Someone recently asked me why I chose to study Cognitive Neuroscience if ‘all I wanted to do was work in media’. Dumbfounded and bemused firstly at this person’s attempt to belittle an industry contributing over £100bn to the UK economy last year and secondly, because – whilst the title “cognitive neuroscience” is usually met with a look of terror and bewilderment, isn’t it obvious? People (and their brains) are fascinating.
In recent years, our understanding of people; their decision making, emotions, what drives certain behaviours has been sharpened with the use of scientific tools. We are now able to look deeper, navigating the depths of the subconscious brain in order to illuminate surprising human truths. However when it comes to brand planning, the art of a brand to communicate a message to its audience, a trick is being missed in using these truths to communicate with the highly sought after and captive audience. Instead, too much focus is placed on the explicit construction of a brand - the correct image, voice, mask, twitter hashtag, rather than how they are implicitly communicating with their audience.
We can understand ‘Implicit communication’ most simply as a brand’s ‘body language’, reflecting not what they say but what they do and the meaning behind what it is that they do. Whilst big loud brands may capture our short-lived (and nowadays partially attended, “dual screen anyone?”) attention, it is actually these implicit signals that are often stored subconsciously by you and I which greatly affect our feelings toward a brand and subsequently influence how we go about interacting with it and passing it onto our peers. In a world where the use of personalised media is frequently interchangeable with social life, these implicit messages are vital for a brands’ voice to set itself apart from the noise and stay present and relevant.
Increasingly, perhaps due to a backlash against more and more literature on advertising’s ability to persuade, brainwash and instil a hungry need for what-ever-it-is-they’re-selling, we are a sceptical bunch when it comes to advertising. Questions of “3rd party data immorality” and a “big brother-esque” portrayal of media mean that we are quick to jump to the defence over their apparent “effect” on us. For this reason, the unintended, unscripted unconscious signalling by a brand is far more powerful than its planned construction because they appear more honest. But why? Very broadly, we have 2 systems with which we operate under – system 2 (slow, analytical, effortful, rational, and conscious) and system 1 (unconscious, implicit, rapid, and emotional). Traditionally, advertising and marketing are firmly rooted in appealing to our rational system 2 by delivering highly persuasive, sales-driven and ‘memorable’ messaging. Whilst more recent work in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics reveal that we are actually far more driven by our emotional system 1 processes, these learnings need to be applied to brand planning in a more visible, tangible way. Associations, heuristics and a brand’s culture are more important to us than originally thought.
Signalling theory suggests that for brands to implicitly communicate in a successful way, they have to appear unplanned, unscripted and costly – a notion that goes against a lot of brand planning. For example, Waitrose’ Community Matters green token scheme, allowing shoppers to choose which the money is donated as well as see Waitrose as an organisation who is interested and passionate about the local community. This suggests that a lot of brands have incorrectly identified what “engagement” really means – rather than clicking on that infamous “like” button or that oh-so-committed “retweet”, according to signal theory, these kinds of explicit short-lived brand promoting campaigns are exactly that – short-lived in our affections and easily replicable in our loyalty.
So, should brands be spending less money on communicating and more on visible waste? I think we can all agree that some of the best ads are the ones that don’t look like ‘ads’ but make us think, feel, look at something in a different light. These kinds of communication are far more powerful forms of a brand’s implicit communication. Actions, not words? Not exactly, successful brands will ensure that their actions reflect their words and vice versa. They embed the product into culture, a culture than both surrounds and emulate the product; they must be synonymous. An example of poor synergy between explicit messaging and implicit signals is Thornton’s – a brand who markets itself as luxury yet stinks of promotion, wide distribution and 3for1 quick-sales. In contrast, by limiting distribution, delivering iconic products at a premium price, Hotel Chocolate is sending out strong implicit signals embodying what the brand stands for – a high quality, elegant, luxurious experience.
Marketers and brand planners should step away from forcing marketing campaigns and objectives (“drive engagement” should probably be banned from briefs unless that “e” is realistically defined, and even so – can you “define” the kind of successful, subconscious level 1 engagement explained above?). Instead, brands should define what it is they stand for and let it resonate throughout every decision and action the brand makes. Sometimes, it’s not WHAT you say, it’s the way you said it…
 Damasio, A. (2006) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason And The Human Brain.
 Pentland, A. (2008) Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World.
 Yakob, F. (2012) Choose The Future, Admap. Shortlisted, Admap Prize 2012.
 Connelly, B. L., Certo, S. T., Ireland R. D., Reutzel, C. R. (2012) Signaling Theory: A Review and Assessment