Author Talks: “If you don’t understand … how are you going to help?”

List-based marketing can go in one ear and out the other for consumers, which is why one Fortune 500 adviser says the best branding combines empathy, connectedness, and good storytelling.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Christine Y. Chen chats with marketing and strategy thought leader Sandeep Dayal about his new book Branding between the Ears: Using Cognitive Science to Build Lasting Customer Connections (McGraw Hill, December 2021). Dayal says traditional marketing can often fall flat for the same reason you can’t recall the last item you need at the store: the human brain isn’t wired to remember lists. Emotion, however, leaves an impression. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book, and why now?


My journey on this project started with the work that I was doing at McKinsey, which was when the first internet boom took place. At that time, there were a lot of inexplicable things going on in the market. We were doing all this research and seeing that companies that should have been doing well—because they were offering online groceries, online books, and other things—were just not catching on with the consumers.

That was a big mystery for us because there was so much value. The answer that was emerging was that everything had less to do with value proposition, less to do with what exactly the benefits were, and more to do with how consumers behaved and how they needed more time to change their behaviors and adapt their minds to a new way of doing business. That motivated me to dig deeper into the psychology of consumers and into the behavior and science behind what was going on.

What do you mean by ‘between the ears’?


Psychologists tend to say that everything about sex happens right between your ears. What they really mean is that everything that you perceive and sense is processed in your brain—that’s where it happens.

For me, it’s a great way to think about brands because everything that you know about brands also happens right between your ears, and it includes reality as we perceive it. When our brain perceives products, it knows that there is something more behind them than everything it is sensing. That “something more” is the soul of that product; it’s the brand, and that is where the mystery and the opportunities for differentiation and building of these iconic brands really lay—in understanding that “extra something” behind the product.

What is it about traditional marketing that wasn’t working?


Branding, historically, has been about product differentiation. Which means that you look at what your product is, you look at what the competitive products are, and you say, “How’s my product different?” Then you start making a list of those differences, and then you essentially build your brand on that list of differences. It seems reasonable to do that, but it turns out that is really not how our minds work.

This happens to me all the time when I’m going to the grocery store and my wife has asked me to pick up five different things. By the time I get to the grocery store, I’ve forgotten three of them, and I’m going to pick up two other things that were not on the list. That is because we have learned that working with lists is not something that is in line with the way our minds work. Our minds relate much better to other things, like story lines, patterns, colors, and so on.

When you look at cognitive psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, linguistics, and social anthropology, they have one thing in common: they’ve all been trying to understand why people behave in a certain way, and they’ve all been trying to understand, “How does the human brain work?” All of that knowledge has been applied in different areas, such as public policy, investing, and finance, but, for whatever reason, it wasn’t applied to branding. If you think about what branding is, it’s about influencing consumer choice, and if you’re going to influence consumer choice, then you want to understand how the brain works so that you can be more effective in making those influences work.

Use brain science in branding

What is a ‘cognitive brand,’ and how does it mirror the way the brain works?


One of my favorite examples is Dove soap. Dove soap, by Unilever, did this campaign called “Real Beauty” about 15 years back. When Dove did its research, it found that women had a lot of angst when they saw television commercials and billboards with women that were super-thin, so-called perfect beauties. When women saw those commercials, they actually felt worse about their bodies.

Therefore, Dove launched an innovative campaign in which it had billboards everywhere showing different kinds of women. There would be women who were thinner, women who were heavier, women who were older, women who were younger, women who were lighter, women who were darker—you name it. These were the kinds of women that we would see at home: our sisters and moms. These were the kinds of women that we would see at work, in our colleagues, and so on; they were not the unrealistic women of previous billboards.

Dove put these women on billboards, and underneath, it just said, “Dove.” Guess what it didn’t say? It didn’t say anything about what Dove actually does. It didn’t say, “Our bodywash is going to clean you better,” or “It’s going to moisturize you better.” It just had different bodies. That was a learning moment for me. I thought, “Hey, what’s going on here? How come you’re doing branding without even saying what your brand is all about?” This campaign made that soap number one not only in the US but also in Brazil, India, and many other places.

