brand psychology

Three great brand tools come together.

3 great ideasImportant disciplines combine in a powerful branding approach.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing that familiar techniques and technologies can be sparked by a catalyst arriving at the right moment. Not only does the time have to be technically right, but the intellectual and cultural environment needs to be open to the opportunities.

The three branding disciplines I’m thinking about are semiotics, grounded theory and big data.


Semiotics provides us with an approach based upon cultural and societal meanings and the signs and signifiers that point to them. Currently there is a movement to understand emotional significance rather than declarative knowledge about brands and how deeper meanings are embedded in the brand narrative.

A semiotic approach to branding and brand development needs an analytic understanding of the cultural environment that a brand and its consumers inhabit. We need to discern the history, myths, metaphors and symbols that shape the consumers’ world and behaviour.

The major challenge has been the difficulty in finding our way into the data. As much of the meaning is unconscious, traditional research using primary survey techniques is not effective. Asking for views and opinions is of little value as people won’t or can’t answer truthfully – this is not because they want to mislead, but they honestly can’t access those deeper meaning.

Grounded Theory

This is where grounded theory comes in. Grounded theory is a very different qualitative approach. Rather than beginning with a series of questions we are looking for answers to, we approach the data without a theory. It is an ethnographic approach collating all the data we can from the environment. This may include published information, commentary from the media surrounding the subject, observation of the environment and practices, visual images, perhaps video, film and advertising, historical data, songs – in fact the whole cultural tapestry.

What the practitioner is looking for are patterns – recurrences of structures across a wide range of data. There is no pre-conceived theory but we are looking for codes and meanings that are emergent from the data.

As you can imagine, sourcing and amassing the masses of data necessary and then applying meaningful analysis can be a daunting and very labour-intensive task. This was the case in the past, but now we have the final piece in the jigsaw – big data.

Big Data

It is now possible to access amazing volumes of data from a mass of sources – textual, visual and auditory. Equally importantly there are now the analytical tools to process and understand the data – to look for those illusive and emergent codes and recurrences. One of the significant advantages of ‘big-data’ is its cultural richness.

Bringing together these three threads provides us with an approach to branding which allows us access to deep emotional understanding. We can get to grips with the deep meanings that drive the human essence of markets.


Do I know you? How brands use your expectations to open you up.

The Rolls RazorWhenever you encounter a familiar brand your expectations are triggered, based upon your past experience. Your subsequent encounter is not fresh and objective but is directed by your previous understanding. Two levels of processing are involved here – ‘bottom up’ processing, the product of this individual episode and the information the brand is communicating, and ‘top-down’ processing based upon your expectations and prior experience. This latter processing operates at an emotional level and is all the more powerful for that.

This top-down processing need  not be based upon direct experience – it can be hi-jacked by similar, if inaccurate memories.  Unscrupulous brand owners use such tactics as using similar sounding names, colour schemes or logos to those of famous brands – those this is merely passing off and rarely lasts beyond the first purchase. Then it is replaced by disappointment and anger.

However, a legitimate and useful tactics for new brands is often to adopt a brand name that ‘sounds right’ – something that triggers expectations at a deeper level and predisposes the acceptance of the ‘bottom-up’ experience.

National characteristics are quite often a start for this. Lagers may choose a Scandinavian sounding name for example. It is a short cut to priming our presumptions. Many mens’ toiletries brands string together a pair of upper-class English sounding names – ‘Mountjoy and French’ or ‘Fairfax and Jarvis’. Fashion brands take a quick shortcut by selecting an Italian, French or British name, depending upon their selected brand positioning.

The name sounds like something we know – something we can understand and our memory brings a whole host of assumptions. A teacher friend of mine had great problems choosing names for her children, because so many names brought a lot of emotional baggage from experiences with children she had taught at some time.

This is fairly basic stuff, and not particularly sophisticated, the important point is to understand what is happening in the mind of the customer. In whatever experiential situation we find ourselves the mind tries to make sense of it. We never truly come with a blank slate. Cognitive processing is powerfully directed by what we expect to experience as much as inputs from the situation.

