The Warc Blog

Why unconscious decisions aren't always best

Posted by: David Penn, Managing Director, Conquest

Blog author

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.

31 October 2011 13:42


There are 1 comments on this blog

As the speaker cited above please allow me to give the context for my remark. It was made within a presentation about the implicit and explicit systems (Kahneman's System 1 &2) and their role in decision-taking, how this related to brands and communications etc.
The implicit system is fast, effortless, intuitive and reflexive whereas the explicit is slow, effortful and reflective. The implicit is geared to action and the explicit geared to reasoning. The explicit mostly endorses the actions determined by the implicit. The implicit works from pattern-matching and, as David says above, heuristics and works at the equivalent of broadband speed. If it weren't for this system we wouldn't even be able to get out of the front door in the morning! To experience this, what's the answer if I asked you 'what's 2x2'? vs if I asked you 'what's 17x24'? Or how was your first driving lesson vs your drive to work this morning? We implicitly learn and store patterns and, if these serve us well, we continue to operate by them. Similarly, if we have found brands that serve us well (meeting whatever psychological 'goals' we have) then we will continue to use them. Why? Because reflective cognitive effort consumes energy and the brain is already an energy-hungry organ so the implicit system has evolved to operate efficiently, with the minimum of energy consumption (we might need that energy for something important, like survival). That's why you feel drained if you've spent the day in heavy cognitive reflective mode! I illustrated this point with an fMRI scan showing the same person's brain faced with the task of choosing a brand to buy in various categories - in one image there was lots of cortical activity and, in the other, virtually none. The surprise for most audiences is that the brain reacting with all the activity is NOT the one where the person was shown their favourite brand - the brain showing virtually no activity had, in milliseconds, recognised the favourite and taken the decision. Hence my comment about the greatest success a brand can achieve is to be selected without conscious thought. Why? Because that means it's already become the short-cut that the brain favours.

Phil B. 18 November 2011 at 6:11pm
Comments IconAdd your comment here:

Blog Search