Communication strategies that change hearts and minds do not happen by accident. While marketing researchers have traditionally relied on conscious measures of measurement to uncover consumer preferences (such as surveys and focus groups), Elizabeth Edwards explains in this thought-provoking piece for Forbes how brands are beginning to use non-conscious research to gain a deeper level of insights into consumer behavior and communication preferences.
In today’s hyper-connected environment, we’re swimming in brand messaging at every turn. Consequently, our minds are discovering ways to tune it all out. This creates an increasingly urgent need for anyone in communications to understand the minds of the customers and markets they serve.
Historically, brand communication has been considered an art, with little science to back up general assumptions. Marketers have relied on past experience and even intuition to understand customers’ preferences, and research methods have been limited to those dating back more than 80 years, such as surveys and focus groups. But as the price of medical imaging technology decreases, more researchers and marketers are using it for modern research, which shows that a great deal of decision-making occurs apart from conscious awareness and is influenced by factors unknown to the decision maker.
As the founder of two communications agencies based on the science of human behavior, I’ve seen how effective this nonconscious research can be when communicating with customers. In this article, I’ll set the foundation for why this type of research is important and what it’s capable of.
Understanding Nonconscious Research
Behavior research is helping us better understand ourselves as well as evolving consumer behavior patterns. And it’s not unusual for us to measure an increase in returns of more than four times with this science.
Fascinating neuroscience research continues to tell us how our brains work and provide accurate cues that can help us map communication approaches to ensure brand goals are exceeded. For example:
It can help navigate product changes.
Our subconscious has a way of influencing our thoughts, actions and behaviors in a way we can’t tap into on a conscious level. While focus groups and surveys can certainly help understand what consumers are looking for on a basic level, many times, the answers are skewed by what people think they want versus what actually influences them.
Nonconscious research has the ability to tap into consumers’ innate motivators. For example, as part of a major redesign of labels and in-store signage, Campbell Soup Company commissioned Merchant Mechanics, a nonconscious research firm, to study consumer reactions. By measuring brain activity, eye tracking and more, the research studied everything from pictures of bowls of soup to logo design.
While the research yielded a lot of insights, one takeaway was that consumers were more positively tuned in to soup labels that pictured a bowl of soup with steam rising from it. They also discovered that showing a variety of different types of bowls and spoons on shelf signage brought an increase in positive consumer sentiment and attention and led to more brand purchases. It’s no surprise then that Campbell’s applied this information to their branding efforts, tapping into an emotional component that customers may not even be able to explain themselves.
It can help communicate with consumers more effectively.
Understanding how people think — about themselves and the world — is a huge advantage for brands. These fundamental understandings can help marketers pinpoint how to approach their target audiences.
As a marketer, you’re probably familiar with the contemporary practice of using only buyer personas to help identify target audiences and predict behavior. However, according to research on “fixed” and “fluid” mindsets, using buyer personas alone has recently come under scrutiny.
According to science, every human being among a persona has both a fixed and fluid mindset residing within their brain on different issues. For context, someone with a fixed mindset believes that certain basic qualities, such as intelligence or talent level, are static and unchangeable. A fluid mindset believes these basic qualities can be strengthened and developed.
Science says to stop wasting your time convincing audiences whose mindsets are fixed. Instead, identify where change can occur (where their fluid mindset exists) and use that to gain their attention and build from that common ground.
For example, let’s look at AI marketing. There are many people with a degree of a fixed mindset who are concerned that the potential negatives of AI may outweigh its benefits. For an AI brand to successfully engage personas with varying degrees of this mindset, messages should at first be limited to the basic topics where you and your audience’s minds align.
Let’s say one benefit of your AI is that it leads to saving water. Rather than telling your fixed mindset audiences about the awesomeness of how your technology works, limit yourself to the mutual benefit you both care about. Concentrate communication on those areas alone. Review your brand from the outside looking in. Does your marketing and PR position you as an uber-technological AI company, or is your overall brand presentation being done in a way that will engage the maximum range of mindsets?
Without setting a strategy for the fixed and fluid mindsets for each persona, communication efforts are likely to not achieve the desired effect because of the backfire effect, which tells us that evidence against an entrenched belief is not only not going to sway our opinions, it will entrench them even deeper.
It can help develop brand messaging.
Marketing is rooted in psychology, and a big part of crafting your brand messaging has to do with understanding your target consumers’ behaviors and habits: What motivates them to buy? What grabs their attention? And how can you position your brand in a way that not only stays true to your brand voice and mission but also creates brand trust?
By understanding the human condition on a deeper level, marketers can gain more solid ground on how to best communicate with their audience. For example, in a study intended to identify how “fake news” is perceived by citizens of varying political stripes, Protobrand found that fake news is increasingly becoming a misnomer — more people use it to describe news with which they disagree, rather than news that fails to follow journalistic standards.
This observation confirms even further the power of the backfire effect. Understanding this tendency enables us to develop a strategy for speaking with audiences about topics where there are likely to have fixed mindsets against the subject.
It is time to reevaluate what you once knew about marketing, communication and public relations. The key to the future is in precision campaigns designed with the use of behavioral science and neuroscience to create a competitive advantage. Those who ignore this opportunity will, over the coming years, find themselves struggling to compete.
There is more to know about your customers and about ourselves. And the keys to that knowledge lie within the research and findings from those learning about us from the inside-out.