Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Relevance of Somatic Markers (and Cognitive Brand Shortcuts)

The brain goes through a series of unconscious steps every time we choose one product over another. Imagine you’re at a grocery store shopping for Peanut Butter.  There are obviously multiple products to choose from ranging from Peter Pan, Jif and Skippy, to a no-name generic and an organic offering.   Somatic markers act as shortcuts to help us make buying decisions.  For example:
“I associate Skippy with childhood. It’s been around forever. It is consistent and trustworthy - BUT I loved it as a child because it’s laden with sugar and preservatives that I shouldn’t be eating. Next. 

Peter Pan. It’s also been around forever and is therefore consistent and trustworthy. The childish name alone however reinforces the fact the brand is targeting children and therefore it’s laden with sugar and preservatives that I shouldn’t be eating. Next. 

The generic “
no-name” brand is 30 cents less, which makes it suspicious (as we know we typically get what we pay for). Next. 

Organic Peanut Butter. We’re told it’s better for us even though it’s tasteless, requires mixing, and is twice the price. However, we’ve also read and seen multiple reports that the term “organic” is grossly misused, so also highly suspect. Especially at twice the price. Next. 

JIF. It’s been around forever. It is therefore consistent and trustworthy. You also remember that “Choosy Mothers Choose JIF”. Being a mother implies she does what’s best for their child’s health. The messaging is framed in a way that (after discrediting other products in your mind) empowers and validates the consumer’s choice of JIF as “discriminating”. Your mother would approve.  Sale."

These cognitive shortcuts are what underlie most of our buying decisions.  Remember - it took less than 10 seconds to choose the “JIF” Peanut Butter or your Acura, based on a completely unconscious series of flags in your brain that lead straight to an emotional reaction.  All of a sudden, you “just knew” which brand you wanted, but were completely unaware of the factors - the shape of a products container, childhood memories, price, and a lot of other considerations that led to your buying decision.

Somatic markers aren’t simply a collection of reflexes from childhood or adolescence.  Every day, we manufacture new bookmarks and the larger our brains collection of somatic markers - whether for shampoos, face creams, deodorants, pants, shoes, or dresses – the more buying and life decisions we feel we can comfortably and logically make.  In fact, without somatic markers, humans would be able to make any decisions at all.

Why do consumers choose to buy one product over another?  
Why do our brains, for example, link together “automobile” with “Germany”?  After years of branding, these somatic markers are now second nature.  As a result, ‘German’ today equals engineering, high standards, precision, and trustworthiness. Whether conscious or not, in a world chalked full of car options, the somatic markers connecting Germany with positive automobile attributes come alive in our brain – and steward us towards a brand preference.  It’s the same reasons that consumers gravitated towards technological gadgetry developed in Japan in the past.  Again, based purely on a series of unconscious markers, the mind has linked together “Japan” with “Technological excellence in electronics”. 

Do brands and advertisers work to deliberately create these markers in our brains?  Absolutely.  Like unconscious breadcrumbs on a trail - all leading back to the sale. Look at tires.  For the most part they all look the same.  However, go into a tire store and you’ll likely find yourself gravitating towards the Michelin section.  You somehow know you're making the right choice, but aren’t sure why.  Remember the cute baby riding around in a Michelin tire?  Or the Michelin Man, whose plump round appearance suggests protective padding? How about the Michelin Guides; those slender, authoritative, high-end travel and food guides (which the company originally invented to get consumers to drive more)?

All of these seemingly unrelated somatic ‘bookmarks’ deliberately forge certain powerful brand associations.  It’s these powerful associations that come together to shepherd consumers toward a choice that seems rational (whether in fact it actually is or not).  All consumers know is that they “feel” that one product is indefinably superior to another.

What does your brand stand for in the consumers mind?  Or put another way, what are your brands (conscious and unconscious) somatic markers?  What brand hierarchy is established in your consumers mind? How does your brand position itself related to other offerings? Are you the PETER PAN or the JIF? 

Need some help reinforcing or changing this positioning?  We can help.