Every day, the average consumer is exposed to somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 brands.
That’s an astoundingly high number.
With so many brands vying for our attention, it’s a wonder that any of them are able to cut through the noise.
And yet certain brands not only do just that, they elicit a strong connection from their customers.
Apple. Coca Cola. Harley Davidson.
Even their very names probably bring specific images to your mind, along with associated memories and feelings.
There are scientific reasons why these brands resonate that come down to human psychology.
These brands tap into specific ways the human brain ticks. And, in doing so, they’ve been able to successfully form strong, long-term connections with consumers.
But how have they done it? And how can your brand do the same?
Here are four main psychological factors that get consumers to connect with companies.
Forming an Association Through Positive Memories
Did you know that Pepsi tastes better than Coke to most people?
That’s not an opinion. Blind taste tests have proven this over and over.
Yet Coke continues to dominate – controlling 42% of the carbonated soft drink market, versus Pepsi’s 30%.
Why is this the case? The answer lies in our emotions.
To understand what marketers and consumer behavior researchers came to call “The Pepsi Paradox,” scientific research looked at people’s brains when they knew they were drinking Pepsi versus Coca Cola.
When they did not know what they were drinking, people preferred Pepsi. But when they were told what beverage they were drinking, they preferred Coke.
Brain imaging revealed why.
The area of the brain associated with positive memories – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPC – is activated when we think of a familiar brand name product.
The “brand experience” that has been created by Coke actually changed the taste experience of subjects.
Most of us do not want to believe that we can be influenced in this way. We want to think that we decide things rationally; that we use measurable pros and cons to make choices.
But study after study has found that emotions matter – a lot.
In fact, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, Antonio Demasio, takes this argument even further.
He believes that our decisions are more than just influenced by emotion – when feelings are not involved, people literally cannot choose between two things.
His view is based on studies he conducted on people who had suffered damage to the connections between the “thinking” and “emotional” areas of their brains.
When given a choice of alternatives, they were able to rationally process information about their options.
Despite this, they could not ultimately come to a decision, because they were not able to determine how they felt about those options.
Without any emotional connection, the facts and figures simply did not matter.
This is as true for digital brands as it is for their “real world” counterparts.
Zappos, as an example, is a brand that’s taken this message to heart and that’s since dedicated itself to connecting its brand to positive emotions.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Zappos customer service team.
The company famously does not require call center reps to follow a specific script, instead encouraging them to let their personalities shine and to take care of the customer’s needs by living in the moment.
They’ve gone as far as sending flowers to customers, surprising customers with upgrades to overnight shipping, and even talking on the phone with customers for as long as 10 hours.
The goal is repeated association with positive memories. And the result is loyal customers.
When you’re making branding decisions, focus on creating an emotional experience first.
How can I bring about humor, inspiration, admiration, awe, surprise, or delight? How can I create a positive memory that will not only make someone choose my brand over the competition, but remain loyal?
But don’t just think these thoughts – put them into practice.
I’ve seen too many companies use questions like these as a purely-academic training exercise, the results of which are abandoned as quickly as they’re brainstormed.
Instead, identify 1-3 opportunities in the way you connect with customers to create or reinforce positive brand associations.
Put them into practice, then return to this exercise and choose another 1-3 once the first set has been successfully implemented.
Driving Consistent Brand Recognition
We prefer what we already know. In fact, over 60% of consumers prefer to buy from familiar brands.
Well-known brands elicit strong activity in parts of the brain associated with positive emotional processing. Unknown brands activate parts of the brain associated with negative emotions.
Consistency is important for recognition, particularly when it comes to consistently associating the visual elements of your brand with its identity.
Almost half of the human brain is involved in visual processing. So it’s no surprise that the visual elements of a brand are important.
It only takes the brain half a second to recognize a brand’s visual identity, including its logo, colors, and font. And, interestingly, strong brands are also processed with less effort from the brain.
When we see a brand’s visual identity, our brain connects it to previous experiences with similar patterns in our memory. For example, “I shop here all the time” or “This logo reminds me of something else.”
Recognizing a brand can even impact our behavior.
People who associated Apple with creativity performed better on creative tasks after being shown the Apple logo.
Those shown a Disney logo answered questions more honestly when they associated the brand with pure, wholesome fun.
Even a single element – such as font or color – can play a powerful role in recognition.
This simple quiz showcases the power of consistency. It challenges visitors to identify the brand solely based on the shade of blue. Take it, and I’m guessing you’ll be surprised by how well you do.
Brands that are clear, focused, and consistent leave a lasting impact. “Simple” is often an asset, because it requires less work for the brain to process.
But even if your logo or other branded assets are more simple than complex, be consistent.
Use the same logo everywhere, and control variations by developing a brand book of style guidelines that dictate where, when and how your branded elements should be used.
Don’t overlook the power of repetition, either. The more references a consumer connects to a brand, the more likely it is to be remembered.
Getting Memorable with Colors
Further, 52% of shoppers abandon sites and do not return because they dislike the overall aesthetics.
So color matters a lot – but probably not in the way you expect.
