When is a thing a “thing”?
If you’re an observer of culture, you’ll be introduced to new “things” all the time. Some call them memes (the cultural currency of our time), though even those have been confused with specific types of cultural content in digital mediums.
Here’s a thing: In Tokyo a year or so ago, if you were a girl, it became a thing to take a photo with your dad while jumping—a father-daughter “thing.” So for a time, social media was flooded with thousands, perhaps millions, of dads standing next to their daughters, floating in midair.
Apply that type of thinking to your industry; observe when something becomes a thing, and if you time it right, you can ride the wave. In the world of connecting brands and people, broadly known as marketing, there’s a thing developing. It is the testing of intuition, whether individual or collective.
You could say that tapping into intuition is making something just “feel” right. If something is intuitively right, it just makes sense, and decisions get easier. If your brand benefits from those easier decisions, you’re likely winning. The growth of design thinking in organizations could certainly be connected to that same idea.
Let’s dip our toes into the deep end of the pool of science around intuition. Dan Kahneman wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he reorganized partitioning the brain from left and right to system one and system two. System one is your fast-thinking brain; it works on instinct, already learned behaviors, and intuition. System two is your slow-thinking brain: It does the heavy lifting—reading, math, and all those activities that require your brain to slow down and learn something.
There are tests specifically developed to match stimuli (your logo, package, ad, creative content) with brand attributes. The tests are designed to identify which stimuli tap into system one and which into system two—essentially, which of your designs are more intuitive. This type of test could easily be confused with a basic A/B test. In fact it will give you a spectrum of good to better design. Del Monte and Susan G. Komen have used this method to test dramatically more successful package designs and ad campaigns. Google used similar methods to identify the specific shade of blue you’re more likely to click on when you see sponsored ads.
“We are learning more about how the brain works and we can conduct tests that skip the step of asking what consumers want. Instead, we observe how their brains consume our creative content—and everyone knows observation is the purest form of research.”
These types of tests fit squarely into a new field called neuromarketing, which is composed of methods to test your body’s response to an experience, itself a way to measure emotional response. The broad idea is that we are learning more about how the brain works and we can conduct tests that skip the step of asking what consumers want. Instead, we observe how their brains consume our creative content—and everyone knows observation is the purest form of research.
Is neuromarketing more than a bunch of lab junkies poking and prodding human beings for no good purpose? I’ve been around long enough to observe many things. There was a time, for example, when “brand strategy” wasn’t taught in institutions of higher learning; a brand was what you bought at Lunds & Byerlys. Then we as a society learned that Lunds & Byerlys is also a brand, and soon brand strategy became more central to marketing academics.
A thing in culture can be as nascent as a floating father-daughter photo. In marketing, design, and brand strategy—and perhaps any other profession—a thing is real when academia starts teaching it with rigor. In a recent collaboration, we observed that the University of Minnesota now has a neuromarketing lab at the Carlson School of Management and is building an academic discipline in this field.
As we continue to seek to improve our relationships with brands, we need to understand better how the human brain responds. Just like your relationship with your spouse, the more you learn by observation and curious questions, the better you can serve as a companion. The same idea applies to you and your relationship with customers.
Aaron Keller ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule, a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand (physicsofbrand.com).