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Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing
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Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing

by Douglas Van Praet

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For too long marketers have been asking the wrong question. If consumers make decisions unconsciously, why do we persist in asking them directly through traditional marketing research why they do what they do? They simply can't tell us because they don't really know. Before marketers develop strategies, they need to recognize that consumers have strategies too . .


For too long marketers have been asking the wrong question. If consumers make decisions unconsciously, why do we persist in asking them directly through traditional marketing research why they do what they do? They simply can't tell us because they don't really know. Before marketers develop strategies, they need to recognize that consumers have strategies too . . . human strategies, not consumer strategies. We need to go beyond asking why, and begin to ask how, behavior change occurs. Here, author Douglas Van Praet takes the most brilliant and revolutionary concepts from cognitive science and applies them to how we market, advertise, and consume in the modern digital age. Van Praet simplifies the most complex object in the known universe—the human brain—into seven codified actionable steps to behavior change. These steps are illustrated using real world examples from advertising, marketing, media, and business to consciously unravel what brilliant marketers and ad practitioners have long done intuitively, deconstructing the real story behind some of the greatest marketing and business successes in recent history, such as Nike's "Just Do It" campaign; "Got Milk?"; Wendy's "Where's the Beef?"; and the infamous Volkswagen "Punch Buggy" launch as well as their beloved "The Force" (Mini Darth Vader) Super Bowl commercial.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A provocative approach that should give pause to consumers as well as marketers.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Doug has been an instrumental strategic guide for transforming and redefining the Volkswagen brand. The behavioral insights and the rationale for why people act as they do - uncovered in his book - have had a profound effect on how we communicate and behave, helping the brand achieve the highest market share in thirty years. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to truly understand how to craft communications that will truly resonate.” —Justin Osborne, General Manager, Marketing Communications, Volkswagen of America

Unconscious Branding brings the power of neuroscience to marketing in a way that is both intuitive and revelatory. It's an invaluable resource for any marketer.” —Matt Jarvis, Partner and Chief Strategy Officer, 72andSunny

“Drawing upon the insights of behavioral science, Van Praet provides a seven-step, behavior-modification procedure--Useful insights that should benefit marketers big and small.” —Publishers Weekly

“Doug Van Praet knows what's going on in your mind better than you do. This is the only book that finally provides a useful 'how to' when it comes to applying neuroscience to marketing. We're using it. It works.” —Mike Sheldon, CEO Deutsch LA

“There are many researchers in advertising who can study a campaign and tell you what happened. There are precious few who can tell you why. Doug Van Praet is one of them.” —Eric Hirshberg, CEO, Activision Publishing

Publishers Weekly
Although corporate marketers are always searching for subtle and influential ways to steer customers to their wares only two out of ten products make it past their initial launch. Here, Van Praet, executive vice president at Deutsch LA, turns to the field of cognitive science to help marketers overcome this gap. His research shows that humans make most of their decisions unconsciously and are therefore unable to determine why they do or don't buy specific products. Marketers, he asserts, need to go beyond asking why and begin to ask how: how do people "process information, structure their experience, and form the often-unconscious beliefs and motivations that drive their behavior?" Drawing upon the insights of behavioral science, Van Praet provides a seven-step, behavior-modification procedure. Brands are expectations based on memories, he suggests, offering such examples such as the "Pepsi Challenge." Useful insights that should benefit marketers big and small. Agent: James Levine, Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
The executive vice president of ad agency Deutsch LA argues that successful advertising depends on recognizing "the subtleties of nonverbal communication, body language, and unconscious micro-expressions of emotions." In other words, Van Praet writes in his debut, marketers can profitably apply insights from neuropsychology about the biological basis of behavior. As fMRI brain-scan experiments reveal, when subjects are called upon to make decisions, their responses may bypass conscious awareness. People may believe they prefer one brand over another because of taste, but the author cites experiments that mix up labels to demonstrate that this is not always the case. Instead, he explains, we choose brands that are familiar because they evoke pleasant emotions and are "road signs" that allow us to take "mental shortcuts." As the complexity of our lives increases, we tend "to blindly obey…stereotypical rules of thumb that make our decisions for us." Van Praet suggests that our inborn need for social attachment can be tapped in today's complex, consumption-based society by treating buyers as members of communities whose buying preferences are a mark of their self-identity. He offers illustrations of steps that a marketer can take to appeal to potential buyers on an unconscious level, such as a Deutsch ad for the VW Passat that featured a little boy dressed as Darth Vader deploying the force to start the car (a Super Bowl attention-getter). He compares the special garments of the Catholic clergy to the white lab coats featured in pharmaceutical ads as examples of the hypnotic power of authority in unconscious branding. Suggesting that the time has come for a more creative approach, he mocks the use of market surveys. To question consumers about their product choices, he writes, is as sensible as "asking the political affiliation of a tuna fish sandwich." A provocative approach that should give pause to consumers as well as marketers.