If you’ve spent any time studying marketing online, you’ve likely sees charts that detail the meaning or values we attach to particular colors.
Unfortunately, they aren’t entirely accurate.
We all have strong associations to particular colors, but those associations differ widely based on a number of factors, including personal preference, culture, experiences, upbringing, and context.
Colors are too personal to be reduced to simple statements like, “green signifies money” or “purple means loyalty.”
Instead, look at how colors fit with what you are selling.
A study from the Cardiff Business School showed that the perceived appropriateness of the color for the brand was most important in terms of its ability to be memorable.
For example, Apple’s use of white communicated its affinity for clean, straightforward design.
The bold red, black, and yellow colors in Porsche’s logo, on the other hand, communicate a sexy and fierce image.
Another interesting study of the color of orange juice showed just how strong the factor of perceived appropriateness can be.
While you’d think people would care more about price or quality, the study found it was the color of the juice that impacted taste preferences most; juices with orange-ish hues were preferred over those with reddish or yellowish hues.
Simply put, the colors you choose should match the nature of the product or service you offer.
They should help to create the feeling or personality that you want your brand to convey; otherwise, color could be working against you.
The best way to determine whether or not you’ve chosen is to poll people. Those close to you – your family members, friends or employees – have a stake in it, so they can’t be impartial.
Paid surveys or user testing organizations can offer a more objective analysis of the emotions associated with your current brand colors.
If you find a mismatch, don’t rush into a full rebrand. Instead, explore opportunities to render your logo and other assets in different colors that better match your customers’ expectations.
Once you’ve hit on the right combination, describe them in detail in your brand book.
Creating a Feeling of Belonging
Think of your brand as a person. Consumers do.
That’s right. Consumers perceive personality characteristics in brands just as they do in people.
And just as with people, they’re attracted to some personality types more than others. These attractions are based on emotion – not reason.
A University of Arizona researcher who studied college students’ brand preferences found that they were more likely to identify with brands that reflected images related to their identities (e.g. athletic, conservative, or hippie).
This is why customers can become loyal to a brand due to a need to belong. We’re all innately driven to identify and belong to social groups.
This is our social identity. It can be derived from being a part of a sorority, a fan of a sports team, or a member of a culture.
But our purchasing decisions also play a role. You may feel connected to someone else because you prefer the same brand of sports car or smartphone.
This is because a strong brand activates the areas of the brain associated with self-knowledge and autobiographical memory.
Strong brands are more likely to communicate personality traits, such as youth, wealth, sexiness, or trendiness.
Harley Davidson is a brand that makes good use of this psychological fact.
It specifically identifies its customers as “rebels, freedom seekers, trendsetters, and adventure junkies.”
They even have an official Harley Owners’ Group – literally allowing their customers to belong to the brand.
Customers have been known to take their identity as Harley enthusiasts so strongly that they even have the brand name tattooed on their bodies.
And Harley-Davidson is far from alone in this strategy.
The 2006 “Get a Mac” campaign from Apple is a great example of a company using the concept of social identity to strengthen their brand.
In the popular series of commercials, hip, young, unflappable Justin Long introduced himself as, “Hi, I’m a Mac.” Stodgy, uptight, bumbling John Hodgman followed up with, “And I’m a PC.”
Watch one of the commercials here, just in case you’re one of the few people in the world that hasn’t seen them.
Here, Apple literally personified the products. It implied that the type of computer you use signifies what kind of person you were.
And it asked: which would you rather be?
Consumers construct their identity and the way they present themselves to others through their purchasing decisions. You need to understand how your brand fits into their concept of self.
This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but an effective brand reinforces the positive traits that their customers desire or believe they already have.
Take the company PopCorners, a client of mine that can be found online at the “Our Little Rebellion” website:
PopCorners are chips that mimic the texture and feel of popcorn, and they’re far from the only brand attempting to capitalize on Americans’ recent penchant for healthier snacks.
Where PopCorners succeeds, though, is in turning the consumption of its product into something more – into a rebellious act.
Because the brand consistently incorporates this angle into everything from its packaging to the blog content it publishes on its site, the message is reinforced regularly.
Take, for example, a blog post that’s in the works, titled, “How the ‘Health at Every Size’ Movement Turns Conventional Dieting on Its Head.”
It’s helpful, useful information – with a twist.
By focusing on people who go against the grain – who look outside the box for solutions to their health and wellness challenges – PopCorners establishes its website as a home for those who rebel against conventional wisdom.
And as website visitors consume the message, it resonates especially with those who already identify themselves as rebellious non-conformists and trendsetters.
PopCorners becomes the snack for “people like them.”
Building an enduring brand – like Apple, Coca Cola or Harley Davidson – isn’t easy. There’s a reason these companies pay tons of money to brand consultants and marketing agencies to help them manage their income.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from their examples to better connect with consumers.
Look at the psychological factors underpinning the consumer decisions we make. Then, identify opportunities – no matter how small in scale – to translate them to the way your brand operates.
Even small actions taken in the direction of building a brand that resonates with consumers will add up over time.
How are you building your brand to tap into these four elements? Tell me about it in the comments below: