Friday, August 21, 2009

The Biology of Branding

How does branding really work?

Mark Gallagher over at BlackCoffee recently launched a site asking us to answer the simple question: What is a brand?

This, and a couple of recent books I've read, got me thinking about the physiology behind 'branding'. Just what happens inside our thick skulls?

We know sex, drugs and rock and roll work. But how? The simple answer is they stimulate the release of dopamine - the ultimate pleasure drug. When faced with a choice of more dopamine or food & water, rats chose the former - and they die of thirst in a happy stupor.

Dopamine isn't just a drug, it is related to specific neurons and that means it spreads through the brain like blood through capillaries. Thus, dopamine is involved in the processing of not only pleasant things but balances negative/risky propositions and purely rational thought. Ever wonder why you argue with yourself about a purchase: "It's expensive and I'm not sure versus, but what they hell I like it?" That's the insula battling the nucleus accumbens.

Most importantly - these neurons learn to associate external stimuli with pleasure. The age-old Pavlovian stimulus-reward mechanism can now be mapped out in the brain. This means that brand cues and rituals (and to a degree consistent messaging) as well as delivering on one promise are so important to branding. Deliver inconsistent products or confuse people with varying messages and the dopamine receptors learn to hedge their bets. As uncertainty of the outcome creeps into our experience the prediction error gets too big and the dopamine turns off. If the outcome is too negative the result may be avoidance altogether.

It seems the brain doesn't like to be fooled.

And because we're social, we'll tell others to avoid the pain we've learned. Not only that, we'll avoid pleasure if it means preventing pain for others. Monkeys will choose to not get treats if it means another monkey won't be shocked.

We decide emotionally and defend rationally.

It is not a case of being 'rational' or 'economic' that makes us capable of making good decisions. It turns out that it is emotions that allow us to make decisions. Without knowing how we or others will feel we are simply incapable of making a decision. Numerous studies have shown that without the emotional part of the brain, we are incapable of making even the simplest decisions. The 'ah ha' moment, "it just felt right" and "it is the right thing to do" all come long before we can explain why that it is so. It takes time to process experiences into a logical explanation.

To a large degree expertise is simply knowing without rationally exploring every option. From football quarterbacks to soap opera directors to fighter pilots - they cannot always explain why they picked a given receiver, blocked a scene one way or shot at one radar blip versus another. In these scenarios there is simply no time to act rational and process all the options; through repetition and particularly the review of mistakes/failure the brain becomes wired to instantly assess and respond. "I knew he was going to be open" is not the result of a rational review of all the options; it is the result of dopamine out weighing the risk.

For many brands facts just get in the way. They don't really help make a decision but do justify it. Ever bought a digital camera? They are way too many things to consider from CMOS to megapixels to burst speed to weight to effective focal length to memory type. The comparison charts give us the ammunition to defend a decision. In the end it will be simple - it feels right in my hand or I always wanted a Nikon. If the prefrontal cortex doesn't get some feedback from dopamine it will be in an endless loop of rationalizing this versus that. People are often incapable of making decisions based on facts alone.

Ever wonder why you jump up when your team scores on TV? It certainly isn't a rational thing to do - we're not there and we're not even participating. So why do we feel these emotions? We have mirror neurons. These brain cells fire when we see others experience something - both positive and negative. This is what makes us social, empathetic and moral. It also provides insights into why testimonials and celebrity endorsements work. "They're like me and I can relate."

It seems then that biology teaches us that branding comes down to:

1. Understand the pleasure received from a product
2. Capture that pleasure in a set of cues or messages (this is where segmentation plays a huge role)
3. Reinforce and don't deviate

The books referenced are:
"How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer
"Buyology" by Martin Lindstrom

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fragmentation of Search

Where is all this merger and acquisition going?

As products and companies are acquired or dropped one thing is for certain: What used to be one category will splinter, as all categories do in time. For search it used to be easy - it was just 'search'. But now we're seeing the evolution of two kinds of search:

Commercial Search: the paid activity to redirect people to find (buy) something. In this world the travel agent model of Google is hard to beat. Ad Words, Ad Sense and other link-based routings work just finds.

Recommendation Search: the opinions of others (those we know, trust, or just relate to) represents a completely new type of search and underlying business model. The Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter and LinkedIn models fit better in this world. In time, this is likely to fragment into personal and professional recommendations.

So, its not so much a question of 'who will win?' but what needs of ours do they best support.