The three neuroscientific laws of effective brand building

June 16, 2012

Unions have brands. Brands are the set of mental and emotional associations that make up the perception in the mind of members, non-members, other unions, and the community about the union’s “personality” and promise. The concept of “union” has a brand — the promise of better pay and conditions and the mixture of positive and negative associations — and individual unions have brands — think the distinctive red of the Australian Education Union or the media driven image of the AWU.

Ideally, every union should have someone who’s role it is to worry about the union’s brand — someone in the leadership group, such as the secretary, assistant secretary or a senior official with communications responsibilities. A union’s brand is one of the union’s assets, as valuable as its membership database or any of the tangible assets like buildings. A union with a poor brand image will struggle to recruit new members and retain existing ones. They will find media coverage hard to get, or negative when the coverage does come.

Ultimately, the union can try to shape their brand, but it really exists in the minds of others.

There are any number of books on branding and the “laws” of branding. Most of these are rhetorical laws rather than based in science. This is because branding is a social science — it’s lessons are mostly in the form of parable-like statements that are non-falsifiable and thus only useful in a general sense.

Researcher Tjaco Walvis, in The Journal of Brand Management, attempts to take that on, trying to link the “hard” science of neurobiology with the “soft” science of brand management.

He cites some previous research. A research team gave a test group money and recorded their response of purchasing behaviour under an fMRI scanner. “One finding was that the price of a product or service almost literally produces a pain response in the brain. The researchers inferred by these findings that credit cards may ‘anaesthetise’ consumers against the pain of paying. A credit card alleviates this pain by postponing the physical payment—thus decoupling the pain from the purchase moment. This explains the microeconomic anomaly that consumers tend to overspend and undersave when using credit cards instead of cash.”

Another study looked at the brain when the respondent performed altruistic actions such as a charitable donation. The study found that an altruistic act “generates the same brain response as obtaining a financial reward and that altruism tied to abstract moral beliefs relies on parts of the brain that are uniquely developed in humans (ie the anterior prefrontal cortex). Such studies explain why we perform such acts, even though they provide no direct personal benefit and sometimes bear a personal cost.”

A third example that shows the importance of brands had blind taste tests of cola, and found that half the test subjects preferred Pepsi over Coke despite the similar taste. However, when the brands were revealed and the subjects had to choose which cola to buy, two-thirds chose Coke. This experiment “illustrates the power of brand associations: functional preferences (taste) can be overridden by brand preferences, retrieved from long-term memory at the moment of choice, influencing the final decision in favour of one brand at the cost of another.”

Walvis links neurobiology and branding through the bridge of memory, and he argues that there are three neuroscientific laws of branding. To summarise Walvis’s “laws”, they are:

  1. Get your brand into the mind (“get noticed”)
  2. Get your brand top of mind (“be relevant”)
  3. Get your brand to be consistent (“repeat yourself”)

Law 1: The more engaging the branding environment that is created, the more likely the brand will be chosen

To win the battle for awareness, brands must create as many synaptic connections as possible between choice criteria and the brand name and within their own association network. We call this a rich network of synaptic links. Richer association networks are formed in the brain as a result of richer, participatory environments that induce a more elaborate or a more comprehensive processing of brand stimuli. Richer environments are settings with a higher propensity to arouse curiosity and to create engagement and participation.

Brands that induce motivated attention by making us curious or by better tempting their customers to try, play, practice, learn, exercise, adapt, interact or socialise with them are more likely to win the battle for awareness and be chosen. This is the law of participation. Again, there are many ways in which brands can create participation in practice. The law of participation does not stipulate what way should be chosen; it merely states that brands creating participation (in whichever way) increase their chance of being chosen. For instance, brands may seek to reach customers with richer media and more intriguing, engaging forms that create interaction, involvement and dialogue (within constraints such as brand fit, budget, reach, etc). In practice, brands must develop a participation strategy that balances richness with reach (the number of people contacted), as richness and reach often form a trade-off

Law 2: The higher the distinctive relevance of branding efforts, the more likely the brand will be chosen

Increasing the probability a brand is chosen requires associating it more strongly and uniquely with elements that are of personal significance to the customer at the moment of decision-making (ie primary choice cues). This is the law of distinctive relevance. An element is relevant to the degree it is used by customers as a cue for activating brand names at the moment of choice and for evaluating brand performance.

Brands may also be able to influence the cues people use. Empirical evidence shows that what is relevant for customers can vary between individuals and, for the same individual, between different occasions. Typically, however, primary choice cues include product category, sub-category, functional and symbolic attributes, use occasion, self and user image and combinations of these.

 Law 3: The higher the coherence of branding efforts across time and space, the more likely the brand will be chosen

Ensuring a front position in the consideration set requires repetition of a specific, relevant core message for the brand. This is the law of coherence. … Repetition is needed to create strong synaptic connections with choicecriteria, which in turn is required for increasing cortical representation probability, which in turn is required for becoming top of mind at the moment of choice. Specificity is necessary because specific messages are much more likely to repeatedly reactivate the same connections and hence strengthen them—thus improving the brand’s cortical representation probability. Moreover, communicating many messages at the same time or in subsequent campaigns over the years creates confusion at best and contradiction at worst, resulting in negative emotions such as aversion and dissonance. Negative emotions may produce a cascade of inhibitory signals across the association network, thus decreasing the probability that the brand is activated and evaluated positively. Even if such a brand is strongly activated, we note that in the competition for awareness and a top position at the choice moment, it is at a disadvantage versus brands that are less or not at all impeded by inhibiting and memory-repressing inconsistencies.

Coherence in branding policy through time and space (ie across physical touch points such as advertising, point-of-sale materials, products, new product development, packaging, websites, etc) is compulsory from a neurological standpoint. In contrast, incoherence is a recipe for diminishing the brand’s chance of being chosen and for destroying its financial value. Incoherence (whether purposefully, unintentionally or through the lack of leadership) is a ‘Bonsai’ strategy. It keeps the brand small compared to its actual market potential (like the Japanese art of tree miniaturisation).

Take aways

Branding is important for unions because unions must contend for the attention of members and potential members in a very crowded public sphere. Potential members have significant choice when deciding whether to join — they can decide not to join! Existing members can also decide to end their membership or (in some cases) change unions. A strong brand helps build the loyalty of existing members and boosts the organising and recruitment activities of organisers. A strong brand builds awareness of the union, its story and its campaigns.

When thinking of your communications, organising and campaigns, ask these questions about every piece of material or communication activity:

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