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.┬á 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.