Brand communication must understand and utilise these fast first impressions and emotions incorporated in them. By the time the declarative knowledge has been imparted, processed and absorbed, the internal emotional expectations are deeply impressed.

Subliminal branding back in the spotlight?

SUBLIMINAL BRANDINGCan recent studies with subliminal branding be of practical use for today’s brands? I would suggest a very cautious, ‘yes’. Not that we should all rush out and start hiding messages in our communications collateral, just that we should better understand the things most of us do naturally.

Some of you may remember Vance Packard’s ‘The Hidden Persuaders‘ published back in 1957. It caused quite a stir then, though many of its findings have since been questioned and a few discredited. However, recent experiments have suggested that brands can influence customers at an unconscious level. Roger Dooley has an interesting overview of some of the studies on Forbes.

Despite the popular ballyhoo, the underlying concept is not surprising. Some studies with patients suffering from prosopagnosia (an inability to recognise faces) suggested that even when they could not recognise a familiar face, there was low-level brain activity, but insufficient to trigger the neural transmitters to send a signal of recognition.

For years, brand communicators have known that it is important to keep your message and brand imagery in the public’s eye as much as possible, and across as many channels and modalities as you can. These recent findings simply underline the fact that this time-proven strategy works at both conscious and subconscious level.

How to make them love your brand – the emotional dimension of branding.

heartIt’s generally accepted that we engage with brands and make choices on two levels: the pragmatic or declarative level and the emotional level. But the importance of the emotional level is often underestimated.

Our primary processing of any experience (including a brand experience) is at a visceral level, often described as pre-wired and subconscious; next we process at a behavioural level – how it functions and our own interaction. Thirdly, we consider it at a reflective level – how it makes us feel and in terms of our broader life experiences. (After Don Norman)

These early stages of experience fall into the category of passive involvement processing (PIP). We don’t consciously process, we feel.

Later stages of brand choice use active involvement processing (AIP), where we consider and weigh alternatives and make what we believe are rational, objective decisions. The truth is that we have probably made our emotional choices already using PIP and are now only justifying those decisions.

Much of the work done with brands is done at the rational level because this is most amenable to communications and persuasion. Facts and information can be communicated with the object of influencing rational choice using the subject’s pragmatic AIP. However, by this stage decisions, prejudices and choices are likely to be already deeply embedded.

So, how do we appeal at that passive emotional level?

It is not easy, but understanding those primitive emotions may help point the way. Early man liked people like himself. There is a functional advantage to this, your own family group and tribe represent safety in a potentially violent world. Approaching strangers could be a risky activity – so he would seek out those he knew, those who looked like him, sounded like him and smelled like him. He wanted to feel comfortable with those who shared his values.

Our brand choice is similarly driven – we choose brands with which we feel comfortable, which match our values and our lifestyle. The key word for the brand steward is ‘empathy’. It is important to be in touch with the emotional forces at work in the audience. No at a shallow level that can be talked to, but at deep level that can be felt.

It needs a real understanding of the person the brand wants to share with – understanding their values, desires and fears. The brand steward must seek to build an holistic picture of the subject and also of the brand. The objective is to analyse the touch points, where must the brand values be perfectly in tune with those of the audience – empathy.


1. Get to really understand your audiences emotional needs. Marketers are good at understanding and satisfying physical needs, but for your brand to touch people you need to  recognise their deeper emotions, desires, aspirations, needs and fears. Use archetypes, create lifestyle boards – anything to help your insight.

2. Analyse your brand values. Be honest. It’s easy to pay lip-service to all the values we believe we should have – but what are the core values that we hold true? Better still, ask others – clients, suppliers, friends – a quick survey will be priceless.

3. Match up the touch points – this is where you can build.

4. Don’t force it. Sometimes there are circles you just cannot square. For example, perhaps customers are small independent retailers who are uncomfortable with and scared of big suppliers. If you are a large organization, don’t try to fake it. Either look for other emotional convergence that you can build on or admit that perhaps you are trying to connect with the wrong audience. Or maybe you need to restructure. The point about emotion is it’s deep and visceral – and above all, must be honest.

