The Distraction of Data: How Brand Research Misses The Real Reasons Why People Buy

In the latest in his series on neuroscience and marketing, Douglas Van Praet discusses why traditional research on "brand awareness" misses what really drives a buy, and the power of positive and negative associations in moving markets.

Along with sales, marketers primarily gauge their performance by measuring awareness and brand attributes ratings in surveys. And this seems to make sense. That’s how the mind works—by recognizing and responding to associative patterns.

But here’s the rub. People are often aware of the ad messages; what they are unaware of is how they are influenced by the messages. The attributes that drive decisions are often unstated because they are unconscious, or what cognitive scientists call non-declarative or implicit memory.

We simply can’t explicitly declare what we don’t know.

I Like It, But I Don’t Know Why.

These implicit associations often determine preferences through gut feelings that override critical thinking.

Melanie Dempsey of Ryerson University and Andrew A. Mitchell of the University of Toronto demonstrated this when they exposed participants to made-up brands paired with a set of pictures and words, some negative and some positive. After seeing hundreds of images paired with brands, the subjects were unable to recall which brands were associated with which pictures and words, but they still expressed a preference for the positively conditioned brands. The authors of the study labeled it the "I like it, but I don’t know why" effect.

In a follow-up experiment, participants were presented with product information that contradicted their earlier impressions, offering them reasons to reject their brand preferences, but they still chose those with the positive associations. Conflicting factual information did not undo the prior conditioning. The associated feelings superseded rational analysis.

Learning Without Knowing

This happens partly because the brain’s emotional systems can function independently from the cortex, the seat of consciousness. Therefore memories and response repertoires can be formed without us ever knowing.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux gives an example of how this might happen. Let’s say that you have an argument during lunch with someone while seated at a table with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. The next day, you meet another man who happens to be wearing a red-and-white checkered necktie and you have this gut feeling that you don’t like him. As LeDoux explains, "Consciously, I’m saying it’s my gut feeling because I don’t like the way he looks . . . But in fact, it’s being triggered by external stimuli that I’m not processing consciously."

Similarly we fabricate positive meaning about product attributes without logic or awareness. Take, for instance, our dual brand purchases of teeth whitener and mouthwash. Why would anyone brush with toothpaste clinically proven to whiten teeth and then rinse with a brightly colored green mouthwash containing blue dye #1 and yellow dye #5?

Through repetition of exposure to other colored products, our unconscious minds have learned to associate the color green with the feeling of fresh and clean, overriding the reasons for buying whitening toothpaste.

This is why Coke Clear and Crystal Pepsi failed in the early 1990s. People didn’t prefer clear cola, because the rich brown hue of cola is steeped in fond memories that color our beliefs not just the drink. We see with our brains not just our eyes.

A Brand Is Like A Peacock’s Tail

The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes that humans display brands like proud peacocks exhibit their tail feathers, as "fitness indicators" that advertise their potential as mates. Peacocks spread their intricate plumage to imply their natural beauty conferred by good genes, their ability to find ample food to sustain the health of the tremendous tail, and their speed and agility in avoiding predators in spite of its cumbersome size. Generally animals don’t have any conscious awareness as to why they display these indicators; the urge simply comes to them and they reap the evolutionary benefits of greater attractiveness.

Humans also advertise their "fitness" to our fellow kind. The brands we choose are symbols that signify traits that mark our success and worth in the pecking order. And, like the peacock, we often have no conscious awareness of why we are doing it.

I have created a seven-step process to scientifically unveil how marketing really works. These are the seven steps:

1) Interrupt the pattern.
2) Create comfort.
3) Lead the imagination.
4) Shift the feeling.
5) Satisfy the Critical Mind.
6) Change the Associations.
7) Take Action.

Step 6 is: Change the Associations. If you don’t know the associations you need to change, you don’t know the most important part of branding.

When Associations Shift, So Do Markets.

That’s because when associations shift so do market shares because we learn and make decisions through vast neural networks of associative memory.

Take for instance what many industry experts consider the most brilliantly successful ad campaign of all time: the revered and reviled Marlboro Man.

When ad executive Leo Burnett conceived the cowboy he created the most remarkable about-face in ad history. Previously positioned for women, as a milder cigarette, the filter was even printed with a red band to hide lipstick stains, and the ads openly targeted feminine sensibilities with the ladylike slogan "Mild as May."

The rugged, masculine symbolism of the American cowboy, transformed the brand’s image by claiming attributes about the character not the product. Offering intimations of rebellion, adventure, fearlessness, and strength, the ads celebrated the heroes and villains of the time popularized by Western films.

