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What has the Implicit Mind ever done for us?

Opinion, 29 October 2013

It seems that implicit is the new black – everybody’s talking about it, at least in the small but feverish world of advertising research. But is it a new idea and how useful is it anyway?

The idea of the implicit mind has been around for quite a while - probably since the 1970s, but received a huge boost in the 1990s with the advent of cognitive neuroscience - particularly through the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph Le Doux, with its emphasis on unconscious, emotional response. And more recently, of course, there’s been behavioural economics - particularly the work of Daniel Kahneman, who talks about fast effortless and unreflective thinking (System 1) vs. the effortful, reflective and conscious kind (System 2).  Kahneman’s key point is that whereas System 1 is automatic, System 2 is not.

I’m not going to get hung up on the relative merits of these various approaches because I believe for our purposes (as marketers and advertisers) there’s a simple operational definition that does the job:  

The Implicit mind is the bit we’re not aware of, but which influences most of what we do.

So how does stuff get into the implicit mind? One route is through explicit (active) learning: we continually process information consciously (in our Working Memory), but then forget about it. Another more interesting route, however, is the one suggested by Robert Heath a decade or so ago (in The Hidden Power of Advertising, 2001). He proposed that brand information can be acquired through passive/implicit learning at levels of low (or no) attention.  His key point was that such learning takes place independent of attention and reinforces (non-rational) associations which become linked to the brand - producing associations that are enduring and which can trigger emotional markers which in turn influence intuitive choice. In short, emotional associations (from advertising) are more likely to be processed implicitly than explicitly.

When we consider the value of the implicit mind to marketers or advertisers, the key point is its (almost infinite) ability to encode and store implicit associations- as compared with the finite (and ephemeral) nature of associations stored in our Working Memory. This is great news for brands because:

  • Implicit processing is fast/unreflective – meaning that brands may be selected (automatically) with minimum expenditure of cognitive energy
  • Although advertising may fade from Working Memory, it leaves traces in implicit memory – so even though advertising may no longer be recalled, it is still ‘working’ (at some level)
  • Some of these (implicit) associations may be emotionally ‘tagged’ and therefore highly significant influencers of future behaviour
  • Those associations can be refreshed or triggered by new advertising – thus building implicit associations over time that can trigger behaviours

Finally,  the recent work of Binet & Field (The Long & the Short Of It, 2013)  demonstrates the power of non-rational (emotional) communication in building long-term value – suggesting that the implicit mind with its web of automatic associations, operating ‘below the radar’ of our conscious mind – is just too important for marketers and advertisers to ignore.

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."