B2B brand benefits are relative.

Brand values and more importantly, brand values, are not always the same throughout the marketing chain.

Some years ago I was pitching for a project for a major retail brand, when I realised how crucial our own brand reputation was. We had clearly demonstrated we could deliver the ideal solution; our product knowledge, understanding and research was spot on; timescales were realistic and prices very competitive. However, we lost the business to a competitor with a stronger brand who we were sure had far less product knowledge, fewer in-house specialists and would certainly be much more expensive.


What we had failed to grasp was that the brand benefits of a supplier are specific to the customer you are dealing with. We were negotiating with a middle range line manager. Of course he shared the corporate ambitions, but also had a personal agenda that meant he needed to be sure he would look good in front of his boss and not suffer too badly if the supplier did not perform.

He chose a ‘bigger’ brand. There used to be a saying many years ago, that: ‘Nobody got sacked for specifying IBM’. There was a safety factor behind the brand.

The lesson for all businesses is to understand the priorities throughout the marketing chain. What may be key benefits for the end-user may not be top of the list for the distributor or retailer. Of course all the benefits are components of the brand offer. If a brand is to sustain that offer in-depth it must satisfy all stakeholders. However, it is important to understand and communicate the relative benefits to each of the individual parties.

You have a chain of customers each with their own focus, and customers only listen to one radio station – WIIFM – ‘What’s in it for me’.

Can the Barclays’ brand change cultural values by changing structures?

Barclays logoBarclays’ new CEO Antony Jenkins, is undertaking an admirable strategic overhaul of the way the brand does business and hopefully in its longterm public perception.

He talks about changing culture and practices – practices are fairly straightforward, pragmatic things to change. Little wonder that systems-based organisations begin there. You can plan, implement, monitor and measure. To what extent changes to practices affect culture is far more difficult to assess. Tackling corporate and brand cultures head-on is far more difficult.

Cultural changes do not necessarily follow changes in practice – where practices are pragmatic, cultures are emotional.

A few years ago I worked on a project for a major high street bank (not a brand job), and the management proudly explained the measures they had put in place to become a ‘real customer-focused organisation.’ However, when talking to staff it did not need in-depth discourse analysis to show that the new systems had not had a major impact upon culture. New customers were described in bulk as ‘feed stock’, and when asked to explain their jobs, many people would begin with: ‘Suppose Mrs Miggins needs a… ‘

I wish Anthony Jenkins well. Full marks for recognising the seriousness of the issue. I shall watch with interest however the way the organisation deals with the emotional dimensions of cultural values and the measures put in place to assess them.

Make the most of the five ‘E’s of branding.

The five 'e's of brand experienceBrand experience is all about the interaction between the brand and its public. While we all remember the four ‘P’s of the marketing mix (though I’ve seen up to 11 at the last count!) – the crucial dimensions of brand interaction are the five ‘E’s.


– interactions need engagement. The more people engage the greater the opportunity for interaction. Smart brands maximise engagement. Product, literature, advertising, communications, customer service and online connections – all present chances to interact.


– the goal of any brand should be excellence in its chosen arena. Excellent product, customer service, processes – each touch-point should be the best we can make it.


– we see more brand disasters arise from unethical dealings. This is all about poor brand values and bad leadership. A sound brand should deal openly and honestly with its customers, suppliers, employees and the world in general. People are far more likely to forgive incompetence or poor service than they are unethical business practices.

Emotional attachment

– much of our attachment to brands is emotional (though we try to convince ourselves it is pragmatic). It is intangible, but we should recognise it as a core brand strength, deeply embedded in brand values. Apple, for example, has a loyal following who simply love the brand – it is difficult to analyse, but the company does seem to understand it and builds on the values it embodies.


– as with ‘engagement’, the points of interaction are points of experience. Whether it is visiting a store or a website, opening a brochure or a package or using a product – there is a user experience. Our entire understanding of the world is based primarily upon our sensory and emotional experience of it. Brands such as Starbucks understand this – it is not just about the product (which lest’s face it is just a cup of coffee), but the whole experience of the store, the environment. It is about all the senses, visual, auditory, olfactory  and tactile.