When the campaign rolled out nationally in 1955, sales jumped 3,241% to $5 billion and the Marlboro Man would become among the most widely recognized cultural symbols.

The explicit message of the Marlboro Country campaign was "come to where the flavor is," but it was the flavor of the character that motivated smokers by offering oblique access to the defiant spirit of wranglers. While this may seem intuitive to ad creators up front, all too often marketers test these same ads with the wrong metrics on the back end, forgetting that "tastes good" and "makes me feel like a badass" are worlds apart.

And even when we uncover the deeper meaning with projective qualitative tools like storytelling, imagery, and metaphors, etc., we still can’t reliably measure these elusive associations in evaluative quantitative tests because respondents remain unaware of them or simply choose not to admit to them.

The challenge for marketers defies logic and awareness. We must identify sometimes illogical traits we unknowingly aspire to have as people and communicate those in advertising. Because it’s ironic that smoking can display our fitness to our social groups, but so, too, is the human mind.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also a marketing consultant whose approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to business problems. He has worked at agencies in N.Y. and L.A., most recently as executive vice ppresident at Deutsch L.A., where his responsibilities included group planning director for the Volkswagen account.

[Image: Flickr users Dennis Jarvis, Ivan Gonzalez, Christine Roth, and Daniela Vladimirova]

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  • LoudLab

    The unconscious pre-condition for “I like it, but I don’t know why” is simply living in the states -- where "individualism" and "rule-breaking" is the normative way of life. "Fresh as May" offers an amusing contrast to today's "F*ck you Mascara" by Pink.

    Basically, all US advertising is based on the "rugged individual" archetype. And it's worked since day 1 as a nation of separatists and pioneers. 
    Compare that to Asian where fitting-in, "non-individualism", planning and rule adherence is the norm. The Chinese male smokes to fit into the crowd; he is not trying to express a rebellion against parents or the institution. The states owns the largest cigarette brands.

    Japan is an interesting exception but that's explained by their respect for the laissez-faire American attitude that bested their policy of rigor, excellence and rule adherence. No one loves their Harley more than a Japanese. 

  • Jeanajoymedalla

    1.     In light of your reading, what is the value of the

    UAI is a helpful tool in understanding the market. Usage and
    attitude studies emphasize on the frequency of product use, frequency of
    product purchase and attitudes towards the product. These studies also include
    questions relating to the respondents attitudes towards the brand and also the
    brand image. According
    to the reading, the rugged, masculine symbolism of the American cowboy
    transformed the brand’s image by claiming attributes about the character not
    the product. Those images that can be
    attributed to the brand can be extracted in the image portion of the UAI
    survey. Nowadays, the market is being more diverse making it more unpredictable.
    UAI can in help study the market but I think it would not be enough. As a
    marketer, they should consider other aspects that may contribute to the improvement
    of their product.

    2. Is market or brand research still essential? How?

    Yes, market/brand research
    is still important. Market research is used to solve marketing problems; it is
    a very broad study of the market where problems in consumer, product,
    competition, sales promotion and the like are being resolved. It will always be
    important to understand the market even if year has past. Just make sure that
    you have an accurate data because it entails great risk on your brand when you
    have inaccurate data in hand.

    3. What insights and
    realizations have you derived from the readings?

    I realized that it is not
    enough that you based your market findings in only one study. I also realized
    that the market is now changing and it is being unpredictable thus having
    illogical traits. We must also understand the own feeling of our market and not
    just focus how good our product is or how they feel about our product.

    4. What questions would you
    like to ask or clarify?

    ·      What are other ways to study the market
    besides on the things we learn from our professors?

    ·      What are your insights about the article?

  • Nina Punzalan

    Brand Awareness is the
    likelihood that a consumer recognizes the existence or availability of a
    product or service of the company. It’s one of the key steps in promoting a
    product or service. It is necessary to use the Usage, Attitude, Image (UAI) market study as part of the
    research. For, it is a tool to understand the market’s response to a product and the opportunities for sales
    within a targeted consumer group. Thus, this tool will aid what product or
    service can satisfy the needs of the market.

    In entering the
    marketplace, it is important to know what product or service can satisfy your
    consumers, what are your strategic decisions, and new ideas for products or
    service. Identifying the market trend, demographics, economic shifts, customer’s
    buying habits and competitor’s edge are essential informations that can
    contribute to a company’s success. These are informations that only market or
    brand research can give. Also, this are informations that may help the brand
    communicate effectively, identify and undersand opportunities, Pinpoint obstacles or problems, benchmark and evaluate a
    company’s success. Thus, market or brand research is essential.


    It takes tons of effort
    and hardwork to make all the research and understanding that will contribute to
    the business’ success. Catering the needs and wants of the consumers is not
    always the game. But it is the ability of the company to gather all the needed
    informations to be able to cope and survive the market and be successful in its
    chosen endeavor. 

    Are there companies who did not undergo market research who became successful? If Yes, what did they do in order to be successful? 

  • Anthony Reardon

    Some interesting comments. Felt like I was trying to skip school, got caught by the hall monitor, and then sent back to class, lol!

    So if the problem of data is it can miss the point of why people buy, the proposed solution is to try "smarter" data? Fundamentally, you are trying the same thing, just "harder". That is, there might be fatal flaws in data based decision making that do not pertain to how intelligent it is. There are a lot of assumptions in play here.

    One problem I have with statistical measures is ambiguity. What I mean is that aspect of data that can be misinterpreted or in some cases intentionally misleading. In the same respect, you are just as likely to ask the wrong questions. Surveys, for instance, often try to confine questions to a defined set of answers prescribed for constructive data analyses. However, the most essential information might actually come from open-ended questions. Consequently, such questions aren't asked because they aren't considered usable or efficient for data generation.

    Look at the underlying purpose of data. Are you trying to see a pattern to make sense of an event after the fact? Are you trying to develop conclusions that can help you more accurately forecast? Whether inductive or deductive, interpolative or extrapolative, the underlying logic can fail you. I don't think the answer has to be "data".

    For instance, data is sort of the premise of a supply-push economic model. It is often assumed that a central-decision making authority has the best vantage for planning resources. However, there are alternative models where decision-making is distributed to the point of use and result in greatest effectiveness and efficiency- autonomous action using local logic operating as an intelligent whole. In other words, a demand-pull model may work better in more complex systems, and instead of trying to arrive at better educated guessing (data), people might just tell you what they want.

    Along the same lines, the economy-of-scale paradigm makes data a priority. Technology, social media, consumer culture- these are all changing the context. You don't necessarily need to produce a one-size-fits-all. at the other end of that continuum is custom ordering. Low Mix/ High Volume is now challenged by competing models for HM/LV. Thus, determining what most people want may not be as critical as determining what an individual wants. Try communicating impressing them in terms of data- you may be better off having a direct conversation.

    So data lends itself to the "We sell, You buy" relational model between businesses and people. It doesn't necessarily have to be that way. You can involve the customer all the way at the start of the process at the design level, even at the organizational level with the very idea of your company. The customer might be a partner every step of production to delivery, and together the company might follow them through the life-cycle of their use, and on through the process all over again at a future time. My point is that kind of relational model implies a change in the context of data, and proposes an albeit hypothetical alternative for how to go about market research.

    Best, Anthony

  • enrica tayag

    4M1 TAYAG
    In light of
    your reading, what is the value of the UAI?
    UAI is used
    of how consumers measuring brand awareness and brand attributes in rating the
    surveys. But they say that people are often aware of the ad messages. Using surveys
    is not that absolute.
    Is market or
    brand research still essential? How?
    Yes! It’s still
    essential because it will help us to know on consumers brand awareness. And knowing
    what is the behavior of the consumers in buying this product.
    What insights
    and realizations have you derived from the readings?
    I realized
    that some consumers are not relying only in the message of the ads; but also
    the feedback of their friends or family that already used the product. And some
    consumers want to try the product so that they will know if the messages are
    efficient and effective.
    4. What questions would you like to ask or
    What is the
    best way to convince the consumer to buy your product?


  • Janine Canono

    4M2- CANONO, Janine Hazel
    1. UAI helps not just the marketers but the companies themselves to better measure brand awareness and attitude basing from the results they've got. It gives us the idea of something we're not yet aware of, or the idea that what we thought of can be embraced by the consumers. Through UAI, we become aware of the needs and demands of the consumers yet somehow we should not totally depend on the UAI itself because there are a lot of factors contributing to buying behavior of consumers.
    2. It is indeed still essential for me because knowing your brand and market well helps you attain good brand performance. Sometimes we focus too much on just the brand itself or the consumers themselves, we have to dig deeper on both to bridge the gap and better communicate our brand to the consumers.
    3. That it takes a lot of considerations for a brand to succeed in the market. We have to be always alert and curious of what's been happening around us. And it should not just stop there, we have to take action upon those learning we've got. I also realized that it is not just what we think of the product but how we feel about it. Feelings play an important role in buying behavior of consumers and most of us are not aware that it does.
    4. Are there cases where a successful UAI and other kinds of research didn't make a product successful in the market? What must be the problem if so?

