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Neuroscience and effective branding

On the surface of it, neuroscience and the need for effective branding appear poles apart. The reality is that there is an important and decisive connection.
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Companies will be fully aware of the challenge of effective branding. There is little to be achieved by staying a secret so businesses spend huge amounts of money promoting identity. Yet, as United Airlines demonstrated, despite years of careful nurturing, brand value can be destroyed in seconds.

To understand the dynamic mix involved in handling public perception, you need to understand the human brain. There are three distinct layers which have evolved for different purposes. The basal region, often referred to as the reptilian brain, sits at the base of the brain just above the brain stem and houses our instincts.

The limbic system, otherwise called the mammalian brain, sits in the middle of the brain and houses our emotions. The cortex, which is located at the top and sides of the brain, can be loosely thought of as the human layer and is the centre of our rational thought. And the irony here is that, whilst there is a great deal of rational thought and analysis invested in marketing, the most effective branding taps into the instinctive and emotional regions of the brain.

Let’s look first at the instinctive connection first. The primary function of our instincts is to ensure we survive. When presented with an image the basal region will spend just a few seconds deciding if there is a “survive or thrive” consideration at stake. Our instincts are designed to act decisively: there is no point in analysis or contemplation if your head is about to be ripped off by a bear. Our instinctive responses are therefore fast rather than precise.

Likewise, our instincts will swiftly interrogate the brand environment and if the instinctive brain gets involved, the rest of the brain follows. If you want effective branding, this is crucial. Any visual representation of brand, from logo to employee behaviour, will automatically trigger an instinctive response. If the perception is positive, the consumer’s brain will sense an opportunity to thrive and therefore to engage; if the perception is negative the response will be one of withdrawal or attack.

The estate agents industry established some time ago the “11 second” rule where it recognised that, at the point of seeing a property, a potential purchaser would take on average 11 seconds to decide to buy it. If they didn’t decide within that time they would not buy at all. This is because our instincts assess our ability to survive or thrive in any environment. When we are contemplating a new home, we have to feel that this is a place we could flourish. If the visual imagery presents the brand as a threat then it becomes truly damaging.

On the other hand, not everything is decided in seconds. We know it can take years to build loyalty through effective branding. This is where we need to understand the limbic system, the emotional region of the brain. This part of the brain was designed to let mammals cooperate on a more sophisticated level than reptilian predecessors. Emotionally, we look for connection with those around us. The same principle applies with the consumer relationship to a brand.

Our goal is to build brand trust but this takes time, especially under the eye of our protective instincts. Nevertheless, just as in any relationship, if our experience of a brand over time is reinforcing, we will learn to trust it and to build loyalty. In some cases we may even be forgiving if we come across a one-off negative experience if we are able to call on wider memories of genuine brand fulfilment. But it’s a dangerous path for both business and consumer to follow: much safer to take every opportunity to reinforce the “credits” whilst avoiding the “debits” at any cost.

It is a strange yet understandable, irony that we invest so much rationale in the development of brand strategies; yet success will be determined entirely by our instincts and our emotions.

Clive Hyland helps business leaders and their teams address strategic and cultural challenges. He also runs masterclass programmes for coaches, trainers, HR and learning and development practitioners.

Image: Shutterstock

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