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Unconscious Branding

How Neuroscience can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing

By Douglas Van Praet

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Douglas Van Praet
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-04278-1



The rational mind is the humble servant, the intuitive mind the faithful gift. We have created a society that honors the servant, and has forgotten the gift. — Albert Einstein

IN THE SUMMER OF 1957 IN THE NEW YORK CITY SUBURB OF Fort Lee, New Jersey, a polio scare frightened residents away from public swimming pools. Wary of what might be lurking in the pools and looking for ways to escape the heat of the afternoon sun, they headed in droves to the air-conditioned comfort of the darkened Lee Theater to watch Picnic, starring William Holden and Kim Novak. Looming behind the scenes, market researcher James McDonald Vicary was conducting an unusual experiment, one that he hoped would be a boon to consumers and advertisers.

During the film, words were repeatedly flashed on the silver screen for 1/3,000th of a second, urging moviegoers to "eat popcorn" and suggesting they "drink Coca-Cola." Vicary contended that these "invisible commercials," which were shown so rapidly that viewers couldn't actually see them, allowed for more entertainment time and eliminated bothersome ads. He maintained that his innovation also saved advertisers the money and resources required to produce regular commercials. Over the course of six weeks 45,000 people visited the theater, and the results surprised even Vicary. Purchases of popcorn soared by an astonishing 57.5 percent and sales of Coca-Cola jumped an impressive 18.1 percent.

On September 16, 1957, Advertising Age unveiled Vicary's secret weapon of subliminal projection, reporting plans to extend the idea to television viewers. But the naïve market researcher was taken aback when the findings of his experiment ignited widespread public outrage and paranoia about ill-intentioned possibilities. The ensuing mass hysteria would later find him unlisting his phone number and shunning public appearances in fear for his life. That very same year also saw the introduction of Vance Packard's highly influential book The Hidden Persuaders. The book's central thesis was that we were being monitored and manipulated by marketers and advertisers without our conscious awareness. A year later, a government investigation by the CIA led to a ban on these subliminal cuts in the United States. The reports concluded that: "Certain individuals can at certain times and under certain circumstances be influenced to act abnormally without awareness of the influence." Fortunately, the public was now not only aware of the real dangers of subliminal advertising but could also rest assured knowing that laws were in place to protect them from corporate mind control. Except there was one problem: The experiment was a hoax. Vicary admitted to the fraudulence in a 1962 interview with Advertising Age, saying that the original market research study was "a gimmick" and indicating that the amount of data was "too small to be meaningful." But the damage had been done and the urban legend lived on. Even to this day some people remain concerned about hidden messages and images in ads. But embedding a phallic symbol in a cluster of foliage or a naked body in a pool of water is not really a good way to make anyone buy liquor, cigarettes, or anything else for that matter.

The word "subliminal" comes from the Latin roots "sub" meaning "below," and "limen" meaning "threshold," referring to perception that happens below the threshold of consciousness. And even though a failed and deceitful market research study over half a century ago had the entire nation barking up the wrong tree, we now know, with a certain ironic twist, a disturbing truth that has profound implications for both consumers and companies. Most of the business of life happens below the threshold of consciousness. And while we were so worried that others might be controlling our minds, what we really should be wondering about is whether we ourselves are ever in control.


We are living a delusion. We think the conscious or rational mind is in control because it's the part of our mind that talks to us, the voice inside our heads as we silently read the words on this page. Because we believe that this part of our mind is running the show, we also believe that the conscious minds of consumers must similarly be driving behavior. For marketers, this leads to a false pretense that purchase behavior is a conscious choice, but, science shows, the exact opposite is true.

In 2008 startling evidence to support belief in the role of the unconscious in decision making was demonstrated in an experiment by a group of scientists led by John-Dylan Haynes from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Using brain scans, these researchers were able to predict participants' decisions about seven seconds before the subjects had consciously made the decisions. As the researchers reported in Nature Neuroscience on April 13, 2008, "Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions, we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings."

