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/

Personality neuroscience

May 1, 2013

Brain imageIf you’re interested in the (growing) link between personality research and neuroscience – that’s the way in which we are able to map specific areas of the brain in terms of personality traits – the link below is a good place to start. And if you’re reading this and thinking, you know, that sounds sort of interesting, you probably have your Amygdala to thank… Why? Click and find out.

Your brain on a slow website…

November 16, 2012

How the Internet is ruining your brain

July 4, 2012


The Big Two

April 2, 2012

I guess you’ve all heard of the ‘Big Five’ personality factors, or the five fundamental factors that help to describe most observable individual differences – namely, Openness (to experience), Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. You probably also know that when they are combined in various ways they help to frame all manner of other things like emotion and motivation. I suspect you also have an idea about what happens when you try to break them down into smaller units. For example, that Extraversion is composed of facets that include warmth, gregariousness and excitement-seeking. And that there’s a debate about whether, when you look at all five factors, you end up with 16 ‘bits’, or 30, or 32… But have you ever thought about what happens if you go the other way? What, if I can put it like this, happens before the Big Five?

The Big Two

It turns out there are two higher-order factors. The first brings together Emotional Stability (the opposite of Neuroticism), Agreeableness and Conscientiousness; the second Extraversion and Openness. These new groupings are called Stability and Plasticity, respectively. So what? Well, these two meta-traits capture the two basic human requirements. These are the need to maintain a stable social structure in order to get things done, and what is in some ways the flip-side, the need to be able to cope with change and the unknown (and learn from it). This is quite an elegant distinction as at various times either stability or plasticity is likely to confer a competitive advantage. It’s also useful because it ties in nicely with the action of the neurotransmitters Serotonin (stability and the generation of feelings of ‘well-being’) and Dopamine (plasticity and reward-driven learning).

From a business perspective the tension between maintaining a dependable social structure in order to ensure steady progress and being able to cope with unpredictable change also has a familiar resonance.

More information from Colin DeYoung’s website.

Seeing what there is to see

March 26, 2011

I was reminded of this famous selective attention experiment a few weeks ago. Watch the video, following the instructions carefully:

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.

Neuro-linguistic Programming

December 4, 2010

I was waiting at a railway station recently and wandered into the bookshop. What struck me when I got to the ‘management’ section was the number of books on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP is an interesting (and highly successful) phenomenon that brings together elements of linguistics, behaviour modification, hypnosis and many other things besides. Popularised by Richard Bandler and John Grinder it seems to offer a quick and powerful way of understanding the link between the unconscious mind, language and behaviour; and to provide a channel for breaking out of learned patterns and of modelling successful behaviour, so increasing personal effectiveness. And make no mistake it is now big business, and is widely used not only for personal development, but extensively in management training, coaching and sales.

Despite its undoubted popularity it remains a controversial set of techniques, in particular when it’s used in a sales context. To take an example: consider what happens when you ask a person to do something and they respond by saying: ‘I can’t make that decision now.’ Obviously they are being resistant, but why?

NLP suggests that you try to spot which bit of the response is given the most emphasis, so if it’s on ‘now’, the problem is with the timing; on ‘that’, the issue is with what the person is being asked to do; on ‘make’, that they may not have the capability to make the decision; on ‘can’t’, that they don’t believe they can do it; and finally, on ‘I’, that it’s something ‘I’ cannot do. This is all fine and dandy and if it was proven to work it would be a really fantastic sales technique, as it would allow you to zero in on the real block to action. However the issue that bedevils NLP is that there is no empirical evidence that supports its effectiveness. Yes, there’s lots of anecdotal stuff but the hard science is missing. This also goes for the other bit of NLP that most people remember: the link between the movement of the eyes and the part of the brain that is being accessed. For example, eyes down and to the right, a person is being asked something about their feelings.

So what? Well, I cannot say for certain that all of the techniques that comprise NLP do not work. There may well be useful bits. However it has been enormously over sold, in particular on the back of its apparently science-based credentials – which it does not have. More to the point it doesn’t feature in mainstream psychology texts and is not taught on psychology degree courses. So perhaps in the words of Douglas Adams: ‘If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.’ The bottom line is that it doesn’t hold up as a coherent approach, and almost certainly is just too good to be true.

Note: There’s much on the Internet both for and against NLP. However if you’re interested in a more scientific view of the area, try Martin Heap’s website.

Personality models: perhaps we’re all wrong!

November 15, 2010

In Japan many people believe that a person’s blood type is predictive of their personality. Being asked about your blood type is commonplace and most Japanese would be puzzled if you didn’t know what it was. Blood type is used in recruitment and matchmaking, and for example many Japanese celebrities and politicians include it in their personal profiles. The gist is that if you’re Blood Type A you’re a responsible perfectionist; B, a practical individualist; O, a confident leader (and naturally this is considered to be the ‘best’ blood type!); and AB, that you’re unpredictable because you’re a mix of other types. Now it’s easy to take a smug, Western view of this, and whilst there is no proven link between blood type and personality, there is a heritable component to personality. Thus at the population level, mean estimates of heritability for the Big Five traits, which are not the same as the ABO ‘traits’ just mentioned, are: Openness (57%), Conscientiousness (49%), Extraversion (54%), Agreeableness (42%) and Neuroticism (48%)* – Bouchard & McGue, 2003.

Why do I mention all this? We are uncertain about what really ‘causes’ personality. It is likely to be influenced by heredity and environment, but how? And the other big question, what about the structure of personality itself? This last issue brings me to a recent and fascinating piece of research. Read et al (2010), using a neural network model of human personality, suggest that the Big Five is a representation of the structure of personality across a large group, based on the covariance (a measure of how pairs of variables change together) of characteristics within that group, not the structure that you would observe for an individual. The punch line: if you created a large number of virtual humans, specified by a random set of characteristics, you would expect the pattern across individuals to end up looking like the Big Five. Oops, amongst other obvious questions, if this is true and structure operates at a group (population) level, what does the score for a scale on a personality questionnaire for an individual actually mean? It looks like we may need to do some serious thinking about the structure of personality.

Bouchard, T.J. &  McGue, M. (2003). Genetic and Environmental Influences on Human Psychological Difference. Journal of Neurobiology, 54, 4-45.

Read, S.J., Monroe, B.M., Brownstein, A.L., Yang, Y., Chopra, G. & Miller, L.C. (2010). A Neural Network Model of the Structure and Dynamics of Human Personality. Psychological Review, 117, 61-92.

* Note. This does not imply that for an individual 57% of their ‘openness’, for example, is caused by their genetic makeup. It means that the (observable) phenotypic variation is 57% due to genetic variation.

In two minds, or just the one?

October 14, 2010

Let’s put this one to bed. The left-brain right-brain thing is a gross over-simplification of how the brain works. So forget all that stuff on left-brain (logical, analytical, objective) and right-brain (creative, intuitive, subjective) thinking, the brain is a distributive system, with the two halves generally both being involved in all aspects of thinking and problem solving.


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