Book review: ‘Unconscious Branding’ by Douglas Van Praet

April 7, 2014

Branding-KromkrathogWhy do we buy stuff? Psychologists have known for a while that we’re at the mercy of two related facts. Firstly, as Van Praet suggests, that the seven generations or so humans have spent living in the industrial age, are dwarfed by the 84,000 generations living as hunter-gatherers. The implication is that from an evolutionary perspective we are still relying on ‘stone-age’ thinking.

Secondly, this means our brains have to process an enormous amount of information for which they were not designed. So whilst our senses take in about 11 million bits of information per second (that’s something like 34GB per day), we are only aware of 40 bits. What’s happened to the rest?

Most of the information that hits our senses is processed automatically at an unconscious level. It relies both on our primitive and often emotional brain, just as much as it does on any rational thinking. When it comes down to it, what drives our behaviour has a lot less to do with weighing up the pros and cons of a decision, and at a lot more with how we feel.

To cut a long story short, this book is about how to hit the marketing nail on both heads – the rational and emotional – rather than just the one. To understand that how we act often has little connection with how we say we will act, and that we tend to behave in a way that is consistent with a much older script: a script that we may not even be aware of. And critically this script is full of shortcuts and cognitive ‘rules of thumb’.

Lazy brain

The considerable research which underpins this book draws on contemporary neuroscience, and work by many experts, in particular doyens both of decision-making and persuasion. For example, as Daniel Kahneman (the only Psychologist to win the Nobel Prize), points out, compared to our unconscious systems, the cognitive, rational part of the brain, is just plain lazy. Thoughtful analysis of a situation is slow and tiring: it’s a lot easier to rely on past experience or quick fixes.

This means that if we think about brands, what’s happening is that our brains are heavily influenced by memory; and here’s the interesting bit, that those memories, which often involve imagery (think: Coke label), are processed in the prefrontal cortex, the same part of the brain that plans future behaviour. Another brain shortcut.

What’s in a name?

Van Praet, an acknowledged brand expert, takes what is known about unconscious processing and uses it to build a seven step persuasion model. Thus because we are animals that rely on recognising patterns – one of those brain energy saving tricks – a marketer needs to understand how to disrupt existing patterns in order to grab our attention.

Additionally, any interruptions must engage the right associations in order to spark constructive emotions. To get us to move, it’s necessary to retain elements of the familiar because we find comfort in it, or to make something new feel comfortable. So this is the second step: how to create customer comfort.

The remaining steps look at how to lead the imagination, shift feelings, satisfy the rational part of the brain (which, despite everything, needs to be satisfied!), and change the nature of the association between memory and mind, in order to generate actions that promote positive brand impressions.

To pull out the point about memory, this can be illustrated using product names. Marketeers need to spend time looking at all the associations linked to a name. The important thing is to find a name with no baggage, or unfortunate associations; or better still, to find a name that is already linked (in most people’s minds) to positive thoughts or feelings. Naturally having done this the name needs to be protected, for instance it can be easily damaged by the wrong sort of endorsements: celebrities not living up to the values of the brand!

In conclusion this book is jam packed with examples and ideas, and lifts the veil on how to engage ‘consumers’ at a human level, in order to shift attitudes and behaviour. Something we all need to do, in our various ways, every day.

Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing
Douglas Van Praet
Palgrave Macmillan; 2012; Pb £10.99.

Image courtesy of Kromkrathog/

Your brain on a slow website…

November 16, 2012

How the Internet is ruining your brain

July 4, 2012


Paradox of choice

May 31, 2012

On why less is more… Psychologist Barry Schwartz (the one wearing the shorts) takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz’s estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied. Try this great TED talk:

Do one thing at a time…

March 30, 2012

Do one thing at a time (well!) or multi-task, that’s the question. Watch this interesting CNBC video clip in which Tony Swartz talks about how to get stuff done whilst balancing your energy needs.

Left brain, right brain…

January 31, 2012

If you want to know the latest on the way in which the hemispheres of the brain go about their business watch this fantastic RSA animation. Psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our ‘divided brain’ (but probably not divided in the way you think!) has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society.

