As marketers, we have come to find it pretty natural to think about emotion when it comes to brands. How do people feel about our brand, our experiences, our…anything? Even going as far as thinking that simply measuring emotion at some level is enough. This hasn’t always been the case and over the years we have evolved our thinking tremendously through a number of different models from AIDA, to Think/Feel/Do, to Feel/Think/Do and even to Feel/Do and now a much better understanding of Behavioral Economics. Reviewing these models, have we finally reached the point where we really can understand, and measure, what’s most important? The thinking that happens in the human mind before and when we make decisions.
Let’s think for a minute about why thinking should matter so much to brands. Because as we go about living our lives, we are collectors, unconsciously picking and sorting through everything we are exposed to, taking it in beneath our awareness. And what gets sorted to be attended to, the brain activity that brings something to our attention, should matter to brands. A lot. Why? It’s about what we, as humans, are looking for in the first place.
So, what are we sorting for, exactly? And what do we do with it when we find it?
In short, we are sorting for what has meaning to us. The brain is programmed to search for intention. We are, in essence, sorting for what will keep us alive in the most pleasurable way possible. How do we know what this is? Short answer: our memories.
There is a reason evidence of storytelling exists from before written language. Stories are, as Robert McKee says, “equipment for living.” They need not be grand or epic. They can be the simple narrative of what happens when the central character puts her hand into the fire and is burned. An inciting incident of inserting a hand into flames leads to the story’s painful climax and closes with the denouement of attempts at repair. While hardly “Gone with the Wind,” it is one of the very first stories we learn. And, importantly, is it is a story we keep.
Why? The question may seem absurd at first, but behind it is the brilliant way the human brain works. We keep the story because it guides our decision making – what our intention should be to get the thing we want. A very important thing we want is to stay safe, so we store a narrative about fire as a memory.
This simple concept is incredibly complex because we keep countless stories in our memories. They were put there, unconsciously, by us. And their entire purpose is to help us make decisions in the present that impact our future. This is the purpose of memory. Memory is there to help us choose. Daniel Kahneman in his now-famous book Thinking Fast and Slow refers to this decision maker as the remembering self. And as he says, “the remembering self may be wrong, but it is the one that makes decisions.”
And that is why brands should care. While memory might be a reflection of our past, its purpose is to determine the decisions we make for our future. It’s the remembering self that chooses what to buy the majority of the time, among other decisions. This is why simply measuring emotion isn’t enough. While emotion helps drive our memory making machine, it is not the decision maker. Impulse buying may work for the occasional lipstick, because the stakes are so low; we remember that this is harmless and even fun. But don’t try to buy a sportscar without memory bringing up that credit card mess you got yourself into, and the pain it inflicted with its consequences. You may end up creating a highly-fictionalized narrative in your head that justifies why the car should be yours, but you will call on a ‘sense-making’ narrative, and not simply emotional response.
So why is it then that so much attention is given to emotion? Because emotions remain the most powerful motivator when it comes to decision making. They are the captain on team memory and memory does work as a team. There are three memory systems that weigh in when it comes to making a choice. And the more that brands understand how memory works and can unpack its sorting process, the more likely the brand will be kept as a branded memory and be chosen.
These three memory systems the brain employs in the job of memory-making are best described by what they actually do. They are referred to by academics as semantic, episodic and procedural.
Semantic memory is the place where concepts live, such as 1 + 1 = 2 and all the stories that teach us about how life works and its causes and effects—such as what can happen to me if I stick my hand in a fire. This is the part of memory that requires cohesion and meaning, and nothing gets in its way like confusion.
Episodic memory is personal and emotional; it’s your memory of where you were on 9-11, or when Princess Diana passed away. It’s an ‘episode’ that happened in your life story. Even if it physically happened to someone else, it also happened to you, and carries emotional information that can be accessed.
Procedural memory is how you know how to drive a car or drink a glass of water without thinking about it anymore —skills that once upon a time had to be rehearsed with a great deal of cognitive strain.
Another way to think about these three memory systems in the context of brand communications is Head (semantic), Heart (episodic) and Hand (procedural). Head, Heart and Hand gives us an intuitive way to describe how memory works when it comes to a brand’s communication strategy.
We recently conducted a case study on the application of the Head/Heart/Hand model to Brand Communications in the Casual Dining Restaurant (CDR) space. This research is done in two phases: 1) identify the most powerful story in the category (the head) and what emotions are triggered by the category (the heart) and 2) identify the visual language that will align and act as a powerful rehearsal for the viewer (the hand).
We need to understand the story that is currently carried by consumers in a category and for a brand, and the most powerful story that could be created. What does the category/brand do (attributes) and what do I get from that (benefits), and why do those benefits matter (values)?
Too often brands seek emotional insights and get nothing more than a collection of words that are both highly filtered by the conscious mind and quite vague. In order to avoid this, we conduct the emotional aspect of our research with our collaborative partner, Dr. Todd Powers, and The Rational Heart methodology, a timed rapid-choice System 1 approach. Dr. Powers offers next-gen thinking to an established system of emotional measurement developed by Dr. Robert Plutchick of the Einstein School of Medicine.
Nowhere else have brands put visual language to better use than in advertising, and now all the methods of branded communications, from online content to programming to messages.
The second and final phase of this research allowed us to bring the physical rehearsal aspect we call ‘hand’ to the cognitive and emotional findings. People don’t just learn through watching; the human brain is physically able to rehearse us doing actions as we watch them. The relatively recent discovery of mirror neurons in the brain and scientists’ ability to watch what happens in the brain when we view someone taking an action has deepened our understanding of this phenomena.
We can see now that a subset of the motor command neurons that fire when we reach for an apple—about 20% of them—will also fire when I’m watching someone else reach for an apple. The scientist who discovered this, Giacomo Rizzolatti, an Italian neurophysiologist who works at the University of Parma, called these ‘mirror neurons.’ In essence, the brain is adopting the other person’s pov, performing a kind of virtual reality simulation.
This has remarkable consequences for brands who want to convey, through messaging, what their brand experience will be like.
The three aspects of memory are not simply another set of buzzwords; they are founded in an increasing understanding of the human mind, a complex and amazing experience we take for granted. As brands face the gauntlet of getting people to trade their precious attention for a brand promise, that promise must be a promise of the real: a story that resonates with a meaningful emotional value that allows rehearsal of the real experience.
Understand how attributes, benefits and values ladder up to the most powerful stories your brand can tell…that conceptual Head understanding will release your story’s full emotional strength.
Understand the key emotional Heart levers, both basic and subtle, and specifically how they manifest in the category….and what your brand can own, no matter what your category or your brand.
And understand the most compelling visual language then add creativity to allow your customer to rehearse the Hand experience and want more.
Choices in the present are made using memories as predictors of future experience. Understanding how to create branded communications that most effectively create memories is vital to success.
 McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Harper Collins, 1997)
 Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
 Plutchick, Dr. Robert. https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/emotion-wheel/, January 15, 2019
Article source: Insights Association
Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash