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Research—You're Doing It Wrong. How Uncovering The Unconscious Is Key To Creativity

If you think consumers are telling you what they want in traditional research, you’re wrong. Deutsch’s Douglas Van Praet argues that marketers must look to unconscious behavior for real creative breakthroughs.

Research--You're Doing It Wrong. How Uncovering The Unconscious Is Key To Creativity

Businesses invest billions of dollars annually in market research studies developing and testing new ideas by asking consumers questions they simply can’t answer. Asking consumers what they want, or why they do what they do, is like asking the political affiliation of a tuna fish sandwich. That’s because neuroscience is now telling us that consumers, i.e., humans, make the vast majority of their decisions unconsciously.

Steve Jobs didn’t believe in market research. When a reporter once asked him how much research he conducted to develop the iPad, he quipped, "None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want." And according to some measures, the iPad became the most successful consumer product launch ever and Apple went on to become the most valuable company of all-time.

Marketers are living a delusion that the conscious mind, the self-chatter in their heads and the so-called "verbatims" in surveys and focus groups, are the guiding forces of action. They are talking to themselves, not to the deeper desires of people, rationalizing the need for the wrong tools aimed at the wrong target, and the wrong mind. They have hamstrung an industry based upon backwards thinking by encouraging concepts that beat the research testing system, rather than move people in the real world. Not surprisingly, there is a sea of sameness and mediocrity and merely 2 out of 10 products launched in the U.S. succeed. The truth is the unconscious mind, the seat of our motivations, communicates in feelings, not words.

Einstein once said: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." Creativity, the indispensable fuel of economic growth, is being killed by a corporate culture of wrongheadedness. It’s time to stop the violence! It’s time to honor the gift of the unconscious mind!

I know this firsthand because I have been "that guy." I am a brand strategist, a market researcher, a sometimes bearer of bad news and unfortunately, a killer of creativity based upon flimsy reasoning and flawed research. "Don’t kill the messenger," I’d jest. "Let’s kill your idea instead," I’d mutter beneath my breath. My frustration with the tools of my trade led me to search for a more enlightening message.

I found it not in the research of marketers but in the research of cognitive authorities in evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, and behavioral economics. I became a behavioral change therapist specializing in unconscious behaviorism, helping people change their lives for the better, the same things they seek in brands. I reverse-engineered what I learned, starting with the things that were proven to yield real results in real people. I created a seven-step process to behavior change, one that I have been applying to ad strategies with remarkable success ever since.

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, and 7) Take Action.

These steps also explain the success of highly effective iconic campaigns created by those that have perhaps intuited these laws of influence. Take for instance the famous Old Spice campaign created by Wieden+Kennedy that leveraged the first of my seven steps: Interrupt the Pattern.

Freud once conceded: "Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me. Poets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science." Great ad people are like these poets. Fortunately neuroscience is now empowering access to the streams of our collective unconscious, a new view that will help create and sell better ideas. Let’s deconstruct a brilliant case of effective use of "pattern interrupts."

Brands are learned behaviors or expectations of outcomes based upon past experience that eventually become second nature. The pathway to our unconscious and the best way to learn something is through conscious attention. And nothing focuses our attention better than surprise and novelty. That’s because our brain is a pattern recognizer or prediction machine. It learns through the satisfying release of dopamine, the "feel good" chemical messenger of "wanting" behavior. And novelty activates this system. The purpose of this surge in dopamine is to draw attention to potentially important information and a possible new pattern by sending a signal to the brain to take notice and learn, which happens to be the key roles of advertising.

Old Spice transformed its stodgy image with an infectious campaign that was brimming with these pattern interrupts, creating a cooler contemporary image. It introduced the world to the charismatic hunk of Isaiah Mustafa or "the man your man could smell like." The magic behind this effort is not just the smooth pitchman of body wash, but the equally smooth and unsuspecting "interrupts."

One of these spots has the great-smelling Isaiah go, in the span of a mere 30 seconds, from standing at an outdoor shower to log rolling in the wilderness, to carrying a gourmet cake, to remodeling a kitchen with a power saw, to swan diving off a waterfall into a hot tub, and finally . . . as the walls of the hot tub collapse, we are left with him straddling a classically cool motorcycle. Our brains are surprised and amused . . . again and again and again . . . with the reward of dopamine and the payout of attention. With an amazing 1.4 billion impressions, it captured more than attention—it changed behavior, spiking sales over a year ago by 27% in the six months since the launch. One of the original commercials for this campaign alone has generated a massive 43 million views on YouTube to date.

These are not creative self-indulgences but hardworking devices that universally galvanize our focus and spark a rush of good vibes that we all instinctively share. And that dopamine high is essentially that elusive viral "buzz" marketers demand from their agencies but also make so difficult to create.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also Executive Vice President at agency Deutsch L.A., where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for the Volkswagen account. Van Praet’s approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to business problems.

[Image: Flickr users Sarah Faulwetter, RawheaD Rex, and Sol Goldberg]

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