Consumers are cognitive misers – they generally have relatively little ‘brainpower’ to use for decisions.

An experiment hints at what this means for consumers. In the study, participants were offered a free snack of either a fruit salad or a cake; most people chose the fruit salad.

However, when a different group was asked beforehand to hold a seven-digit number in their heads, most people chose the cake. Choosing the fruit was the rational choice (i.e. it was healthier), but, when people’s conscious minds were busy, the impulsive ‘monkey brain’ took charge.

Likewise, when consumers are making purchase decisions, it is usually their monkey brains doing the choosing. Imagine, for example, you are shopping at a supermarket – you may be thinking about feeding the kids later in the evening, or you may be distracted by the annoying music played over the speakers, or you may be annoyed by the obese man and his trolley squeezing past.

Your conscious brain will likely be distracted, busy, or tired, and so the majority of your purchases will be made with little deliberation. Indeed, one study found that consumers can make their choices in just 0.3s.

What’s more, supermarkets contain tens of thousands of stock-keeping units; there is simply no way to carefully consider them all.

The conclusion from a branding perspective is clear: be easy to buy, or die. Or, as eye-tracking research Pierre Chandon puts it, ‘unseen is unsold’.

One of the ways in which a brand can achieve this is through distinctive assets. These are unique perceptual branding elements, like colour, font, logo, jingle, and so on.

Distinctive assets work by becoming associated with a brand, through conditioning. Just like Pavlov’s dogs came to associate the sound of a bell with food, consumers have, for example, come to associate a particular jingle with Intel Inside. Likewise, if you saw an advert featuring polar bears on an iceberg at night, you would know what brand it was for, even if the logo was not included.

Distinctive assets are effective because they make a brand more front-of-mind, encouraging spontaneous remembering or considering of a brand, and because they make a brand easier to see, recognise or find at the point of purchase.

There are myriad examples of the power of distinctive assets; here are three.

Firstly, the cat food brand Felix used distinctive assets to go from a small market share to overtaking the market leader Whiskas. During those years, Whiskas released a number of campaigns, such as an ‘advert for cats’. Felix, meanwhile, stuck consistently with the same unique and emotional asset – their cartoon cat Felix. Felix became the market leader while spending less than half Whiska’s advertising budget.

Secondly, Aflac used to be just another insurer in a sea of lookalike competitors. The CEO had an idea – to create adverts featuring a white duck quacking the brand name Aflac. Though his colleagues were nonplussed, by creating this unique, emotional and surprising asset, and by using it consistently, Aflac doubled their revenue over ten years.

Thirdly, Tropicana provides a great case study of what not to do. At the start of 2009, Tropicana changed their packaging as part of a ‘brand fresh’; after two months, and a 20% sales drop, they switched back. By stripping their packaging of familiar assets, like the orange with a straw, Tropicana made it difficult to consumers to find their brand. Most shoppers, taking just 0.3s to make a choice, simply bought something else.

Of course, there are many other ways besides distinctive assets to enhance branding with brain science. Psychology can, for example, be used to make a brand appear more valuable, or to ‘nudge’ choice in favour of a brand.

Ultimately, brands which utilise brain science in their branding have a significant competitive advantage.


Distinctive assets

Felix’s black-and-white cat

The Aflac duck

Tropicana’s packaging change