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Rethinking How To Appeal To Consumers Using Cognitive Science   

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Three ways to use science-based tactics to redefine brands and persuade consumers to embrace them.

Marketers have long been attempting to sell their brands to consumers on the basis of product differentiation. Surprisingly, this often does not work. So, savvy marketers are now turning to the cognitive sciences to understand exactly how the brain works and leveraging that knowledge to forge conscious and subconscious connections with consumers. This cutting-edge approach enables marketers to engage consumers more viscerally. The result: the creation of truly iconic brands.  

Now, success in branding means aligning the brands to consumers’ innate instincts—those formed from the hidden biases and beliefs assimilated by the brain over a lifetime of experiences and aspirations. And when that alone is not enough, the challenge of recoding consumers’ brains and laying down new wiring to enable them to accept your brand comes down to finding ways to trigger the deliberative processes within the brain.  

Importantly, with new information to draw on from cognitive sciences, marketers have discovered that many old branding methods are ineffective. For instance, scare tactics, like those often used in anti-smoking or substance misuse campaigns, can trigger the very behavior they’re designed to prevent. Despite the hype around increasing market competition, consumer attention span is not getting shorter; in fact, subconsciously it is as long as ever before. Additionally, marketers that can re-imagine their brands around the stories that consumers want to tell can create lasting bonds with them.  

This new cadre of marketers employ science-based marketing tactics to persuade consumers to embrace their brands.  

1. Don’t just think about product features—think about consumer empathy and values.

Traditionally, branding has been all about understanding how your product’s features and benefits are different from those of competitors and then marketing the heck out of them. But now, there is something new going on.  

Brands, like Unilever’s Dove soap, did their highly successful “Real Beauty” campaign without ever mentioning their soap, let alone how it is different. P&G’s “Always” sanitary pads formed a bond around a sense of confidence with their consumers with their “Like a Girl” campaign by tapping into the angst that women feel at being told how they are lesser than men in different walks of life. These brands did not play into functional and emotional benefits like traditional brands do. Instead they built what is called a “brand with empathy.” 

On the other side of the coin, Ben & Jerry’s, one of the leading ice cream companies, has built a “brand with values” by championing various social causes including criminal justice reform and expanded voting rights. Imagine doing that versus talking about how great your ice-cream is like every other competing brand! 

2. Go with the flow—build brands that make sense instinctively. 

The simplest way to build strong brands is not by trying to implant new ideas in consumers’ brains, but rather by going along with the beliefs and biases they already have. After all, each of us has our own rules to live by (beliefs) that have been forged over a lifetime of personal experiences. We also have fantasies and aspirations. Brands that tap into these existing ideas win by going along with the flow. 

Take, for example, this in-group bias: we all want to belong to special clubs to be closer to those we like or admire and be distant from those we don’t. Guinness & Co. tapped exactly into this sentiment with their “Made of More” campaign in a series of ads where they showed how their loyal beer drinkers were a breed apart, always willing to go the extra mile for their friends or wait longer for the good things in life. Psychologists have uncovered tens of such subconscious biases that we humans share, often across the globe, that marketers can leverage to make their own epic brands.  

3. Rewire the brain, with extreme value, reframing and de-risking. 

Sometimes, when your product is change-the-world innovative, going along with the flow is not an option. Marketers must then get consumers to rewire their brains and form new buying habits. In this case they have to make their brand make sense to consumers through the process of deliberation.   

In today’s hypercompetitive world, they can do this by offering extreme, smack-in-your-face value to stand out. One common way to do so is to provide free offers until consumers learn that your brand is the sensible choice. WhatsApp initially gained traction in the market by using this tactic. It offered free texting at a time when most telecom companies required a charge for every SMS. Uber has done this by proving rides at below cost, losing billions of dollars over the years.   

In some cases, even though the value of a brand is understood, consumers are reluctant to buy the associated products or services because of the “what if something goes wrong” factor. Two approaches resolve such uncertainty: confronting it head on or taking baby steps to adoption.  

Pharma companies sometime employ “confront reality” messaging to show consumers what could happen if they don’t elect to use their product. Now that research has shown that fear stimulus elicits a fight-or-flight response, these marketers adopt a measured “scare tactic lite” approach. For instance, commercials for Xarelto, a drug by Janssen to prevent blood clots, speak about how wonderful it is that the awful things that could have happened were averted by taking the drug.    

In other instances, consumers may not see the value in your brand unless you help them think about it within a specific context. Giving them a new way to think about your brand by reframing it puts the brand in a new light that consumers understand.   

For example, De Beers, the diamond company, came up with the “Women of the World, Raise Your Right Hand” campaign that enticed women to buy a ring for themselves. It reframed diamond purchases as something beyond a man’s purview, and gave DeBeers permission to move from the left hand only to the right also, doubling its potential market.     

While each of the methods for conveying a brand’s value proposition invites consumers to look more critically at your brand, it becomes essential to state not just the what of the brand (brand strategy), but the how of it (brand execution). Keep in mind that any approach must work to counter consumers’ inherent biases and neural shortcuts.  


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