This Is Your Brain On Brands

A creative director I used to work with, often asked one question in reviews. “What’s the role of the brand?” It’s a great question. And also one I’ve been asking myself as I learn more and more about behavioural economics.

In advertising, the brand has long been a holy cow. No matter how disruptive or forward-thinking an agency is, brands are the one thing thou shalt not disrupt. Kevin Roberts said his Lovemarks concept was about what comes after brands. And then it turned out it was just a new word for, well, brands.

I’ve worked for some of the most powerful brands in the world, from Heineken to Heinz, M&M’s and Coca-Cola. These are brands people will pay to wear on a t-shirt. Should any of these brands be terminated, there will be angry protests. This is close to magic.

Meh or magic?

I’ve also been in tons of marketing meetings for brands that are just below that level. Oh, the brand trees and brand keys I have seen. Rebel brands, challenger brands, heritage brands, jester brands … All with their own brand DNA & DMS, brand values, brand duties, brand equity that must be – ahem – leveraged. You get the gist.

A few years back, talk of a brand bubble first emerged. Great financial value is ascribed to brands. What if they turn out to be overvalued? What if most of them don’t really impact results? What if new ways of shopping render brands redundant? A stock market crash and global recession might follow.

Certainly, many agencies would be out of business overnight. Because agencies still treat brands as the solution to everything. Want to succeed in business? Either be an iconic brand, or hire an agency that can help you become one. Sales targets not being met? Just reposition the brand – again. Loyalty dropping? As Dave Trott said: ‘the answer’s brand. What was the question?’

The A-brand chicken or the A-brand egg?

All this is built on a few observations and assumptions. One: a few truly iconic brands make lots of money. It may or may not be a coincidence that these companies also make innovative, user friendly products (Apple) or have stellar distribution (Coke). What came first, the brand or the excellence in other marketing areas? New power brands like Uber, Instagram and AirBnB have reached iconic status with little to no classic branding.

Two: people view your brand as a person. With a personality, a voice, a character. If they like your brand, they will buy your product. Right or wrong? A little bit of both. Research shows that our brains do react strongly to brands we love. Parts of the brain associated with making quick decisions light up on MRI when people are shown their favourite brands.

Don’t order champagne just yet though, traditional agencies. Because this only happens for number one favourite brands. Even well known, trusted second place brands are near-useless in this respect. These brands mainly fulfil another, more prosaic function. This has to do with defensive decision making or satisficing.

Brands: less likely to be terrible

Consumers often choose not the best product, but a product that’s unlikely to be terrible. A name brand signals that a big company has invested lots of money in its reputation. This makes them unlikely to risk poisoning you and blowing it all. Which explains why many consumers have a repertoire of brands within a category rather than one brand they’re loyal to. And as retailers become trusted A-brands themselves, this function loses strength.

Then there’s the brand’s role in alleviating the pain of paying. If we know, like and trust a brand, our brains can handle a higher price. Which is great for margins. In this sense, the brand literally acts like a placebo! However, scientists have not found any proof that our brains actually view brands as persons with personality traits, character etc. To the brain, a brand is a product, not a living being. Which makes all the talk of optimistic and courageous brand personalities seem a little silly.

Part of the solution, no longer ‘the’ solution

Distinctive brand properties still aid memory. They still draw attention. Brands still alleviate the pain of paying. And strong brands still influence subconscious decisions.  In terms of BJ Fogg’s B=MAT model, brands are part of the M of motivation. Which means both marketers and creatives need to broaden their thinking. And start treating brands not as the whole solution, but as one element in a larger mix. That is the role of the brand today.

 

 

 

 

 

How To Connect Science and Creativity

Want the bar to yourself at a creative advertising event? Mention science. Creatives of all ages will run like vampires from sunlight. They seem to think science is their kryptonite. Especially once clients ‘get hold of it’.

Then, some neuromarketing researchers claim creative ideas are useless. Just a few rented timeslots on some University’s MRI machine and you’re set. In their minds, this proves the cool kids who went to art school are frauds.

That’s cognitive biases in action.

The creatives cling to the status quo. They have invested time, money, energy and personal credibility in the dogma’s of the creative industry. They battle the safe, rational arguments of clients and account people every day. Talk about escalation of commitment.

The researchers are blinded by innovation. People in marketing often are. Today’s new thing always must kill yesterday’s. Plus as scientists, they’re eager to prove their hyperrational world view.

But wait. Wasn’t creativity about making new connections? And wasn’t science about discovery rather than proving you’re right?

When I studied Dutch Linguistics & Literature, it went without saying that science and art were part of one continuum. One hour we’d be comparing the Wernicke and Broca areas of the brain. The next we’d be discussing the unspoken emotions  in post-war novels. And somewhere in between were Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion.

That’s how I still see it. There’s creativity, and there’s neuroscience and behavioural economics. And where they meet, there’s creative persuasion. Which is what advertising could and should be as we head towards the 2020s

So let me offer three ways to connect science and creativity.

1. Use science as a source of inspiration

For creatives, science shouldn’t mean following linear checklists of proven techniques. I love to read or hear about some research, discuss it with my partner and see where the conversation leads us. Or kick start a creative session by quickly sketching out some scientific insights we might apply. Kryptonite? More like a secret weapon.

2. Use science to understand the creative process

There’s plenty of scientific research into creative processes. And guess what, it pretty much confirms and expands on what creatives have known for decades. Get messy, allow for randomness and happy accidents. Let System 1 do its subconscious work. Tim Harford’s Messy is a brilliant book on this, by an economist no less. Check out the work Srini Pillay too.

3. Use science to explain why creative ideas work

Creative gut instincts can still produce effective ideas. But to get them made in today’s corporate environment you need more. A rationale built on solid science will help convince stakeholders. The Affect heuristic, Attentional bias and the Von Restorff effect are just three scientific insights that show why great creative campaigns have worked in the past.

 

 

 

Review: The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker

A lot is written and said about creative thinking these days. Depending on where you’re standing, creative thinking is either:

  • the only skill that can make you a living after Artificial Intelligence has taken over everything else
  • A commodity you can get for cheap through pitches and crowdsourcing
  • Absolutely vital if we want to solve the world’s many problems
  • No longer needed now that we have programmatic ads and neuromarketing research
  • Something anyone in an organization can do if they follow a few simple steps

And then of course there are people like me, who have the word ‘creative’ on their business cards. My experience is that many people can indeed have ideas. But usually they’re the same ideas. And therefore, not very creative.

Compare it to a cartoonist. Everyone is funny occasionally. Many people can draw. But only a handful of people in the world can draw a funny cartoon six times a week. What makes them different?

Dorte Nielsen and Sarah Thurber have a refreshingly smart yet simple explanation of this in their delightful book The Secret of the Highly Creative Thinker: How To Make Connections Others Don’t.

They use the metaphor of the shower and the funnel. First, a creative thinker will generate lots of ideas without to much focus or critical thinking. Nielsen and Thurber liken this to turning on the shower. Then, once the funnel has filled, the ideas are filtered until the best remain.

Sounds familiar? Here’s where it gets really smart. The funnel has to be full before you turn off the shower. Which is exactly my experience. Most people will ‘turn off the shower’ as soon as they have one or two viable ideas.

And they will definitely run for the taps as soon as someone says something silly. “Let’s not get too crazy now, we already have some good ideas!”.

But they don’t. They have some safe, boring, obvious ideas that they’ve lazily fallen in love at first sight with.

I’ve seen countless people go from ‘let’s come up with some great ideas’ to ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ within the hour. Only to be disappointed when they found at least five other companies or colleagues had the same idea, claimed the URL, copyrighted the logo and trademarked the pay-off.

Well at least they’ve learned something. You can’t get from obvious ideas to great ones without travelling through the valley of silly ideas.

But Nielsen and Thurber offer hope for everyone. Based on insights from neuroscience, they explain how new ideas are found by making new connections in the brain.

Sounds theoretical? It isn’t. In fact, this book is filled with fun, practical exercises so approachable I did some with my seven year old daughter, and we had a great time.

And as a creative pro with 20 years experience in creative concepting, I have to say the exercises really work. As management and strategy take up more and more time, there’s a real danger of becoming a bit predictable as a creative director. This book really inspired me to turn on that shower again and let the crazy connections flow.

A die-hard Kindle convert, I’m sometimes a bit bummed by BIS Publishers‘ policy of putting out their excellent books on paper only (I want it NOW dammit, even it’s 2 am!). But I have to say they’ve really gone the extra mile to make the book’s design and inspiring as creative as the content.

In other words: highly recommended reading for both creative professionals and professionals who’d like to be more creative.

Just promise me that from now on, you’ll never again turn off that shower tap too soon.

 

Why science can’t create ideas

Science is amazing. Neuroscience especially. It tells us how our brains work. Why we do what we do. Or don’t. Stuff we don’t even know ourselves. Science also confirms what artists have always known. That people are living, breathing paradoxes. At the same time, different parts of our brains are responding to different things. So we like familiar stuff. But we give our attention to new stuff. We’re built to follow the herd. But we also feel a deep need to be unique. We hate being told what to do. But if you tell us in the right way, we’ll do it. So it’s only logical that science will never give us the magic formula for creative ideas. Because science makes sense. And people don’t.

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When less is less

Sure, less is more. But less of what exactly? Surely not less recognizability in the artwork. Or less emotion in the photography. Or less personality in the copy. Less is only more when it means: less clutter. Our brains love stuff that’s easy to process. So much, that we tend to feel happy when something’s straightforward. But only if we choose to pay attention to it at all. Which happens when something is novel, unusual, surprising, interesting. Otherwise, less is just less. The result is creative work that shouts for us to pay attention. But has nothing to say when we do. That’s not keeping it simple. That’s just stupid.

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