This learning about how the human mind works in a different way brought me to a new framework. That particular Dove example highlights one part of that framework, around “brand vibes,” which is how you connect with consumers through empathy and sharing their values. These are things that I call “brands with empathy,” which is what Dove was, and “brands with values.” That’s one part of the framework.

The second part of the framework is something that is called “brand sense,” which is when you look at a brand and say, “Does this brand make sense for me?” There are two ways in which people will make sense of things: consciously or subconsciously. Conscious evaluation happens when you’re looking at things in depth—what their pluses and minuses are, what their cost benefit is, and so forth. That’s a conscious, deliberative choice. When you’re subconsciously choosing, you choose things that instinctively “feel right” to you because they trigger some experiences or fantasies, and they make sense to you. A lot of research says that 95 percent of the time, we’re making all decisions subconsciously, with low vigilance. That’s the second part of “How does this thing make sense for me?”

The last piece is resolve, which is an interesting piece of research. Right now, more research is going on in psychology in the field of happiness than in anything else. Resolve is all about “How is your brand going to make people happy?” Researchers have shown that people will pursue goals to make themselves happy, and there are actually only three types of goals that people pursue: the first is a sense of control and freedom, the second is accentuating your own identity, and the third is enhancing your relationships with other people. If you take these three elements—brand vibes, brand sense, and brand empathy—it provides a completely new way of looking at how you design iconic brands for the future.

What are examples of brand sense, brand resolve, and brand happiness?


When we talk about brand sense, as I mentioned earlier, 95 percent of the time, we are making brand choices instinctively, and only 5 percent of the time will we sit around and create a spreadsheet or a systematic comparison. So then, how do we make choices instinctively? We rely on certain simplifying rules, and those rules are stored in our brains. Some people call these rules cognitive biases, but I prefer to call them “cognitive wisdom” because they help us get by in life.

The Occam’s razor bias would be one such example, where people have a strong belief that, given a problem, the simpler answer to the problem is the correct answer. For example, if you look at Staples, it has this big “Easy” button, the red “Easy” button that used to appear in its commercials. What it was really trying to communicate to you was that when you’re buying office supplies, you don’t want to have to do analysis around paper clips and hanging file folders and things like that. Instead, just go to Staples: it’s going to make all your choices simpler.

Ninety-five percent of the time, we are making brand choices instinctively, and only 5 percent of the time will we sit around and create a spreadsheet or a systematic comparison. So then, how do we make choices instinctively? We rely on certain simplifying rules, and those rules are stored in our brains. Some people call these rules cognitive biases, but I prefer to call them ‘cognitive wisdom’ because they help us get by in life.

And it is about making choices simpler. When you have to make choices, it is very stressful—we all experience that. We feel like, “Ugh, do I have to really think about this?” So, anytime you can make things a no-brainer or make things simpler, it plays to that rule of the Occam’s razor.

As a marketer, it is up to you to discover what these different rules are that people have stored in their minds. You have to be clever in your research. You have to be insightful in your work. You can discover what those rules are, and then you can strategically tap into those rules to make sure that your brand is preferred.

Connect with consumers through shared values

What surprised you in your research and writing?


One of my favorite examples is the work I did on a brand called Humira, which was one of the breakthrough brands in biologics for treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis. This is, of course, a very painful condition that people struggle through in their lives.

On the patient side, one of my early discoveries came when I was doing focus groups with patients. I remember one woman very clearly, even though this was almost 15 years back. Her name was Lisa, and I was talking to her about how wonderful these new drugs were—the cutting-edge biotech drugs—and how great it would be for her. She stopped me, looked at me, and said, “Look, Sandeep, if you don’t understand what I am going through in my life, how are you going to help me?”

I was a little surprised that she asked me that question. I thought, “Look, I’ve got a fantastic drug here. Why do you care about whether I understand you or not? Understand that I’ve got a wonderful drug that’s really going to help you.” In reflecting on that moment, I understood that what the consumer—or the patient, in this case—was saying to me was, “Unless I connect with you, unless I have that level of trust in you, I’m not sure that anything else that you say is credible to me.”

