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/

Physics and marketing

September 1, 2013

Physics and marketing don’t seem to have much in common, or do they? Watch this TED talk by Dan Cobley (a Marketing Director at Google), who uses Newton’s Second Law, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and a few more bits of physics to explain the theory of branding…

Money = Happiness!

July 2, 2013

It seems that money can buy happiness but only if you spend it in the right way. In their new book, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton lay out the five principles for turning cash into pleasure:

  • Buy experiences. Activities like concerts, days out and vacations are more satisfying than buying objects.
  • Make it a luxury. Only have your favourite things occasionally, that way you will continue to enjoy them.
  • Buy time. Extra time and the freedom to do what you want are more satisfying than money.
  • Delay gratification. Having to wait will make you appreciate things more, so buy now and experience later.
  • Treat others. Spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves.

What’s this got to do with business? To pick one of the above – Make it a luxury – this can be used to shape behaviour by using the power of scarcity. People are programmed to want things more if there is limited availability (the power of ‘sales’); and if it’s memorable, which can of course be enhanced by having to wait (the power of anticipation)…

Book: Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Talk: Great presentation by Michael Norton:

Your brain on a slow website…

November 16, 2012

Five tips for great presentations

August 22, 2012

Executives are the Simon Cowell of the business world: impatient, critical, often caustic. But they’re also desperately searching for talent. How do you make the right impression? Is the secret just to tell a good ‘story’? Here’s five hot tips to get you going:

A better elevator pitch

February 24, 2012

“The best style is the style you don’t notice.” Somerset Maughan.

If you think an ‘elevator pitch’ is just a frenzied two-minute sales pitch you would be wrong! Well, come on, how do you react when someone backs you into a corner and gives you their best marketing shot? Yep, it’s often too much, too quickly, and too in your face. Read this article by Geoffrey James in Inc. magazine to brush up your style:

Top 40 management models

January 30, 2012

All models are wrong, but some are useful.” George Box, 1979.

Most management models are simple tools, frameworks or checklists. And any self-respecting model also has a self-explanatory (often 2×2) matrix to go with it, of the sort that looks good in a presentation, or on a flipchart or whiteboard. That being said most models are based on theories and have been checked out in practice. They also provide a means of framing (the useful bit!) strategic, functional, process or people-orientated issues; and are of course a source of plenty of new jargon to use in meetings…

So what are the Top 40 models? Here’s a starter list:

Should HR be part of marketing?

September 16, 2011

Talent Director, Head of People Strategy, People and Performance Tsar… Have you noticed that HR is moving in two distinct directions? There’s the bit that deals with wages, rations and fairness, and the other bit that wants to strut its stuff on a bigger stage: to be as sexy as marketing and as important as finance. To be taken seriously as a big hitter in the strategy stakes. And perhaps this is right because what distinguishes most organisations from each other is not necessarily what they do, but who is doing it. It’s also the case that awareness of ‘brand’ is becoming essential to organisations both big and small, especially since what a customer experiences as a brand is usually what gets delivered via its employees.

So where’s all this going? Perhaps talk of talent and brand is really pointing to the fact that HR should be part of marketing. After-all the strategic HR plan is the corner-stone of competitive differentiation, and ultimately the guardians of the brand are the marketeers.

Photo credit: Zirconicusso/

Smartphone or smart marketing?

May 16, 2011

It seems your Smartphone use predicts your social life, travel interests, risk of disease and even your political views. Have a look at this post on Dr Shock’s blog (links to Wall Street Journal video):

Make mine a mega skinny choco-macchiato with extra sprinkles!

April 6, 2011

Have you ever wondered why coffee shops use such weird names? Does it send you into something of a dither when you’re trying to make a choice? Bingo! That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. Tall, grande, venti… they all sound quite big don’t they; and that’s no accident because it turns out that consumer psychologists have had their sticky paws all over the naming process.

And the bottom line?  If you don’t have a particular reason for picking something, you tend to go for the one in the middle. The result: if you’re selling coffee (pizzas, soft drinks, chips, anything) put the one you want to sell the most of in the… middle. So a three-way choice actually turns out to be a middle-way choice. I wonder if this applies to politics as well.

Picture credit: Surachai/


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