“Every brain researcher knows that our brains work in continuous interaction with our environment.” Dick Swaab is the author of the bestselling, influential book We Are Our Brain, which ties our identity and behavior directly to our brains. ‘Free will’ is, in his eyes, a relative detail.
Many people support this way of thinking. But there are also many people who disagree, such as the German philosopher Markus Gabriel. He opposes the prevailing neuro-fetishism: “We are not our brain.” According to Gabriel, we are free because we are living beings with a spirit.
A good middle ground is likely a combination of brain, heart and spirit. Our brain may not be the only factor, but it can be seen as a key factor in the decision-making process. Like the choices we make when buying products and developing brand preferences. It is therefore important to study the brain’s role in the context of brands and digital transformation.
Welcome, homo psychologicus
Neuromarketing is a relatively new discipline that has commonly been associated with the pioneer Daniel Kahneman. He rejected the idea of the rational, calculating human and introduced the idea of the human psyche into economics. For that theory, he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1972. Previously, economists assumed humans to be ‘homo oeconomicus’, who act in their own regard and think about their actions in a rational and calculated manner. Kahneman demonstrated that people make systematic mistakes this way. He introduced the ‘homo psychologicus’, and studied the importance of context in decision-making. He discusses the tendency for choices to be made in isolation and how, when the same choice is presented in a different way (called ‘framing’), an entirely different outcome results. Our brains, it seems, process information using multiple factors that can have a disproportionate effect on our choices.
Sifting through the rubbish
Another role model that has shaken up the marketing world is Byron Sharp. Through a large-scale research project, he destroyed the myth of brand loyalty: retaining customers is cheaper than attracting new customers (2). According to Sharp, growth can be achieved via new customers, and penetration is more important than retention: “NPS is rubbish,” he says, “and is not an accurate predictor of growth.” On the basis of his results, Sharp concludes that the physical and mental availability of a brand are the critical success factors for brand growth.
Physical availability means that it must be easy to purchase a product. The more situations and places in which the product is available, the easier it is for the consumer to purchase it. For fast-moving consumer goods, it is important for the product to be in stock and available in all geographic regions.
Mental availability (brand salience) is the extent to which the consumer thinks about a brand in a purchasing situation. It is important that the customer already considers the product a valid choice. The product must be mentally available for as many customers in as many purchasing situations as possible. Sharp looks to the future and calls for a scientific approach to the discipline. “It is not about the digital revolution, it’s really about the scientific revolution.”
NPS is rubbish.Byron Sharp
Breaking the molds
These are fresh ideas in a digital world, in which we have done away with mass communication and have created new sacred, seemingly unbreakable laws of design. Take the creation of personas, for example. Digital creatives and marketers can’t imagine a world without this activity. But in light of neuroscience, and role models such as Kahneman and Sharp, this activity has little importance. At most, it is a support mechanism in the design process. Evidence-Based Marketing is the much more useful approach (3).
From this description of the neuromarketing discipline and its heroes, let’s take a fresh look at the keys to successful digital transformation.
Adjusting the perspective
What is needed to develop a successful digital service for a brand? To answer this question, it is useful to make a distinction between the different dimensions of a brand:
• Brand identity: Who do you want to be?
• Brand promise: What do you promise?
• Brand execution: What do you do?
• Brand image: How do others perceive you?
Brand image is the perception of the brand in the brains of customers and prospects. The brand image is shaped by the direct and indirect experiences with the brand, and communications about it, in the past and present. In fact, the image is a set of associations and memories. The brain, once again, feeds our preferences.
It’s important to have a good understanding of the brand image if you want to increase the success of digital transformations. With this perspective, we can decide in advance if digital developments fit with – and actually strengthen – the brand. That’s how we decide on the right brand fit for new digital innovations.
We can determine the current brand image through interviews with consumers or other forms of opinion research. However, the results of these traditional methods do not give a complete or trustworthy impression. Answers on the basis of conscious memories are not very trustworthy, and are linked to a diverse set of (cognitive) biases, such as the so-called ‘availability heuristic’. When evaluating choices, our brains take a ‘short cut’ to things that are already familiar.
So, traditional research is good at providing some insight into past purchases. But they are often not good predictors of future behavior. Traditional research tends to breed assumptions. Thus, ‘brand loyalty’ becomes the best indicator of growth. Except that it isn’t.
Getting inside their heads
To get a better and more robust view of brand image, we therefore need to add other measuring techniques to the mix. Specifically, implicit techniques. Implicit research is customer research about consumers’ subconscious drivers, associations, emotions and motivations. ‘Semantic & affective priming’, ‘choice modeling’ and the ‘Implicit Association Test’ are some of the techniques that can be applied to measure brand image. These kinds of tests can reveal the strength of respondents’ feelings by measuring how stimuli affect their mental processing speed and accuracy. They allow a peek into the brains of our target audiences.
This is the true power of implicit research techniques. Using neuroscience and psychology, we actually ‘get inside our customers minds’ and uncover their true, hidden desires and preferences. And only then can we design with impact.
A new digital service must – at the very least – maintain the brand image. Often it must strengthen that image. In some cases, it must change the brand’s direction. Before embarking on such an important mission, be sure you’re headed in the right direction. Implicit techniques are ultimately suitable for not only developing new services, but also monitoring them. It’s like having a direct line into the minds of consumers, with which to constantly adjust and adapt your offering. Best of all, implicit techniques are easy to implement online, on all devices. They are highly practical, and distribution is easy, scalable and repeatable for large groups of respondents.
What can our brains handle?
Brand fit, the extent to which the new product or (digital) service is consistent with the brand image, determines success. But there is another important factor. How does our brain process innovations? Our brains automatically assess every object based on one of two criteria: is it known or is it new? Science uses the terms ‘familiarity’ and ‘novelty’. Familiarity is safe but boring, and can lead to a loss of customers if applied too often. Novelty stimulates curiosity but is risky. It can scare off existing buyers because it doesn’t fit with what they are used to. To arouse interest in our brain, there must be a balance between these two polar opposites.
The iPad is a very nice example of perfect familiarity/novelty balance. The hardware concept was exceptionally innovative, but the rounded-off corners, smooth feeling in the hand and control using various gestures – like pointing and tapping – were already very familiar and natural. Apple developed a perfect blend of familiarity that comforts, and novelty that excites.
The intersection of brand fit and innovation with familiarity and novelty creates the sweet spot for digital success. This sweet spot can be determined and monitored with implicit measuring methods. It’s an ideal situation for anticipating the risks, exploiting the successes and developing the influence of a brand.
When evaluating choices, our brains take a ‘short cut’ to things that are already familiar.
Old steps, new vision
So, how do we translate these insights into the human brain into logical steps for designing a digital service? It still takes a methodical approach. But as you determine your current brand image, you supplement desk research, interviews, existing research and analysis with implicit research that uncovers your customers’ hidden needs.
Then, determine the desired user experience of your new service, keeping a balance between familiarity and novelty. Based on that you can develop a zero measurement, create an implementation and communication strategy, and cultivate the new service.
Next, measure the change, again with implicit research. Monitor the added emotional value: what changes can we see in the brand image? Adapt and adjust if necessary, or add extra communication campaigns. Measure again and adjust again, if needed.
A familiar method, but note the important difference. Instead of starting only with assumptions and data about past behavior, you begin by unlocking the sub-conscious needs and desires of your target audience. You continue to return to these neurological touchpoints whenever you measure.
By tapping into this goldmine of information, your innovations will not only thrill your customers, but will keep you a step ahead of any competitors still relying on NPS, or other assumption-based solutions. Your ability to read customers’ minds, it turns out, is the true indicator of your ability to grow.
Figure 1 and 2 explain how to balance familiarity and novelty and how to define the potential and innovation strength in order to develop successful digital innovations.
Dynamic Design Magazine
This article is part of our Dynamic Design Magazine, Spring 2019. Download the complete magazine here. Do you want to continue the conversation about this article? Or are you interested in receiving a print edition of the magazine? Reach out to Mirabeau's Creative Director Henk Haaima.