  • Jill Ann Dionisio

    4M2 - DIONISIO, Jill Ann 

    1. UAI measures the likeness of a person. It deals
    with the question why people had to but this kind of product? But then we don’t
    know their exact answer to the questions that are given. Sometimes UAI may not
    reliable because according to what I had read it says that consumer likes the
    product but there is no reason of why purchasing it. Usually it can be seen
    through surveys where there are several questions to be answer and probably not
    all information written in that paper is as same to the ideas we want to know.
    The Value of UAI is simply knowing the taste and preference of consumers when
    buying product.

    2. Yes,
    this is the reason why we need to find out what’s best for the consumers.
    Market or Brand research might help the needs and wants of consumers. It is
    essential in a sense of knowing and looking for definite information about
    products. The innovation and opportunities that is to be considered when
    researching such data about markets and brands. 
    Based on my reading it says that they should identify
    sometimes illogical traits we unknowingly aspire to have as people and
    communicate those in advertising. It will be a big factor for a Marketing and
    Brand research.
    3. Based
    on the readings I comprehended that these researches must study very well
    because not all consumers are aware of these ideas you want to present to them.
    Others may buy it but doesn’t mind about the other factors. It is important to
    seek information about consumers taste and preferences to clarify things which
    will help us in making and producing products.

    4. Do
    you think people who answered in survey questions like in UAI are reliable?  Why is that people buys a product but doesn’t
    know why? Is there any information that lacks the knowledge of one product?

  • Maan Rigor

    4M2 RIGOR

    1. In the reading, UAI is used to recognize how the consumers mind works by measuring their awareness & brand attribute ratings through surveys. But in the reading they have emphasized that the importance of this survey is not always absolute because there are things in a consumer's mind that are unconscious to them that influence their buying decisions.

    2. Yes, because the argument of the study is that there are key factors on a consumer's brand awareness that are unconscious to them but it did not say that only the unconscious is important to measuring a consumer's awareness. The unconscious mind of the consumer is still important and that can be measured and studied in a market or brand research

    3. I realized that survey's are not enough to understand the minds of the consumers but there are immeasurable variables in the mind of the consumers that also has to be considered because these factors (the unconscious) are at times more influential to their decisions than what they know and hold true.

    4. If surveys are not enough to measure consumer awareness and buying decisions, what other methods can be used? 

  • Jessica17cardano


    Navarro  - 

    Think about and
    respond to the following questions:
    1. In light of your reading, what is the value of the UAI?

    UAI just signifies the people’s awareness of the brand and how to use
    the product but not exactly their consumption

    2. Is market or brand research still essential?

    Yes, it’s still essential
    because it will help us understand the consumers better in terms of their
    buying behavior

    3. What insights and realizations have you derived
    from the readings?

    That the responses of the
    people about the certain brand may vary from their experience and/or from what
    they have been used to.

    4. What questions would you like to ask or clarify?

    so are you saying that branding is not really important due to the
    peoples experience with the brand and/or product?

  • jmcclure3699

    In his book, The Righteous Mind - Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt explores this line of science as it applies to the subject of his very engaging book.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Interesting post Douglas,

    I don't get the criticisms here. "Context" in this case is like the proverbial "what if" argument. If we're talking about a scientific observation, it should go without saying scope is defined to the controls with all other things essentially equal. It's also well documented that green is specifically added to products like mouthwash, and we are brainwashed by media to associate that with the freshness of mint, etc. That kind of Pavlovian conditioning is also reinforced by people that don't use mouthwash, and look like they've got a mouth full of festering grass and leprechauns, lol!  

    This was a good read. Actually, in my own words I talk about this as a "tangible conversion of the precedent behavior". Nike, for example, presents a brand that people like associating their personal and social identities to. In simple terms, if they like "playing" with the brand, they are quite likely to buy the branded product. Play is the precursor to the real thing. The reasons people buy are immediately observable, and by missing this essential point, data can be a distractor.

    Best, Anthony  

  • mhensgen

    Wow! What total gibberish.

    Loved the red and white table cloth and tie comparison. WTF ever happened to CONTEXT?

    I had a very famous market research head in NYC back in the 80's. One of his favorite aphorisms was " A methodology looking for a place to happen."

    looks like what we've got here.

  • Jibberjabber

    "Why would anyone brush with toothpaste clinically proven to whiten teeth
    and then rinse with a brightly colored green mouthwash containing blue
    dye #1 and yellow dye #5?"
    because not everyone reads the contents list. and I doubt they list the colors as "blue
    dye #1 and yellow dye #5".

    "...our unconscious minds have learned to associate the color green with the feeling of fresh and clean..."
    grass is also green. and grass stains clothes easily. and grass grows in soil. and leprechauns are green. so no, green isn't always associated with clean.