It plays to that value of brands with empathy and brands with connection. That was reflected in all the commercials that were done. For example, in one of the commercials, we showed a woman braiding her little daughter’s hair. If you look very closely at the picture, you will see that the woman’s hands were affected by arthritis—they were a little deformed. A mother who has rheumatoid arthritis cannot really braid her daughter’s hair, which goes to her sense of self-esteem as a mother.

So, in the different vignettes that we put in the different ads, we had everything from a woman braiding her daughter’s hair to a woman being able to dance with her husband. Women with rheumatoid arthritis are not able to do that; it’s too painful—you pay the price the next day if you do that. We had various vignettes that secretly communicated to people with that condition that we understood what they were going through. To people without rheumatoid arthritis, it would just look like an ordinary picture of people dancing or combing hair, or something like that, but they were very special pictures for people that have that condition. That’s what it means to be able to take that insight and connect it with the idea of empathy and with the idea of connections with the consumers.

With the physicians, we realized that rheumatologists were disregarded by their colleagues for the longest time because there weren’t any good drugs to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis. You could just prescribe something called Methotrexate, which was a 50-year-old drug that used to be used for cancer, but it sort of worked for rheumatoid arthritis as well. The other physicians would say, “Why should I even bother sending my patients to a rheumatologist? All they’re going to do is give them Methotrexate. I can do that myself.” So, rheumatologists were disrespected, if you will, in their own community.

When we started marketing Humira—and when I say “we,” I’m talking about the company I was working with at that time—the marketers recognized something for the physicians, and we celebrated it as a tagline in the commercials, the idea of, “Look what you can do with Humira.” It is very different from saying, “Look what Humira can do for your patients.” We didn’t want to make Humira the hero; we wanted to make the doctors the heroes. In that case, it was about recognizing that rheumatologists were in the best position and had the unique ability to know what was best for their patients and to make those things happen, as well as advance their own skills by using higher-technology drugs.

Is the value play something that all brands should be doing?


You can try to connect with your consumers by saying to them, “We share the same values.” That is something that Ben & Jerry’s has done really well. I saw them for the first time when I was an MBA student at Yale, and they came there with lots of tubs of ice cream. They were these funny guys who had more of a “hip” vibe than a corporate one. They came with all this ice cream, and they talked completely differently about their brand.

They were talking about their values, and wanting to see a cleaner planet, and wanting to support all these different causes. It was something that struck me, even at that time, because I was going to branding classes where they were telling us to “understand product differentiation,” whereas these guys weren’t even talking about their product. They said, “OK, go ahead and eat all this ice cream,” but they were talking about different causes that they deeply cared about. Ben & Jerry’s became big and iconic by sharing the values of their followers, of their fans. Not by saying, “Hey, my ice cream is so much better.” And I believe their ice cream is really good, but, nonetheless, they never talk about their ice cream.

They have supported all kinds of things through their ice cream—criminal justice reform, voting rights, and so on. There’s a long list of causes that they go after, but they are very genuine about it. They do things that they believe, and sometimes it gets them in trouble because some people don’t agree with those values or have opposing values. Nonetheless, they’ve been very consistent, and that’s the thing about values: If you decide to become a brand with values, then you have to stick to it.

Ben & Jerry’s became big and iconic by sharing the values of their followers, of their fans. Not by saying, ‘Hey, my ice cream is so much better.’

They’re now a part of Unilever, but Unilever has created a special structure for them where they can practice their values and stick to their values. That is why it is a bit of a tricky place to be because you want to make sure once you are clear on those values that, even if you run into a storm, you will stand by those values. What are values if you don’t stick to them? You especially have to stick to them when times are tough.

There are a few brands that have done it really well. The last thing I would say about brands with values is that this is a conversation that needs to be happening in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 Companies explicitly because, otherwise, companies find that they’re suddenly mired in a big controversy, and it’s about some issue that they got into accidentally. Brands with values, when done right, deliver a lot of shareholder returns.

