I wrote recently about the unsettling experience of forgetting my PIN while at an ATM at the Denver airport. My mind went blank; for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the number.
As I walked away from the machine, the number popped into my head: 2061. I was sure it was the right number, so I returned to the machine and entered it. Wrong. I transposed some of the digits. Wrong again. Finally, I gave up. As I walked away again, I noticed that I was standing by a door with a number on it: 2061.
My System 1 had noticed the number but didn’t bother to send it to System 2. But when my System 2 broadcast an emergency message, looking for a four-digit number, System 1 offered up the most recent one it had seen. The number just popped into my head. (For more on Systems 1 and 2, click here).
To recap: information entered my brain via System 1 without my being consciously aware of it and I took action based on it.
So here’s a question: could advertisers use similar techniques to plant information in my brain without my knowing it and induce me to take action on it … by buying something?
The short answer: of course they could. In fact, they probably already have. That, at least, is the theory put forth by Peter Steidl in his book, Neurobranding.
Steidl starts by considering what he calls the habitual brain (System 1) and the considering brain (System 2). System 1 makes the vast majority of our decisions – and does so on its own without bothering to send a memo to our conscious self (System 2). Steidl points out that System 1 make a vast majority of our purchase decisions as well.
Broadly speaking, System 1 works by comparing new events to past memories. If a new event corresponds to a happy memory, then we’ll probably feel happy, even if we don’t consciously understand why. If the event evokes scary memories, then we become wary. Did you ever have an uneasy feeling about something? Your System 1 is trying to tell you something. It’s not a bad idea to pay attention.
Steidl also points out that the purpose of branding is to create memories. In fact, it’s a three-step process. First, we create a memory. If we can create a memory that corresponds to a happy memory already stored in the habitual brain, so much the better. Second, we shape the memory, using a variety of signs and symbols. Finally, we activate the memory to keep it from fading away.
All this can happen blow the level of consciousness. Indeed, Steidl argues that most consumers really don’t know why they buy most products. If you ask them, they’ll make up an answer in a process known as confabulation. A confabulated answer has nothing to do with reality, which is why market research is so often wrong. You ask a consumer a question. The consumer confabulates. You believe her. You’re in big trouble.
If all this happens below the threshold of consciousness, why do we bother with awareness research? Steidl argues that awareness and attribute research are essentially useless. Consumers may be aware of many brands but they’re not aware that they’re aware.
Let’s go back to the ATM example – and assume that you interview me before I realized where the number 2061 came from. If you had asked me, “What’s the number on the door you’re standing by?”, I would have answered, “I have no earthly idea.” I didn’t know that my System 1 had picked up the number. I didn’t know that I knew.
So, how do you plant memories in someone’s System 1? It’s not easy but it can be done. I’ll return to this in an upcoming article.