Facebook revisited

I recently posted a piece speculating what floatation might mean for Facebook. At that time my view was that the brand’s biggest asset was its followers, many of whom had an irrational, emotional attachment. Many of these fans were likely to want a slice of the business in the same way that football fans buy shares to take a stake in their club. My concern then was that businesses must change their nature once they replace entrepreneurial flair with accountancy expertise, and it is difficult to avoid alienating that big fan base – the vital brand asset.

Though it did not take a financial genius to assess that the valuation was way overstated, I guessed that the fan base would not be too concerned as their emotional attachment would justify the premium.

Unfortunately we did not foresee murky waters through which the IPO would float. When your biggest asset is the unconditional regard of your stakeholders the potential for damage if you are seen to hold them in contempt is huge.

It was always going to be a difficult line to follow, but it was a shock to see such problems so soon.

It remains to be seen what the long-term impact will be for the brand. With the arena becoming increasingly crowded, there are plenty of other harbours for the disaffected to shelter until the storm blows over. I’m sure Facebook is hoping for better weather and very soon.

Is it time to bring behaviourism back into strategies?

In the golden age of 1950’s advertising, the Mad Men days, one of the driving disciplines was psychology. It was the new kid on the marketing block, driven by two factors. Firstly, there was the development of sophisticated measurement techniques. This grew out of academic research methods and was translated into the new discipline of market research. The second was the rise of behaviourism. B.F. Skinner put the discipline firmly on the map and marketers saw the possibility not only to measure behaviour but also to influence it.

It was little wonder the new ‘science’ was embraced by the young marketing industry – brand owners loved it. However there were new kids on both blocks. Cognitive methods were overtaking behaviourism and in advertising we were seeing the ascendency of the creative and the media specialist.

Today, we hear a good deal about engagement, interaction, community building and networking. The growth of social Internet for business and for brands in particular, has been about engaging with audiences. We have powerful new tools and seductive disciplines. But perhaps it is time to dust off the old tomes on behaviourism. What is the point in engaging if we cannot influence behaviour?

Of course we do have tools to measure behaviour – sales figures, market share, footfall and more. My concern is that the link between engagement activity and end behaviour is getting lost in the smoke and steam of technology.

A lecturer on my undergraduate psychology course, who described himself as an unashamed, radical behaviourist, used the acronym ABC – antecedent-behaviour-consequence. First, something happens, then it stimulates certain behaviour, and in turn there is a resultant consequence. Perhaps it is time to employ this simple rule of thumb when planning our brand engagement strategies, and measuring their effectiveness.

  • What are we planning?
  • What behaviour do we expect to follow?
  • What will be the consequence of that behaviour (a) for the audience – how will they benefit, and (b) for the brand.

Importantly, will that consequence reinforce the behaviour and encourage its repetition?

Who would play your brand in the movie?

A quick snapshot of brand personality – start casting your brand movie.

For a couple of decades now, I have used the brand-as-person model when working with clients, to help them get to grips with the intangible issues of brand and corporate personality. We all saw the recent findings from Interbrand, that people like brands the way they like friends – nothing surprising there. But perhaps a more accessible way of approaching it is to think of casting your brand’s movie.

The great advantage this approach has is that it makes you think of your brand’s story – you can look at it as a narrative of screenplay. Every story must have a hero or heroine – your brand. Who would you cast? Then think about what qualities that actor would bring to the role – the qualities and values you would want for your brand. Robert DeNiro would bring very different qualities to Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry or Kenneth Branagh. So what are those values and why are they important to the brand?

Let’s go a stage further: now you have your hero – what about the rest of the cast? We usually have a villain in our brand story who would play them? What qualities would they bring and what competitive advantages does your hero have?

This approach is also useful get a snapshot of how your brand is viewed internally. Asking colleagues or staff to identify brand strengths and weaknesses is rarely productive. They may have an agenda, but there will certainly be demand characteristics in the question and the questioner. Asking others in the organisation to cast the role of the brand in a movie is much more innocent and less demanding. But it can also be very illuminating.