Doing what we do (whether we know it or not)

Mark Minelli

Running a branding firm for 30 years creates a wealth of opportunities to observe how people process information, form perceptions and make decisions.  As a species, humans have evolved to be self-aware, challenge the world and reshape our experience to our liking. As such, one might assume that people make decisions using a process that is wholly linear, rational and analytical. Far from it.

Perception is never neutral. Decision making is not rational. Emotion trumps all.

Despite how individuals differ in terms of personality, education and experience, everyone tends to follow their “lizard brain” when all else fails. Actually, we always follow it. Because much of our decision making is subconscious by nature, we tend to create ‘rational’ ways of interpreting why we did what we did, after the fact.

Looking back on how drastically different my parents were is an interesting example. My dad readily identified and discussed paradoxes in people’s behavior and he was rational in his consideration of when things were irrational. For someone with only a high school education, he readily got the nuances of abstract and conceptual ideas such as design thinking.

My mom harbored no such interests or reservations. Emotion drove her behavior and God help you if you got in her way. She could be hell on wheels. She was also tremendously full of life and great fun. She never wanted to be around “old people” even in her 70s and would try anything, anytime, anywhere. She loved stories and they created the context for how she viewed new information.

Even though they viewed the world so differently, the outcome of their decision making was quite similar. My dad would analyze rationally but still decide based on intuition and emotion, my mom skipped analytic precursors and charged forward with emotion. Granted, this example isn’t based on exacting behavioral science but, hopefully, it makes for a nice jumping off point for what follows.

The subconscious and the rational

If you want to help shape perception around an organization or an idea to create positive change (which is what my firm does), it is helpful to look at how people make decisions and why. In order to do that, we have to look at how our brains function.

Over the past 50 years, there has been an amazing body of work done to understand the human brain. In particular, I am excited by the seminal work done by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on behavioral economics. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economics based on his continued work in that area as outlined in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow.” The fact that a psychologist was awarded the prize in economics is testament to the power of his work.

I will not attempt to address their work in any detail but rather to provide some context for the mechanics of how we process information and make decisions.

We have 2 systems at work in our brain that make us who we are.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. Some scientists claim that we operate about 95% of the time using System 1. It controls breathing, reads and reacts to emotion and understands rudimentary language. It takes care of tasks in which we already hold expertise. It controls playing music or tennis if you are an extremely accomplished player (but not at all if you are not). System 1 does not have an off switch and it works very fast. System 1 also controls basic native language allowing you to read a simple word presented in your native language and intuitively constructs and interprets stories based on unconscious biases.

System 2 allocates attention to complex mental activities such as addressing a complex math problem, studying a new language, learning how to play an instrument or weighing options. System 2 is slow, takes a great deal of effort and we struggle if we engage in System 2 work over extended periods of time. System 2 activities fail when we are distracted and we can’t effectively juggle multiple system 2 activities simultaneously. Sorry, but multitasking is a myth.

“We are blind to the obvious, and also blind to our blindness” Daniel Kahneman

When involved in complex System 2 activities, we become essentially blind to other factors occurring in our environment. This phenomenon was strikingly illustrated in the research done by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons captured in a series of funny and thought provoking videos.

These two overlapping systems – System 1 and System 2 — have helped us to survive as a species and generally work well together. We would not survive long if we had to consider every breath we take and, in moments of imminent threat, we rely on System 1. I remember hearing the distress cry of my young son as he unintentionally body surfed an entire flight of stairs. One moment I am 3 rooms away, the next, catching him before he hits the landing. I have no memory of getting from one place to the next. I certainly wasn’t using System 2 thinking to deliberate the dynamics of propulsion and physics.

The rational ruled by the subconscious

One of the aspects of behavioral economics I find fascinating is how much of our rational, System 2 decision making is really being driven and guided by System 1, not just in moments of threat but in all kinds of seemingly “analytical” decision making.

How information is framed influences behavior in sometimes surprising ways. In “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Kahneman cites one study of patients that found radical differences in their willingness to undergo surgery by simply inverting the emphasis of identical facts.  “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” yielded three times the number of patients agreeing to a procedure than leading with “mortality within one month of surgery is 10%”.  This principle is referred to as Prospect Theory. In its simplest terms, Prospect Theory demonstrates that we experience potential loss much more acutely than potential gain.

We also rely on unconscious reference points to assess future problems, even if that reference point is largely or wholly irrelevant. If we are presented with a stimulus that represents a story, we weigh new information based on that story often biasing unrelated decisions.

“We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.” Malcom Gladwell

Back to brand

The implications for the application of behavioral science to the discipline of branding are profound and far reaching. We form perceptions and biases and make decisions based on framing and relevance. Rather than being held captive by these forces, my firm works to understand the emotional dynamics of System 1 thinking and manage them to create better brand awareness and engagement.

There are myriad examples from our work. In one case, we were in the early phases of audience research for a rebrand of what would become one of the nation’s most visited cultural institutions. One lapsed member expressed with certainty “My impression is that it’s very dated, I have not been there for almost 20 years, but it’s definitely dated.” You don’t need a whiteboard to diagram the logic flaws in this statement but it is clearly based on a longstanding memory of visiting a dusty, musty gallery. The longstanding memory was stronger than the extensive and very public multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion.

In another example, our work for a leading land conservation organization leveraged System 1 storytelling to expand engagement. More than 125 years ago, The Trustees of Reservations created the Land Trust – a legal entity that became the model for conservation across the world. Those founding ideas were centered on preserving unique places for public use and enjoyment, not conservation for its own sake. As the organization evolved, it relied more and more on conservation as a sole driver of the brand — one rooted in facts and figures, not stories and emotion. Although extremely successful, the organization wasn’t attracting younger and more diverse audiences to the extend they desired.

Using a variety of engagement tools with key stakeholders, some of which shortcut System 2 thinking and draw on rapid intuitive “gut” reactions, we discovered a host of strong, visceral and emotional reasons for why Trustees properties mattered. Rich in color, memory and intimacy, these emotional connections to the land became the basis of stories used to frame future engagement. The resulting brand strategy evoked how connection to nature enhanced the human spirit, in ways great and small. The goal was to forge a brand that tapped into the personal experiences that are part of individuals’ stories and identities, not just their interests. We developed a set of succinct visual and verbal tools capable of conveying and evoking those stories.

The new brand also had powerful implications for modifying internal culture. Brand training helped staff shift their understanding of their role from that of security guard to concierge, moving from warding off intruders to extending an experience of shared purpose and welcome.

In its most pure form, the discipline of branding responds to and enhances the critical emotional underpinnings of the essential story. One that provides critical and unconscious System 1 framing but also has great “white space” allowing individuals to fill in the blanks and complete the story.

Because that’s what we do, whether we know it or not.