Click here:

Five things you should stop doing in 2012

December 16, 2011

It’s the time of year for making lists. And then losing them. And then making more lists and ignoring them. And it’s almost the time of year for making resolutions. So what are you going to decide to do, or to undo in 2012? As a starter here’s a list from Dorie Clark  in a seasonal article in the Harvard Business Review.


  1. Responding like a trained monkey.
  2. Mindless traditions.
  3. Reading annoying things.
  4. Work that’s not worth it.
  5. Making things more complicated than they should be.

I’m particularly attracted to her first point. She’s talking about emails and the way in which we get continually sidetracked by waves of incoming nonsense. What are we doing? I spent many a happy hour at university messing about with different sorts of ‘reinforcement’ schedules and fooling various rats (and the occasional pigeon) into behaving like a complete turkey! Yep, variable reinforcement schedules (read: emails of varying degrees of urgency plopping into your inbox at unpredictable intervals) make us all behave like Pavlov’s pet dog.

So let’s get a grip and stop it. If you must, check your email every 90 minutes or so. Strangely things will proceed as normal: the sun will rise, the Earth will rotate, politicians will continue to irritate you etc. There, I feel better already. Happy Christmas and a less monkey (rat, pigeon and dog-like) New Year!

Photo credit: Michael Elliott/

Wilful Blindness

February 21, 2011

Peer pressure, role modeling, obedience to authority, group think, cognitive dissonance, selective attention, love… it’s a wonder we can think straight.  Well actually a lot of the time perhaps we don’t. Quite apart from the forces of social psychology messing with our minds, the plumbing of the brain itself does a great job of physically reducing the flow of what we know. Perhaps that’s not surprising as we all have to deal with about 34GB of data every day. But does all this matter? In one sense, no, because it’s what gets us through life. And you could argue it’s what makes us uniquely human. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, when it stops us seeing what we should see, and stops us doing what we should do, then it can be a major problem.  Far more damaging than courageously ‘turning a blind eye’ in a sea battle (Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen), because not ‘seeing’ or acknowledging uncomfortable truths can literally lead to disaster. The sort of disaster that can end in ecological calamity, world financial meltdown, health scandals, military failure and always, ruined lives. Small things like that.

If you want to know how this can be, and how we can all be unconsciously (and consciously) wilfully blind, then get a copy of Margaret Heffernan’s new book: Wilful Blindness: Why we Ignore the Obvious at our Peril. It’s just out in the UK and is published by Simon & Schuster. You can also catch a video trailer on YouTube at:

Royal wedding to be friends only event!

February 21, 2011

I was amused to read at the weekend that Prince William and Mrs Prince William-to-be have been ‘allowed’ to invite more than 1000 of their friends to the forthcoming royal wedding. Good thing too! I think these events should be kept small and intimate and priority be given to people you know and like,  and if absolutely necessary, your relatives. Of course it’s physically impossible to have 1000 friends (see my post on the Dunbar number: Some of my best friends are monkeys), so I would be interested to know what constitutes a royal confidant…

Brain myths #1: You only use 10% of your brain

January 25, 2011

The brain is an amazing thing and can do amazing stuff. However, and I hate to disappoint you, we do know what all the bits do. There isn’t some hidden part, which if only you could activate it, would give you super powers: super memory, super intelligence, or indeed super anything. This is of course in direct contradiction to the common belief that we only use a fraction of our brains, maybe only 10%. So where did the myth come from? One of the main suspects is the great American psychologist William James who believed that we all had ‘reserve energy’ – a bit of extra brain oomph that we could tap into if only we knew how. The other, and perhaps more credible explanation, is that early on researchers discovered that just 10% of neurons were firing at any given time. Thus it seemed that only 10% were in use, which of course isn’t the case. Even when you’re asleep or day dreaming the brain is busily and actively doing its thing. Whatever the explanation, and of course it is possible to increase the efficiency of the brain, New Age hopes of tapping a great reserve of potential, and coming over all super human, appear to be unfounded.


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