Some people think that branding and communication is a lot of fluff. Don’t believe it? Talk to a left-brained person — find an accountant or an engineer and ask them. They are the ones having spirited discussions about spreadsheet macros or making jokes about creative people. It’s likely that they follow what’s called rational choice theory – the theory that how people make decisions are logically ordered and consistent. Introduce the notion of building an emotional connection with a brand as part of the decision-making process and just wait for the eye rolls or smirks.
In contrast to the premise of rational choice theory, the practicalities of selecting a product or service are not entirely logical. In fact, the very definition of a brand as a perception that the consumer has about a business means that the purchase decision is likely to be illogical.
There are a lot of subconscious reasons that drive consumer decisions. The science behind understanding irrational purchase decisions and connecting it to brain functions is called neuromarketing.
Communication works with neuromarketing because what a brand says is processed by different parts of the brain and affects the purchase decision. Like a Facebook relationship status, it’s complicated; but here’s a very basic overview of the parts of the brain and how they process brand communication.
The Reptilian Brain - I need it!
If you’ve ever bought that snack that caught your eye while waiting in line to pay for something in a store or purchased a sweatshirt in the middle of summer because the salesperson said it was the last one, you have the reptilian brain to thank for that.
The Reptilian Brain, the oldest part of our brain is where our survival instinct is and drives our impulses. Messages can create urgency and prompt us to make impulsive decisions that we can rationalize because they stimulate chemicals that tap into that survival instinct.
The Limbic Brain - I really want it!
We choose brands based, in part, on their stories. Stories give meaning, core values and associations to the brand which, in turn, increases its brand salience or value to us as consumers. The affinity that we develop with a brand is the basis of the emotional brand connection. This fast, unconscious connection happens because of chemical reactions in the Limbic Brain. The Limbic Brain is irrational, it doesn’t rely on language or logic to process decisions but it does drive our decision-making process. The Limbic Brain is why we will pay much more for a Saint Laurent t-shirt rather than buy a less expensive version from J. Crew.
The Neocortex - Let’s think this through…
The part of the brain that makes the ultimate decision is the Neocortex. It’s the most recently developed part of our brains and it integrates our rational thoughts from the Reptilian brain with the irrational feelings from the Limbic Brain to help us make decisions. One might consider it the part of the brain that processes the nuances of the decision.
Of course, this summary is just a basic way of explaining how these complex processes work. But how should we think about these processes when we are making purchasing decisions through which we are unconsciously building our self-identity? The answer is more nuanced than you might think.
“As humans, we have a need to feel connected to other people and to feel like part of a tribe.”
Recently, we had a chance to speak with best-selling author Timothy Maurice Webster. In his book Brain & Brand, he writes about human and brand behaviour, exploring connections between critical influence thinking, brand leadership and neurobranding.
According to Webster, even with all of our evolved reasoning, there is a large emotional component involved in how we make decisions because as humans, we have a need to feel connected to other people and to feel like part of a tribe. This urge happens in our brains as a result of chemicals like vasopressin and oxytocin which, when they are released because of certain stimuli, drive us to connect, feel safe and give us a sense of identity. The balance of these chemicals varies from person to person.
Our response to stimuli is the result of an evolutionary process. For example, a pregnant woman and a male athlete will respond differently to an image of a baby. An emotional response is a complicated process that combines all parts of the brain and our individual chemical makeups to drive our decision in one way or another.
Chemicals in our brain respond to messages, that make us feel a sense of belonging or anxiety to motivate our purchases
Brand communication chemicals can make us feel either like we are part of the tribe by having a product or stressed about not feeling like part of the tribe because we don’t. Part of this is due to what is called the endowment effect - the intrinsic value that we assign to a product or service based on stories and patterns with which we associate it. For example, if you win tickets to see your favourite artist and a few hours before the concert a friend offers to buy them from you for double the dollar value, would you sell the tickets?
Webster opines that, because of the endowment effect, you may choose to keep the tickets, overriding the logical decision to sell them because of the intrinsic value you’ve placed on the artist as well as the fear of missing out on a collective experience.
Some, for instance, would keep Drake concert tickets because of the intrinsic value created by bad dancing in a white box in the video for Hotline Bling.
Marketers consider the endowment effect when developing branding and a communication strategy. They also consider the characteristics of the target market i.e. what are their values? what makes them feel safe? what makes them feel threatened? etc…
This gets to the heart of what branding is about. Branding relies on the fact that we’re humans and well, we’re complicated. It is our need to belong to a tribe and the anxiety that we feel about potentially not belonging to that tribe that drives many of our purchase decisions.
Making these emotional connections is not an easy process. People want to feel that the brand is authentic and that they can identify with it. Authenticity doesn’t necessarily equal realistic. Fantasy brands like Disney World and Dungeons and Dragons have their own authenticity dynamic called Fake-Real. In other words, it’s one hundred per cent committed to the fantasy and that’s its realness. Whatever the authenticity dimension is, people want to feel that they really know and can relate to the brand, its core values and its beliefs.
Communication isn’t just written or verbal. A very important component of how a brand communicates and makes connections is design. How it looks and feels underwrites the message that people understand and what helps to create meaning for them. All of these cues are what creates the intrinsic value and provide the basis for the endowment effect.
When we have an emotional connection to a brand we form a bond that leads us to make irrational decisions. We buy more frequently, we are less sensitive to pricing and we spend more time with it when we read newsletters and follow it on social media.
Over time, this means that when brands form and maintain emotional connections with the audience, the result is that they have more competitive differentiation, stronger brand loyalty and higher average customer lifetime values.