How can cognitive science marketing be used to reflect a positive brand image?


There’s some great branding work being done in India. People are very creative, and take these great brand positions. Google has always had this strategy for its brand of saying how Google itself fits into the story lines of its consumers. It follows the basic brand positioning that “Google is a part of your story.” It has taken it across the world and executed it differently, but that basic idea holds true. What it did in India was on Indian Independence.

In 1947, India and Pakistan were partitioned into two different countries. Google came up with this very interesting story line, in which it portrayed a family, and the granddaughter is talking to her grandfather. In talking to him, she realizes that he has this great sadness about losing a friend he used to have when he lived in Pakistan before the Partition. She learns that they used to go to this park and have jhajariyas, which is a special dessert, there together. They were the best of friends.

He described a special gate that was there in that park. With just this information, the granddaughter goes on Google, of course, and she types something like, “Park in Pakistan with historic gate.” Sure enough, she’s able to locate that park. Then she types in “A dessert shop with jhajariyas in it.” She goes through these steps, and she’s ultimately able to locate her grandfather’s friend. Then she does all kinds of other things on Google—booking tickets, and this and that—and then she surprises her grandfather by having his friend fly in from Pakistan. There’s this great emotional moment where these two people unite after so many years.

But this was a story not just of her grandfather—this was a story of millions of people that, at that time, were torn apart. That really resonated. Google was able to, in each of those moments, place itself at critical steps where the Google search engine was actually used to make that story come alive. It is a fantastic example of how a brand can create story lines that make it a part of other people’s stories—and make that their brand.

Now, let’s get on the technical side. What we have learned from brain sciences is that using story lines is very important. You’ve seen all kinds of emphasis these days on “What’s your story?” and “What’s your story line?” and “How do you create story lines?” We have learned that the human brain reacts much better to story lines than to lists of things. That’s because the human brain is wired to remember and react to stories much more than it is wired to react to lists or claims like “I’m better because I’m faster” or “I’m better because I’m cheaper.” People forget all that, but what’s the story? That narrative needs to be importantly woven into your brand.

Evolve your branding

What should brands consider if they want to incorporate cognitive science into their approaches?


The most important thing that people can do is ask the question, “What is the ethical thing to do?” If you’re a marketer, that is the question that you should ask yourself because if you don’t ask it, and if you don’t self-regulate your behavior, the regulators are going to come in and regulate it for you, and you’re not going to like it. Nonetheless, even if not for that reason, you should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

With all of the research that is going on in cognitive sciences, almost on a weekly or daily basis, we are learning new things about the brain. We’re fast getting to a point where we, as marketers, are going to know a lot about how the human brain works. I’ve already said that 95 percent of the time, choices are subconscious. That means that I can influence you subconsciously. Now, the ethical thing, or the simplest thing, to say is that you should not be doing anything that is manipulative and makes consumers do something that is not in their interest. That is an essential principle of ethical marketing.

‘What is the ethical thing to do?’ If you’re a marketer, that is the question that you should ask yourself because if you don’t ask it, and if you don’t self-regulate your behavior, the regulators are going to come in and regulate it for you, and you’re not going to like it. Nonetheless, even if not for that reason, you should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

What are the main lessons you want people to take away from your book?


The one big thing that people should do is evolve their own mindsets because compared with the old way of branding, where you were talking about list branding, essentially—lists of benefits and so on—this new idea of understanding consumer psychology is very different. They have to evolve themselves, and they have to open themselves to new research and new findings. If you do, it’s an unbelievable opportunity to connect with your consumers in a very different way.

I’m encouraging and calling on marketers and division general managers to start studying these things themselves and to start hiring people that have training in behavioral sciences. Bring behavioral scientists into your mix, learn the behavioral sciences yourself, and so on. When you do, there is a whole new amazing, different world out there, which is waiting for marketers. That’s my key message to marketers that may be listening.

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Sandeep Dayal on building lasting customer connections

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