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Home > Research

Brand Blink: Understanding the Mind to get to the Heart of Buying Decisions
By Daryl Travis, CEO, Brandtrust

Malcolm Gladwell enlightens our thinking with his book Blink, a fascinating exploration of how decisions are made in the blink of an eye, before consumers even realize they’re making a decision. He suggests “we think without thinking.”

Gladwell’s effort to share emerging insights into how our brains work is timely. In this decade, we are learning more about how humans think and feel and what drives our behavior than the whole of our discoveries in the time since Sigmund Freud dreamt up the idea of psychoanalysis. This has profound implications for marketing and brand professionals. As it turns out, these developments are revealing just how faulty and inadequate conventional research methods are when it comes to truly understanding consumers.

In Blink, Gladwell urges that people make decisions through rapid cognition and a concept known as thin-slicing—the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. More than we realize, we evaluate a situation or a brand and frame our response before we ever consciously think about it. When we thin-slice, we recognize patterns and make snap judgments, we do this process of editing unconsciously. We first see and perceive a color several hundred milliseconds before we can think or say “red light.” Our foot seeks the brake long before we actually think about stopping, that is, if we think about it at all.

As Gladwell warns, “while people are very willing and very good at volunteering information explaining their actions, those explanations, particularly when it comes to the kinds of spontaneous opinions and decisions that arise out of the unconscious, aren’t necessarily correct. Finding out what people think of a rock song sounds as if it should be easy. But the truth is that it isn’t, and the people who run focus groups and opinion polls haven’t always been sensitive to this fact” (Gladwell, 2005, p. 155).

Brains are pattern machines. (Hawkins and Blakeslee, 2004) These patterns make blink moments possible. But, if you are a marketer looking to capitalize on a blink phenomenon, be aware the brain cannot command itself to go into “think blink” mode. Instead, it involuntarily retrieves from memory the feelings that drive blink encounters. Our brain does not remember exactly what it sees, hears or feels. We don’t remember or recall things with complete fidelity—not because the cortex and its neurons are sloppy or error-prone, but because the brain remembers the important relationships in the world, independent of details. (Hawkins, 2004)

The relationships we feel are important in our world are stored as images in our unconscious mind and are linked directly to our emotions. In fact, we don’t really think in words, but more in pictures or images. The brain is elegantly designed to store whole concepts within an image. We store memories as images because they are more meaningful and easier to access quickly and automatically. Emotions are largely responsible for creating these memories and are the key to unlocking the meaning within.

It is critical for marketers to understand the role of emotions in human decision making and behavior. Raised in Western culture, we are well indoctrinated in the forces of logic and reason, but we’ve lost sight of the essential role emotions play in determining human behavior. In fact, all human behavior is driven by emotional input derived from these stored visualizations. There are two systems in the brain. One is for logic and reason. It resides in the neocortex, the outer layer.  The other is found in the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain. The emotional components appear in very discreet, well-identified and interconnected regions of the brain. The interconnection occurs in a handful of brain sites that are collectively known as the limbic system. One site in the system, the amygdala, is the brain region responsible for the subjective experience of the emotion. Another site, the hypothalamus, is responsible for triggering the physiological response of the emotion. The hypothalamus, amygdala, and cortex all feed back on each other in a complex alchemy of emotion and reason to coordinate the appropriate behavioral response. This information is also saved and stored by a third member of the limbic system, the hippocampus. All of these brain regions, from the higher cortex to lower limit systems, converge in a single brain region known as the cingulate cortex.  It is in the cingulate cortex that decisions are made. Reason and emotion commingle and we are able to coordinate our emotional response to direct our actions and thoughts.

One very important scientific aspect of this whole process is that we know the decision making process does not work in the absence of an emotional signal from the limbic system. Left to its own devices, the consciously thinking part of the brain is incapable of making a decision. The implications of this for marketers are inescapable.

Revealing patterns in the brain through a methodology called Emotional Research, a psychoanalytic-based technique designed to tap into memories, makes it possible for consumers to access emotions that drive their behaviors. Through directed relaxation and visualization exercises, consumers can recall experiences and reveal underlying emotions that cannot be accessed via conventional research. Visualization is critical to unlocking the emotional drivers. Jim Hawkins, creator of Palm and Handspring and the founder of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, discussed this in his provocative book, On Intelligence. “The next time you tell a story, step back and consider how you can only relate one aspect of the tale at a time. You cannot tell me everything that happened all at once, no matter how quickly you talk or I listen. You need to finish one part of the story before you can move on to the next. This isn’t only because spoken language is serial; written, oral and visual storytelling all convey a narrative in serial fashion. It is because the story is stored in your head in sequential fashion and can only be recalled in the same sequence. You can’t remember the entire story at once. In fact, it’s almost impossible to think of anything complex that isn’t a series of events or thoughts” (p. 70).

You can easily experience firsthand how Emotional Research works as you read this. Follow these steps as described. First, think about a time and place when you were very relaxed. Close your eyes so you can see it better. In your mind, go to that time and place. Now, scan the scene very slowly from left to right and describe what you are seeing. Notice all the little details. Who is there with you? What time of day is it? What colors do you see? What is the light like? What are you thinking about? What are you feeling?

Now, did you go to the beach or some body of water as we see most of the population do in our research? This is because the desire to be near water is very primal human behavior and a clear indication how this research can powerfully tap into the underlying emotional drivers.

Emotional Research, like in Brandtrust’s Emotional Inquiry
sm, reveals the elements that create a brand or a blink experience. The directed visualizations of the experiences that first encoded the emotion in a person’s memory banks are essential. This unlocks the memories, the emotions and the feelings that influence people’s behavior when faced with a similar experience. For the purpose of brand research, imperfect recall is not an issue. We are simply trying to uncover how the subject feels about a particular experience related to the brand because those feelings drive his or her behavior.

We discover the specific things that actually cause an emotional response related to blink or brand experiences. The sound of your mother’s voice, a picture of your grandmother’s house, the memory of the loss of a loved one, the aroma of a favorite food, and thousands of other experiences trigger emotional responses.

We also explore the deeper feelings of the emotion and how they invoke behaviors that make up the landscape of all of our psychological experiences. Revealing these emotional responses, common to most people, provides the insights into what a brand must say and do to succeed.

As a result, we’re confirming brands are about feelings, not facts.  Buying decisions are made on promises that transcend products, and promises are rooted in human emotions.  Quite simply, brands are built on trust. Making and keeping promises builds trust which is among the most basic of human emotions. To impact our company’s bottom line, we need to get in touch with our customers’ emotions.  As marketers, we must have our own blink moments and embrace the reality that branding is about “brain surgery” and psychology. Because how your customers feel about your brand isn’t a casual question.  It is the crucial question.

Gladwell, M. (2005), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Hawkins, J. and Blakeslee, S. (2004), On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines. New York: Times Books.

 Wilson, T. (2002), Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Boston: Belknap Harvard.

Daryl Travis is CEO of Brandtrust in Chicago (www.brandtrust.com) and author of “Emotional Branding:  How Successful Brands Gain the Irrational Edge.”

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