Accepted truths in advertising continue to shift, with ideas of brand love currently dismissed as the preserve of an old order – Conquest’s David Penn considers whether we might be throwing the importance of irrationality out with the mis-placed idea of love.

Ever heard of Antonio Damasio? Joseph Le Doux? Daniel Dennet? If you haven’t, it might surprise you that these 3 gentlemen were frequently quoted in marketing and market research conferences during the noughties. This was at the height of the ‘brain science revolution’ which so challenged the prevailing view of the consumer mind and how it works.

For decades prior to this, marketing theory had been dominated by the view that customers take a conscious, rational path to purchase decisions – weighing up the benefits on offer and choosing brands accordingly. Typical of this was the mid-20th century AIDA model ( Awareness-Interest- Decision-Action), which proposed a linear relationship between advertising impact and eventual action. Basically, it was all about delivering a persuasive message, creating interest… then, stand back and BOOM!! If only life were that simple...

Brain science challenged this view by shifting the focus back onto the mysteries of the unconscious and the emotional. But this was not Freud’s unconscious – a repository of our repressed memories – but rather the part of the brain where (emotional) things happen that are simply not accessible to our conscious minds.

Here are 3 ideas which caught our imagination back then:

  1. Daniel Dennet’s notion of parallel processing of information in the brain, at high and low attention levels, created the possibility that we can learn about brands unconsciously or at very low levels of conscious awareness.
  2. Damasio’s assertion of the primacy of emotion (affect) over conscious, rational thought. This more or less turned the cause and effect of AIDA on its head, because instead of decision-making being a purely conscious rational process, it suggested that feeling and thinking happen simultaneously and, moreover, that when emotion and cognition come into conflict, emotions generally win.
  3. Joseph Le Doux’s claim that the direct link between thalamus and amygdala enables the brain to react emotionally, prior to conscious awareness of stimuli, creating the possibility that emotional information (about brands or advertising) might be processed before we become aware of it.

So, why, a decade on, is relatively little attention given to these ideas?

Two of these writers (Damasio and Dennet) wrote from a philosophical as well as a scientific perspective and their work is not always an easy read. They wanted to overturn one of the most famous statements in all of modern philosophy, Descartes's "Cogito ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am". This is regarded as the essence of "dualism," the notion that the mind is something distinct from the brain and the body. This is also known as the "ghost in the machine" fallacy, the belief that there is a ghostly "self" somewhere inside the brain that interprets and directs its operations.

Neuroscientists will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or the ‘self’ is located; that it is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. As Dennet told us, there is no “Cartesian Theatre”, where our ghostly ‘self’ sits pulling the levers. Not surprising then that, after reading that, Tom Wolfe wrote a famous essay called Sorry But Your Soul Just Died.

Fascinating stuff, but what has it got to do with marketing? Well, it pretty much pulls the rug from underneath ‘persuasion models’ like AIDA, because it demolishes their premise that we always think first, then feel, before acting (Think- Feel -Do), rather than Feel -Do-Think, as Damasio suggested.

Because, from the Feel-Do-Think perspective:

  1. Thought is not separate from our brain and body, but a product of it.
  2. Our emotional (physiological) self therefore exerts consistent unconscious influence over our conscious rational self.

It follows that, if we only measure conscious rational response to brands and marketing campaigns, we are missing a least half the story. Yet, a decade or more on, although I see research agencies and clients paying lip service to the idea of ‘emotional brand building’ (mainly due to the excellent work of Binet & Field), I don’t see much evidence of a concerted attempt to consistently measure emotional response to brands or advertising. Why?

One reason of course is status quo bias. As Harvard business professor Gerald Zaltman pointed out, almost 20 years ago (in How Customers Think), marketers tend to default to the rational/persuasion model because it’s easier to think that way and to design marketing campaigns that way. Likewise, it’s easier for market researchers to use the same old (rational) measures they’ve been using for 50 years rather than think up some new ones.

There’s also the problem of time frame. As Binet & Field demonstrate, brand building (via emotional strategies) takes time and doesn’t provide a quick fix, unlike short-term (rational) sales activation strategies. Which is why they advocate a mix of both approaches, although with the majority of marketing spend going towards building the brand over time.

But I believe that the biggest problem is that the word ‘emotion’ has been tainted with too many sentimental, romantic associations. I’ve heard CMOs dismiss the whole notion of ‘brand love’ as a nonsense, and it may surprise you that I actually have some sympathy with that view.

Of course, people don’t love brands in the same way they love family or friends – that would be plain silly. But what people do have is a non-rational disposition towards certain brands. Now, if that were not true, Coke would not outsell Pepsi, and Apple would not be the meta-brand it has become. ‘Brand love’ is therefore not a literal reality, but more of a metaphor describing the strange non-rational attraction or unconscious ‘pull’ that certain brands exert over potential customers.

Discovering that relationship, as well as measuring and nurturing it should surely be the prime purpose of brand marketing. Why? Because without it, you don’t have a brand, you merely have a collection of rational beliefs or prejudices which can easily be attacked or disproved by a competitor. Not so, if you have built up the unconscious and non-rational network of associations that constitute a brand. Try telling a Coke drinker that Pepsi tastes better, even if the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ proves it to be ‘true’! Or, harder still, try persuading an Apple user to switch brands.