How we buy and what this means for brands

Went to a fascinating workshop on neurosience and the implications for brands today. It was organised by Engine Decisions, and featured speakers from two of the leading research agencies in this field: decode and Neurosense.

1. How people really buy
Phil Barden from Decode explained how 90%+ of decisions we make everyday are done on auto-pilot. We use “implicit” thinking based on what we’ve learnt about the meaning of things. For example, you see a red light and you stop. You see pink of the Financial Times and you buy it. You see a Starbucks sign and stop for coffee. And so on. This sort of thinking is fast – 11mb to be precise, like broadband Internet!

In contrast, “explicit” thinking is slower: like old fashioned dial-up internet. Its when you start thinking about stuff. Analysing. This thinking uses much more energy. And so our brain’s do as little of it as possible. We have “lazy brains”

2. What this means for brands
First, this reminds us what brands are for. Their primary role is to help us buy quickly, easily and confidently, at least in the world of consumer goods and services. Not to create an emotional bond. Not to make you fall in love with them. No, to help you do your shopping.

Second, this learning gives scientific backing to the importance of brand properties such as logos, colours, characters, music and slogans. These properties become established in our brains in the form of “memory structure”, allowing our lazy brains to stay in auto-pilot. We buy our favourite brands intuitively, almost without thinking.

This is also why radically changing pack design is risky. I posted about Tropicana getting this wrong here. When you have established strong visual equities that help people find you on shelf, changing these means people can no longer buy on auto-pilot. They stop buying and start thinking. And then you’re in trouble. They might see that new competitor, or that nice looking own label product they had never noticed.

3. What this means for qual research
This learning confirms that “over-exposing” consumers to marketing and asking them what they “think” is flawed, as it engages explicit thought, not auto-pilot reaction. This is especially the case with pack design. After more than a few minutes, or even seconds, consumers turn into marketing directors. They comment on details they would never normally notice, such as the typeface or the meaning of certain symbols.

This is why I now recommend doing more “15 minute focus groups”, where people are quickly exposed to stuff like packaging and asked for feedback. This way you have more chance of getting auto-pilot feedback. Ethnography also works well, where you follow and film people in their everyday lives. We did this on out-of-home coffee. It showed how the cup, saucer and froth on a cappuccino are as or more important than the coffee itself.

4. What this means for quant research
Phil explained how classic quant for brand image tracking and comms testing encourage consumers to use explicit thinking not their autopilot. By getting people to react more quickly when asked image questions you can get a truer read on what is really in their heads. Neurosense go even further and do brain scans to see which bits of your brain are activated by different types of marketing. This gives clues as to whether your marketing is likely to create Recognition, liking, empathy and memory encoding.

In conclusion, we should remember the primary role of brands is to help us buy easily, quickly and confidently. Creating and enhancing brand properties is key to helping brands fulfil this role. And have a look at all that money you’re spending on research to see how much is using peoples’ explicit, logical thinking instead of their autopilot. There’s a good chance its more than the 10% of our daily decisions that are made in this way.

If you want to contact Phil he’s at: