Alternative marketing thinking


Brands in the brain. The truth, like you never expected.

In an effort to reduce spillage in men’s urinals, authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess. But if you give them a target, they can’t help but try to hit it. Did it work? Since the bugs were etched into the airport urinals, spillage has decreased by 80 percent.

Admen have known this to be true. That human beings are nudgeable. This is why Apple users happily pay hundreds of dollars more for a computer that does pretty much exactly the same things that a Dell computer does. Despite knowing that our outlook on the world can be moulded by messages, subtle or harsh, no one can really tell us why such a thing really happens.

FutureLab points us to an experiment that Jim Edwards of Brandweek undertook to understand exactly how our brains work when it came to brands. He became a willing guinea pig and had his brain scanned by Joy Hirsch, director of the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Center at Columbia University, while viewing brands he liked and disliked. While he writes mostly about his personal experience, some of the results are exactly opposite of what most marketers and planners have believed.

The most striking parts of Jim Edward’s experience: My brain processed high-value brands on its left side, handling the low-value ones on the right. That’s not what one would expect, since the so-called left-brain is traditionally associated with conceptual processing and the right with emotions.

In my case, the high-value brands activated three areas: my left angular gyrus, left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and my left orbitofrontal gyrus. Those systems are associated with the extraction of meaning, conceptual organization and reward respectively. “I haven’t seen that before,” Hirsch said. “My curiosity is piqued by that.”

Mine, too. When it came to brands I dislike, I apparently really disliked them. My right insula – an internal fold just over an inch in length – is lit up like a runway. “Now, your brain isn’t that big, but it’s devoted on your right side to something where you’re saying, ‘That’s a low-value item for me,’” Hirsch explained. Worse, the insula is understood to handle feelings of disgust. “That is not a result to be trifled with,” Hirsch said.

And that’s the big surprise: These results are the exact opposite of the received marketing wisdom. I’m not, apparently, emotional about brands I like. Instead, my brain behaves like an antiques dealer sifting an estate sale for high-priced items. My emotional feelings – specifically disgust – are reserved for the brands I dislike. And I don’t merely ignore those brands like clutter; I process them through the area of my brain that helps me avoid rotten food and poisonous berries.

Read More in Good Magazine here. And in Brandweek, here.


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