Implicit brands on the brain

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy

March 23, 2021

Would you pay $100 for a small bottle of scented water from Köln, Germany? Probably not, right? It almost sounds like an absurd question. Still, every day, people around the world are doing this in a market with an estimated value of over $31 billion. How can this be? Today, we have a much better understanding of how this happens, and what it can tell us about the way our brains are wired for making brands give value to products.

The magic of a brand name

To better understand what happens, let's jump back to the early 18th century. Perfume maker Giovanni Maria Farina emigrates from the picturesque Vigezzo Valley in Italy to Germany, and ending up in Köln. Not long after his arrival, Giovanni makes a new perfume that he excitedly describes in a letter to his brother Jean Baptiste:

"I have found a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain"

As a token of his appreciation for receiving his citizenship in Köln, Giovanni named this fragrance after the city, though using its Latin name: Cologne. And the perfume he named Eau de Cologne. This sounds much more familiar. Today, Eau de Cologne is the mark of a type of perfumes that are typically light, fresh, and fruity. As you can guess, Eau de Cologne is the Latin version of "water from Köln", but now the meaning of the term is very different. While "water from Köln" might not really produce many associations (perhaps an image of the water of the Rhein running past the Kölnerdom), "Eau de Cologne" will readily produce thoughts of scents, fancily made perfume bottles, and perhaps a memory of the type of scent.,

The brain mark of an implicit brand

Memories are not merely recall of information -- they are also creators of experiences. At the moment you saw "Eau de Cologne" you had a very different experience than when you read "water from Köln", even though the information in some way was basically the same. Brand associations work in exactly this way: whether we are looking at brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Audi and Fiat, PlayStation and Xbox, we typically get very specific thoughts. The best way to explain this is by thinking of the brain as a vastly interconnected network. The network consists of threads and nodes. The threads can have different levels of thickness and strength, and a node can have a few or many nodes that connect to other nodes.

Let's do the following: write down some immediate thoughts you get when you think of the car brand Volvo. Now do the same thing for the car brand Ferrari. What words did you write down? Were there any similar words, and what were the differences? An example of the associations can be seen below:

An association network for Volvo and Ferrari.

A simplified association network for Volvo and Ferrari. Each line connects terms and brands, where solid lines are stronger associations and dotted lines are weaker associations.

As the figure shows, Volvo and Ferrari have quite different associations. Of course, they have some common associates as well. They are both cars, they have to some extent a design, and they may even point to each other (if you think of Volvo, you are also more likely to remember other car brands). But some associations are easier to remember consciously than others. Take a look back at your list of associations that you wrote down yourself. Did you put the word "car" on the list?

Many people might not write down the word "car", because it is so obvious that it is unnecessary to write down. But your brain has still activated the association "car", and if we only asked your conscious brain for answers, then we would have missed that "car" was a very important association. In this example, "car" is perhaps too obvious, but it shows that when we ask people about their overt, conscious associations, there is always a degree of filtering and sorting going on.

When your insights hinges on knowing what associations your brand produces, an individual sorting like this is not what you need. Suffice to say at this stage that there is both a good degree of overlap and difference between explicit and implicit associations. Typically, we would say that explicit and conscious associations are always also seen as implicit associations, but that you can have implicit associations that do not manifest as conscious thought but still can affect attitudes and behaviors.

The brain basis of implicit associations

One way to measure implicit associations is through brain scanning. In an article published in 2014 during my work at the Copenhagen Business School and Copenhagen University Hospital, we asked individuals to look at some different figures while their brain activity was scanned with fMRI. The characters were different kinds of animation characters, and the task consisted solely of pressing a button if you saw the same character twice in a row. Some figures were known, such as The Michelin man, Ronald McDonald, and Mickey Mouse. These, we called "mascots" for a commercial brand (Michelin, McDonald's and Disney, respectively).

After the fMRI scan, we asked the participants to look at each of the figures they had seen before, and write down any thoughts they had when seeing this figure. Perhaps not surprisingly, the participants had far more associations to brand mascots such as the Michelin man and Mickey Mouse than they had to generic animation characters. We now turned to the very purpose of the study: we used the collected associations for each figure, to see if we could detect a difference in brain activity at the time that the participants simply looked at the figures during the preceding fMRI study.

By focusing on the memory structure hippocampus in the brain, we found that this structure showed greater activity the more associations the participants had to a figure. This suggested that we could look at the activity of the hippocampus at the moment a person looked at a figure and predict how many associations the person would have to that figure. That was a pretty surprising result!

Implicit associations in the brain. In the 2014 study we used fMRI to track the activity of the hippocampus , shown as the green structure on the medial temporal lobe (A). Participants saw figures for 2 seconds that could sometimes represent brands (B). During the analysis, we found a significant correlation between the number of associations and the hippocampus activity (C).

This finding suggests that even when we do something completely different, our brains automatically and unconsciously trigger associations to what we are exposed to. This is the very brain foundation of the use of implicit measures of associations.

Measuring implicit brand associations at scale

Now the question is: is it possible to measure consumers' unconscious associations without doing a time-consuming brain scan study? Here, countless academic studies over several years have already shown that it can be done (see references below). One possible way to show this is by giving participants the simple task of categorizing brands -- when shown a brand logo, you are simply asked "is this brand X or brand Y?"

Critically, before each brand is show, a word is briefly displayed. If this word is associated with the brand, the person will be slightly quicker at correctly categorizing the brand. If the word is not associated with the brand, it will take a little longer for the person to categorize the word. This test is also called the "Implicit Associations Test" (hereafter IAT), in other words a test for what unconscious thoughts people have about certain things, brands, products, people, and more.

When testing for unconscious associations, it is possible to use Implicit Association Test. While many studies do this on PCs, it can also be run on phones, shown here with Neurons Inc's NeuroOnline solution (called Explore as of 2021). In this test, the person is asked to categorize different brands, and before each brand different words appear. By measuring the relationship between a change in reaction time to the brand and the previous word, it is possible to uncover how different brands score on the selected words, as shown with the spider plot.

Selected IAT references

  • Bosshard, S. S., Bourke, J. D., Kunaharan, S., Koller, M., & Walla, P. (2016). Established liked versus disliked brands: Brain activity, implicit associations and explicit responses. Cogent Psychology, 3(1), 1176691–1176691.
  • Maison, D., Greenwald, A. G., & Bruin, R. H. (2004). Predictive validity of the implicit association test in studies of brands, consumer attitudes, and behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14(4), 405–415.
  • Maison, D., Greenwald, A. G., & Bruin, R. (2001). The Implicit Association Test as a measure of implicit consumer attitudes. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 32(1), 1–9.
  • Friese, M., Wänke, M., & Plessner, H. (2006). Implicit consumer preferences and their influence on product choice. Psychology and Marketing, 23(9), 727–740.
  • Calvert, G., Fulcher, E., Fulcher, G., Foster, P., & Rose, H. (2014). Using implicit methods to develop an objective measure of media brand engagement. International Journal of Market Research, 56(1), 15–32.
  • Florack, A., Friese, M., & Scarabis, M. (2010). Regulatory focus and reliance on implicit preferences in consumption contexts. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 20(2), 193–204.

Implicit brands on the brain

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