The decision studied was a simple choice of whether or not to push a button with one's left or right hand. Participants were free to make the decision whenever they wanted, but had to indicate at what point they made the decision in their mind. By observing micropatterns of brain activity, the researchers were able to predict the subjects' choices before they were "known" to the participants themselves. "Your decisions are strongly prepared by the brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," says Haynes.

This unprecedented prediction of a free decision raises profound questions about the nature of free will and conscious choice. For decades marketers have been talking to themselves instead of speaking to the real desires and motivations of consumers. They have been rationalizing the effectiveness of the wrong marketing tools aimed at the wrong target and the wrong mind. It's not their fault. They were unconscious of their own delusion.

Think of the human mind as if it were an iceberg. Just the tip is visible, or "conscious," while the vast majority lies concealed from perception, or "unconscious." Most of our thoughts, beliefs, and even our decisions occur without our own awareness. Marketers need to go deeper to really understand the true nature of our behavioral causes. Fortunately, science is now plumbing these depths at a revolutionary pace and, in turn, illuminating mysteries that have long eluded us. Below the surface is where our intuitive, emotional, and unconscious mind hides. This is the part of our mind that drives almost all of our behavior.

Albert Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." He understood the power and importance of the unconscious mind, developing the theory of relativity by imagining what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. The neuropsychological technique called dissociation enables us to look at a problem from a different perspective by getting outside of our own head. Einstein embraced the "mysterious," saying, "It is the source of all true art and science." He probably could have predicted the neuroscience revolution of today!

Einstein's greatest gift was his inordinate ability to make the leap beyond imagination to create what others couldn't see — by integrating conscious, logical thought with unconscious, intuitive insight. He lived not just above the surface of the iceberg but also in the part not visible to the eye, pulling from the depths of his intuition to guide his research and theories. By honoring the whole of the iceberg, we too can help revolutionize our understanding of how markets behave.


Today you'll find evidence of what Einstein referenced as the forgotten gift of our intuitive mind in the language, tools, and metrics of marketers.

One of the greatest ironies is that "awareness" has always been the gold standard for guiding and measuring campaign and brand success. Marketers spend a disproportionately large percentage of their primary research budgets evaluating and measuring brand, advertising, message, and product awareness. But the quantitative copy tests, concept tests, and advertising tracking studies that make up the majority of this evaluative research only skim the surface. They fail to recognize and understand the underlying unconscious causes that often evade awareness. One marketer who didn't believe in consumer research was Steve Jobs. When a reporter once asked how much market research was conducted to guide Apple in the launch of the iPad, he famously quipped, "None. It isn't the consumers' job to know what they want." The iPad, according to some measures, would become the most successful consumer product introduction in history.

Our brains experience and know more than our minds can ever possibly report. Self-reported data in market research surveys simply can't measure the implicit, nondeclarative memories that unconsciously prime our brains' receptivity to brands and messages. These memories are complex sets of neurological associations that lie deep in the brains' emotional systems and become anchored to the brand but hidden from view. When researchers try to investigate brand affinity and loyalty, they often find themselves recording the conscious relationship one has with the brand, not the deeper, intuitive connections formed over a lifetime.

For instance, when someone is presented with the option of a Coke instead of a Pepsi, autobiographical memories and culturally learned associations are being fired deep within the brain — outside the awareness of the would-be soda buyer. These associations link a present brand stimulus with experiences from the past. This personal "data" is summarized in consciousness as a feeling. But consumers usually cannot consciously access most of these thoughts or the origins of their emotions.

The real answers exist in the domain of the unconscious, emotional mind, a part of the brain that speaks in feelings, not words. The unconscious mind is like a device that has recorded all of the data of all of your life's events. If the unconscious could talk, it would perhaps ramble illogically and boundlessly. It would conjure up all the deep imprints, episodes, thoughts, emotions, and associations spanning one's entire life, the sum total of which would represent the true value of the brand. The list would go on and on and on, filled with episodic memories and autobiographical life events that, while no longer easily accessible by the conscious mind, remain stored in the vast memory banks of the intuitive mind.

When asked about preference in market research surveys, the respondents most often post-rationalize and make up evidence, offering up some logical reasoning that seems plausible. Our conscious minds are designed to think up stories to try to explain and make meaning of the hidden forces and hardwired neural programs that guide our behavior. "I prefer Coke because I like the taste better," they say, and that is the so-called factual response that is coded and entered into the data table and reported in the key findings of the report. Some marketers would look at that data and develop advertising about a great-tasting carbonated beverage. Fortunately for Coca-Cola, their marketers have not gone down this path, and Coca-Cola has their market share dominance to show for it.

