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Why unconscious decisions aren't always best

Opinion, 31 October 2011

At a recent Warc advertising research conference a speaker remarked that the best outcome for your brand is that it is chosen without conscious thought. The more I examine this, the more curious a conclusion it appears. Why is it assumed that unconscious processing is better than the conscious variety?

It worries me because it over-simplifies the meaning of 'unconscious'. I might choose something unconsciously purely out of habit (simple heuristic) or I might choose it because it triggers deeply held emotional associations, built over a lifetime of usage, brand communication and reinforcement. Thus if I buy something I don't care about frequently and unconsciously, that's habit; if I buy something I do care about frequently and unconsciously that's more likely to be brand engagement. They're both unconscious processes but only one is emotional based, and brand love is nearly always better than brand inertia.

Simply put, a heuristic is a kind of unconscious decision path that leads us to make decisions that are not necessarily the best, bur perhaps the least worst of the options available. An example might be a choice of newspaper. I once witnessed a focus group in the UK where one guy said he bought The Times and nothing else. But why was he so loyal? Because he loved it? Well, no, he thought it was ok. So why, then? "Well, look at the alternatives", he said: "The Telegraph is for old colonels, the Guardian for vegetarian social workers and who buys the Independent anyway? I wouldn't be seen dead reading the Mail or Express and that leaves the tabloids…" So… back to The Times – again, again and again.

The point is, that he was probably operating on what might be called a least-bad purchase heuristic. If a new title came along that suited him (or his self-image) better, he'd probably have bought that instead. Compare and contrast that with buyers of brands that are loved – Apple, Nike, or Heinz Tomato Ketchup - where the decision is often an emotionally driven one. The point being that if they bought something else it would feel wrong - which is why the slogan It Has to be Heinz is so on the money, and why its buyers resist blandishments to buy cheaper alternatives.

Clearly there are different kinds of unconscious choices - some habitual / heuristic, others emotionally based. If you're chasing that elusive quality called brand loyalty (rather than habitual behaviour) it's the latter that's important. To break habitual behaviour usually takes a cognitive jolt, whereas emotionally based purchasing cannot be overturned so easily. It takes sustained investment and highly engaging brand communication to do so - which is why the great brands often prove so resilient in a recession.

About the author

David Penn is MD of award winning agency Conquest, based in London's Kensington. The company is one of the UK's leading independent researchers, boasting ongoing clients such as Heinz, Pizza Hut, L'Oreal, Pernod-Ricard, KFC and eBay. Conquest carries out both quantitative and qualitative research and, most importantly, is a pioneer of innovative online research methodology, welding neuroscience and behavioural economics with traditional communications theory.

Before starting Conquest out of sheer frustration with what many research agencies had to offer, Penn amassed a wealth of experience in marketing and research spanning both client and agency sides of the business, honing his skills at Lever Bros and UB.

Penn has published and presented widely on marketing and brand research recently, at MRS, ESOMAR, WARC and ARF conferences as well as running a regular blog on WARC website. In the last 6 years, he and his team have been shortlisted, commended or won outright a total of 18 industry awards, garnering the prestigious innovation in Research Methodology award for 2014. Industry leader David Smith identified Penn as one of the key contributors to helping us understand "how developments in neuroscience mean we should be laying down a new theory of market research." Veteran industry blogger 'Left Field' and other peers admire the trail-blazing proprietary methodologies developed by Penn and his team to measure brand emotional engagement and viral potential. Penn's "fantastic (work shows) that nowhere is emotional engagement more important than for campaigns hoping to enjoy viral success and word-of-mouth."