Opinion: the impact of neuroscience on own brand by Coley Porter Bell CEO Vicky Bullen

Coley Porter Bell CEO Vicky Bullen

Neuroscience has shown that most of our decision-making is automatic, intuitive and instinctive – and it’s made in the System One, ‘rapid-response’ part of our brains. After that initial ‘autopilot’ response, we rationalise decisions in the System Two part of our brains – the reflective and logical section.  It’s why we desire the sleek minimalism of an Apple product or the elegant lines of a BMW first, then convince ourselves it’s because of the interface or engineering.

As brand owners, strategists or designers, we need to create brands that connect with System One, to seduce the subconscious, while also talking to System Two to convince the conscious).

In a typical supermarket, with over 30 000 products to choose from, understanding how to engage with the System One part of the brain becomes crucial. If shoppers made a System Two decision about every product they selected, carefully considering and weighing up pros and cons they would lose the will to live and abandon their trolleys. Others would need 24 hours to complete their shop.

Luckily, the human brain has evolved to develop a number of sophisticated System One shortcuts, letting the brain respond to subconscious cues to speed up decision making. System One processes some 11m bits of information per second, often without you knowing it, making navigating supermarkets a relative cinch.

Designing to incorporate these cues is not the sole preserve of branded manufacturers.  A staggering 85% of us buy own brand food and non-alcoholic drinks, with sales jumping from £40.6 billion in 2009 to £48.3 billion last year. Sales will continue to soar, predicts Mintel, to £49.7 billion this year. No surprise that supermarkets are often as savvy about good design as branded manufacturers. 

So what are these subconscious cues that have such a huge impact on changing perceptions of own brand? We put neuroscience at the heart of client brand strategies and have seen huge success with own brands for the likes of Co-Operative and Morrisons, as well as understanding what it is that makes competitor ranges so effective – whether System One cues have been built in consciously or not.  

For instance, neuroscience tells us that we are drawn to things that feel human in some way, whether via attributes, individuality or personality. Tesco’s Goodness range has played effectively to this learning by using on-pack characters,, a hand-painted style with paint splashes and hand-drawn typography. This creates a human identity that gives the impression the range has been created for children by children.  

Many of us think of design in terms of standout and signposting. This is, of course, important but it’s only part of the story.  A phenomenon called ‘thin slicing’ – our ability to extrapolate huge amounts of meaning from the smallest executional touches - means that, in design, god really is in the seductive details. Our work for the Co-Operative Fresh range reflects this by not merely standing out, but doing so in a way that the executional design cues reflect and re-enforce the range promise. From a watercolour style to pure natural colours, to the innocent, almost naïve, execution everything works to communicate a fresh unprocessed offering full of light and natural vitality. 

Neuroscience also tells us how system One learns – primarily by association.  So understanding the association between visual cues and concepts in the real world allows us to borrow these codes to invoke the concept in a piece of design.  Our work for Morrisons M Kitchen Bistro range borrowed from the world of gastro pubs, from the ‘hero-ing’ of ingredients, to the chalk effect type and slate backgrounds to create an impression of contemporary restaurant quality food at home.  Similarly, the Heston from Waitrose range successfully borrows a number of ‘science’ cues - from the colour palette to the typeface, to the X-ray style food photography - to illicit the style Heston is so well known for. 

Although learnings from neuroscience help unlock vital System One clues in consumer behaviour, we shouldn’t forget System Two. After all, it’s human nature to want to think we’ve based our decisions on a well thought-out process rather than just a gut feeling. Ensuring design appeals to System One as well as System One is important. An example is in our Morrisons M Savers range.  System One cues play on the power of humanity, using individual design, hand drawn type and hand crafted illustration to convey the impression the range has benefitted from the human touch – rather than the identikit industrial approach of value ranges. This is carefully balanced by indications that this is a value range to System Two via the use of white and, of course, the M Saver name. 

Nevertheless, given that experts estimate that we make around 90 per cent of our decisions subconsciously  we believe the full potential of System One-based approaches are not being realized. New ways of embracing the use of these subconscious cues is crucial.

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach; we believe that the way to busy modern shoppers’ wallets is via their System One instinct and intuition.

Vicky Bullen is CEO of Coley Porter Bell