Back in the day, market research seemed to have all the answers about brands. Indeed, the scientific apparatus of quantitative research - segmentation, clustering, modelling etc. - seemed so sophisticated compared with its slightly prosaic subject matter: soap, toothpaste, biscuits and the like. Yet now the reverse seems true: brands are so central to our culture and so deeply rooted in our psyche that it is the traditional tools of measurement which seem unequal to the task. Why?

The rise of market research coincided with the rise of mid-20th century cognitive science, which gave us the metaphor of the mind as a machine. Market research thus started as a quasi-scientific endeavour to discover the objective facts about consumer attitudes and behaviour - the underlying assumption being that attitudes and behaviour can be objectively measured – mainly though verbal self-reporting.

The ‘mind as machine’ metaphor was always seductive, but fundamentally misleading – it only takes us so far because it explains cognition, not emotion nor implicit reasoning.  You can’t programme a computer to be emotional (or to ‘think’ implicitly) because it just doesn’t have the right biological evolution.

What we’ve learned in recent decades is that humans have evolved as emotional animals and, moreover, that thinking and reasoning are not always transparent or (consciously) accessible. Although psychology has long accepted the importance of implicit mechanisms (particularly in the area of memory) most market researchers (at least on the quantitative side) assumed that what mattered most were consciously (explicit) expressed attitudes and thoughts.

Yet the earliest models of how advertising works, like AIDA (Attention – Interest – Decision - Action), assumed a linear relationship between advertising impact and eventual action - the basic idea being that to change behaviour, you must get attention and lodge a (persuasive) message. Furthermore, this model assumes that messages are consciously processed and can be accessed explicitly, via recall. Advertising researchers therefore developed methodologies in which recall was king and persuasion shifts the desired outcome. Otherwise, it was argued, how can brand communication be justified?

Persuading people to buy your product (and then asking them if they’re persuaded) is a viable strategy until one runs out of (persuasive) things to say – and, in many categories, that is more or less what happened. As markets matured and product differentiation lessened, marketers found it increasingly difficult to work to a persuasion strategy. What was there left to say?

The answer is, of course, to transform your product from a physical object (with rational benefits) into a mental construct (with positive associations). Rather than labour to persuade consumers of objective benefits over competitive products, why not create thoughts, feelings and beliefs about it which differentiate it from the rest?

Brands are mental constructs, not physical things - they exist in the mind of the perceiver not in the physical world. They also increasingly feature on the balance sheet, because the value of many corporations lies in the values and beliefs that their customers ascribe to their brand(s), rather than the physical assets they possess.

Perhaps, in a hundred years or so, brands will be seen as the most significant cultural phenomenon of the late 20th century - as a sort of triumph of mind over matter. Indeed, one might say that in  the late 20th century, the most successful brands almost transcended their physical existence - they existed primarily in the minds of individual consumers and in the collective consciousness.  

And what has become clear to researchers is that if we want to understand brands, we must similarly transcend the traditional means of measurement – and find new ways of measuring the consumer’s implicit attitudes and feelings, and the emotions that underlie them.