Can brands appeal to our unconscious mind?

What does it take to build a distinctive brand and create strong bias among consumers’ unconscious minds? It depends on what category you’re playing in, writes Rebecca Drummond, but it’s rarely achieved through advertising alone.

On an average day, we make more than 35,000 decisions – and only 5% of these are conscious. The challenge for marketers is: how do you ensure your brand is distinctive enough to steal one of those spots, and how much value is there in appealing to the unconscious side of our minds?

Barely a week passes before the release of a new behavioural or neuro study claiming to have gone a little further into the depths of our mind, to understand the process behind the way we make decisions. A running theme of these studies is that how ‘warm’ someone already feels towards your brand can have a tremendous impact on the final purchase decision.

As psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman explored in his influential book, Thinking Fast and Slow, humans naturally look for ways to associate new information with existing patterns or thoughts, rather than having to create new patterns for each new experience. We rely firstly on how we feel and what we already know by dusting off information gathered in the subconscious.

‘Warmth’ is built from biases, which continue to build in daily life – an ad, a conversation with someone, past experience… Wavemaker analysis reveals that people have very high levels of bias towards brands, with one in two people already knowing which brand they will buy when they first start thinking about buying from the category.

In a market where people tend to consider three brands on average, building strong bias can help a brand not only be on that consideration set, but have a greater likelihood of converting to purchase. This important step actually changes how people behave during the buying process – they take fewer steps, spend less time deciding and are often less price-sensitive.

Of course, this isn’t a standard rule. Levels of bias differ by category, by country, by audience and by brand. Factors can vary based on the length of the purchase journey, complexity of the category and whether there is a baseline of familiarity.

For example, in the mobile category, almost two thirds of Australians have already decided which mobile network they will choose, with people building unconscious bias from trust, reputation of a network, and what their friends are on.

In categories with high bias levels like this, developing trust, driving appraisal among existing customers, and creating strong differentiation in the category is crucial to getting on the consideration set.

Kmart is another great example of a brand in a high-bias category that has carved out a distinctive profile by combining ‘cheap’ with ‘trendy’. By investing first in revamping owned assets, focusing on in-store experiences, and putting products at the heart of its communication, Kmart secured a lead in discount department store wars.

What’s more, it sparked an army of fans – which has enviably become a channel of its own – with Instagram accounts like @thekmartlover sharing in-store bargains and treating new season launches like ‘Fashion Week’ with its 70K followers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the utilities category has one of the lowest levels of bias, with only a quarter of Australians knowing which electricity or gas provider they would sign up with, if they switched. This is because people assume all energy companies are the same, resulting in a price war.

For categories with lower levels of bias, building emotional distinction is critical – a reason why brands like AGL are using sustainability initiatives.

Specsavers has been able to achieve just this in the eyewear category: carve out a distinctive profile in a low-bias category. Beyond driving familiarity with its “Should have gone to Specsavers” creative, it’s found interesting ways to get people to actively engage in the category without needing to book an eye test. And, with its most recent Error Ridden Ad, Specsavers managed to get people to watch a piece of advertising multiple times, while gamifying the experience.

In reality, people are in market for less than 7% of the purchase cycle – outside of this, our subconscious will continue to soak up information, ready to be wrung out way into the future, and so understanding where a category and brand sits in the dynamics of the purchase journey, can help advertisers identify the most effective strategy to reach consumers.

And remember, building distinctive brands and memorable experiences is rarely achieved through advertising alone. It comes from a combination of paid, owned and earned – through things like the service provided for customers, the reputation that comes from the experiences of others, the user experience of a brand’s website and even the storefront windows.

It’s the combination of these that can help marketers create behavioural advantage, ready to steal that spot in the unconscious mind that is most likely to convert to purchase.

Rebecca Drummond is strategy manager at Wavemaker.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.