Decision making about brands is a continuing conundrum for marketers and being present in the consumer’s memory enhances the probability that my brand will get chosen.
Under what circumstances will my brand become the unconscious automatic choice for the customer in the category? Decision making is triggered when we are exposed to stimuli combined with a felt need. 'I am running out of detergent and my child needs fresh clothes for her school. So, I need to buy the detergent.' The more deeply embedded in the consumers’ memory that my brand of detergent is, the more likely it is that it will get selected.
We as humans are the sum total of our conscious and unconscious memories. Brands depend on being a part of our memory; the more deeply embedded in the memory, the more likely it is to get recalled and the better off is the brand.
Our memories in the brain are both conscious and unconscious; these memories come into play when choosing a brand and when engaging with a brand. Powerful memory creation in the brain requires following some rules such as repetition (varied and chunking), meaning before detail, emotional engagement, and getting enough sleep.
The most powerful brands are those that are the most deeply embedded in our unconscious memories in addition to being present in the conscious memory. Unconscious memories can influence consideration and choice without conscious thought!
Coke and Pepsi taste test
A study that investigated the difference in branding between Coca-Cola and Pepsi found that when the two drinks were blind-tasted there was no difference in consumer preference between the brands. Both drinks produced equal activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is thought to be activated because the taste is rewarding. When the subjects were informed of the brand names the consumers preferred Coke, and only Coke activated the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, suggesting that drinking the Coke brand is rewarding beyond simply the taste itself.
More subjects preferred Coke when they knew it was Coke than when the taste testing was anonymous, which demonstrates the power of branding to influence consumer behavior. There was also significant activation in the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when subjects knew they were drinking Coke. These brain structures are known to play a role in memory and recollection, which indicates they are helping the subjects to connect their present drinking experience to previous brand associations.
The study proposes that there are two separate processes contributing to consumer decision making: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex responds to sensory inputs and the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex recall previous associations to cultural information. According to the results of this study, the Coke brand has much more firmly established itself as a rewarding experience. And is more deeply embedded in the unconscious memory and is able to influence liking and preference. This reaffirms not only the importance of branding, but also shows that the contents of memory influence perceptions about and reactions to a brand. Why was Coke better received? Why did it evoke the response and feelings that it did? Coke through a combination of brand communication and consumer experiences created a stronger memory trace in the brain and Coke was, thus, more deeply embedded in the emotional memory of the customer than Pepsi, at least for the set of respondents in this study.
A lot of consumer research is devoted to studying the effect of brand associations on consumer preferences and how this association is reflected through brand memories. Brand memories can be defined as “everything that exists in the minds of customers with respect to a brand (e.g. thoughts, feelings, experiences, images, perceptions, beliefs and attitudes).” And, therefore, an important goal of a brand marketer is to get into the unconscious memories of the target consumer. A significant part of unconscious memory can be described as procedural memories -- these can be thought of as rituals, parts of the culture that induces automatic behaviors on the part of consumers. In India, having sweets is a part of our collective culture during auspicious occasions, during happy moments, during celebrations like weddings and birthdays. It is a procedural memory that most Indians use with little or no conscious thought.
Cadbury’s has very nicely utilized its campaign of “Kuch Meetha ho Jai” to get into the procedural memories of its customers… so that under conditions requiring sweets as the unconscious behavior, the consumer chooses Cadburys rather than the more traditional Indian mithai that people would have otherwise bought!
The question, therefore, arises as to what are the actions by marketers that can enhance the probability of getting into the unconscious memory of consumers.
Communications and products that fit into existing patterns in the brains of consumers while simultaneously providing a contrast will work well; something that is emotionally engaging will more readily get into memory. Repetition over time with a variation in the pattern of repetition also works to get more efficiently into the memory.
Brand marketers, therefore, need to design and test their design of products, communications, packaging and other marketing interventions to see which is more likely to get into memory efficiently and for a longer time.
Prof. Arvind Sahay is a senior faculty member of marketing at IIM Ahmedabad and the Chairperson of NSE Centre of Behavioral Science. He has recently also authored the book ‘Brands and the Brain: How to Use Neuroscience to Create Impactful Brands’.