Our brains come with built-in biases and heuristics—rules of thumb that have proven useful from an evolutionary standpoint, but can sometimes play tricks on us in the modern age. Branding puts many of these psychological phenomena to use.
Below, I’ve briefly described five psychological phenomena at work in branding—the halo effect, mere exposure effect, bandwagon effect, confirmation bias, and priming bias—each depicted with an animated GIF (and a definition pulled from Wikipedia). By better understanding how these cognitive biases work, you may discover new ways to strengthen your brand.
The Halo Effect
The halo effect has wide-ranging implications for how brands are perceived and how those perceptions “transfer” or “flow” to other aspects of the brand, related offerings, or associated brands.
If you have a positive impression of a brand based on one product, service, experience, or person, that impression will positively influence your impression of related offerings or brand extensions. Say you love Jack Daniel’s whiskey, for example. That “love” is likely to have a positive impact on your perceptions of Gentleman Jack (a high-end label), Jack Daniel’s canned cocktails, and Jack Daniel’s coffee.
The Mere Exposure Effect
Studies have shown that seeing (or hearing) something multiple times, even if you don’t make a conscious note of it, will result in a preference for that thing. This is known as the mere-exposure effect or Zajonc Effect, after a psychologist who studied it.
The obvious implication here is in advertising. It’s part of why ads work—even seemingly “dumb” ads like billboards and even the decals on race cars.
But this psychological phenomenon also lends credence to a central tenet of branding: stay consistent. You can’t take advantage of this effect if your brand is unrecognizable every time it shows up. Also, the mere exposure effect provides another argument against mentioning your competitors by name (something I believe Byron Sharp wrote about in How Brands Grow).⠀
But don’t take this as an excuse to spam people. Psychology also tells us the effect has a limit: After about 10–20 exposures, people may start to dislike the stimulus (like an overplayed song on the radio).
The Bandwagon Effect
The bandwagon effect underpins every trend and fad. If everyone else is doing it, maybe you should, too.
This effect partly explains why brands show people using their products in ads and websites, why Gap wants you to wear a sweatshirt with a giant Gap logo on it, and why Apple wanted you to see Carrie Bradshaw using her PowerBook on Sex and the City. (It worked better once they got logo the right way up.)
The Confirmation Bias
You’ve experienced the confirmation bias, whether you realize it or not. Once you get an idea in your head or form a strong positive or negative opinion about something, you’re more likely to notice information that confirms your point of view. You’re also more likely to ignore, reject, or forget any information that disputes your preconceived notions.
This bias impacts our lives in many ways, from social media (only following accounts we agree with) to politics (casting anything the other party says as “fake news”). In branding, many positive experiences with a brand can provide a useful buffer against a single negative experience. If you enjoy your daily trip to Starbucks, you’re more likely to interpret a bad day—maybe the barrista is rude or the coffee tastes off—as an anomaly.
The Priming Bias
Priming is a big category of psychological phenomena by which one stimulus affects our perception of a subsequent stimulus. A classic example of priming involves timing people’s reactions to words or images. When people are primed by one stimulus—the word “tool,” for example—they’re quicker to recognize another, related stimulus—like “hammer.”
Examples of priming in marketing and branding could include using Hawaiian music or plumeria scent in a store to prime customers to notice the Hawaiian shirts on sale or charging a premium price to prime people to expect a premium experience.
Other psychological phenomena in branding
The anchoring bias can make sale prices seem low even when they’re still higher than they should be. The framing effect makes “95% fat free” sound better than “contains 5% fat.” This article just scratches the surface when it comes to cognitive biases and heuristics in branding. In fact, there’s even a cognitive bias named after a brand—when consumers place a greater perceived value on items they helped put together, it’s known as the IKEA effect.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, namer, and author of the upcoming book, Brand Naming: The Complete Guide to Creating a Name for Your Company, Product, or Service. He also runs Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm, and hosts the podcast How Brands Are Built.