his new book, Brand Seduction: How Neuroscience Can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands. As he describes it, “brands exist as networks of associations in the mind, and these associations can be both conscious and unconscious.”  It’s offers a good lesson for those building a new brand: make sure you’re tapping into and building the unconscious side of your brands, not just the conscious side.


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