Coke's focus has always been establishing an instantly recognizable and appreciated brand. Through the classic, consistent logo, the iconic contour of the bottle's design, the mellifluous alliteration of the brand name, its investment in world-class, heart-warming advertising, and a pervasive retail presence, it became not only the first truly global brand but also the most recognized trademark in the world. In 2011 the Coca-Cola brand was worth an estimated 74 billion — more than Budweiser, Pepsi, Starbucks, and Red Bull combined — a position maintained by spending 2.9 billion in advertising in 2010, more than Microsoft and Apple's advertising budgets put together.


For years, we have lived under the adage "advertising must be single-minded," but this reasoning is fundamentally flawed: there is an inherent "duality" to the structure of our minds. Influence is born by appealing to the emotions while overcoming rational restraints. This conflict between unconscious emotionality and conscious rationality creates the opportunity for effective brand promises. When the mind accepts a brand story as told in advertising and marketing communications, it is both believing the story's rational tenets and bonding to its emotional meaning.

Before marketers develop strategies they start with a description of the target as a single person, typically called "a persona," which is based upon traditional self-reported research. This individual, often described along current cultural, product, category, and media usage dimensions, represents a discrete demographic and psychographic segment of a population. But by focusing on how this persona is different from the rest, we ignore the universal similarities: the human insights that we share, regardless of gender, age, income, geography, or culture, and that also prompt our actions. Knowing that someone is a 35- to 44-year-old loyal owner of a domestic sedan who indexes high on watching reality TV, claims to work out two plus times a week, says that reliability is the number one reason they choose to buy a particular car, and lives in Midwestern America neglects that person's deeper, more meaningful, universal human desires and aspirations.

Once when I was conducting focus groups, I asked a cross section of cost-conscious compact sedan owners who had just seen the redesigned Jetta, "What would your friends think of you if they saw you driving this new car?" They responded defiantly, saying things like "I don't care about what others think of me, I just want to get from point A to point B!" Shortly thereafter, these same panelists were shown several concepts to describe the new Jetta and asked which they preferred. "I like Head-Turning Good Looks!" they concurred.

Their "persona" had fabricated a smart, responsible image, but deep down they really desired recognition and attention. The irony is that if we fall for their self-deceiving trap, they won't be happy and neither will Volkswagen. We arrived at a strategy that afforded them a level of sophistication that they had always wanted at an attainable price, and an ad campaign summarized by the expression: "Great. For the Price of Good." This effort helped the new Jetta attain its best sales year ever in the United States. Both minds were satisfied, and their conflict resolved by conferring status and not just promising practicality. Deep down each and every one of us wants a little more social status. If you are the exception to this rule, you are most likely lying ... to yourself.

But marketers often get so caught up in the outward cultural expressions of the persona, they ignore the humanity that binds us all. Ironically, psychologist Carl Jung coined the term "persona" to describe the façade designed by people to make an impression on others while concealing their true nature! The persona plays an important evolutionary role in human behavior, helping us to adapt to our cultural group, to fit in with and be accepted by others. This has aided us in our survival for many thousands of years, and still does so today. It is this social mask that each of us wears to shield and conceal our authentic yet more vulnerable inner self.

The persona is the mask of overconfidence that invents stories to color reality in our own favor. This creates a dilemma for market researchers. For instance, in survey research, 95 percent of professors report that they are above average teachers, 96 percent of college students say they have above average social skills, and when Time magazine surveyed people in the United States and asked "are you in the top 1 percent of earners?" 19 percent of Americans indicated that they are in the top 1 percent of earners! Social science experiments reveal that people are inherently self-righteous and consistently over-rate their abilities, contributions, generosity, and autonomy. We chalk up success to skill and failures to bad luck. We say that advertising does not influence us, even though the data says otherwise. We swear that our partners take out the garbage less than we do, even though it's really about the same. Our beliefs distort our realities, and we are programmed by our very nature to look out for number one. People even maintain these self-serving delusions when they are wired to a lie detector, which means they are lying to themselves and not intentionally to the experimenters! And, we do this as an adaptive function, to lead better lives and to insulate ourselves from depression. In fact, people who lie to themselves tend to be happier and more successful in life and business.


Excerpted from Unconscious Branding by Douglas Van Praet. Copyright © 2012 Douglas Van Praet. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Douglas Van Praet is executive vice president at Deutsch LA, one of the nation's hottest ad agencies, where his responsibilities include group planning director for the iconic, highly acclaimed and coveted Volkswagen account.

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