Branding and human Behavior

The design and marketing industry is based on preconceived beliefs and mindsets that influence brand design. Most of what we think we get right in brand design is based on ideologies that often don’t work in reality – are not effective or efficient. Branding is not an amenity freestyle. Branding aims to create relevance and resonance with the customer. And this task is never achieved through gross generalizations in thinking. This article is about the three biggest fancies in brand design.

Branding versus biology

Let’s face it: 99% of all design agencies work by gut feeling. Designers are not biologists, psychologists and in most cases the real world of entrepreneurship is completely foreign to them. One would assume that a person advising a company should have had the entrepreneurial experience themselves at some point before they even know how the world outside their fantasy world works.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Neither in experience, nor in education. What students and later employees learn are prefabricated ideologies that they defend with their craft. Their craft becomes a necessity in the modern marketing world and an agency’s “experience” becomes the only measure of how well a client’s business is translated into the correct images and words.

90% of all marketing efforts that result are more coping strategies than applied branding: you have to cope with the bad translations.

An entire industry runs largely on a fantasy world whose fantasies it believes and defends in zealous presentations. Like every other industry, the world of marketing and design is based on principles and ideas that are more fantasy than science.

I really became aware of this when reading Behave – The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biology and Neurology at Standford University. In his book, Sapolsky talks about the processes and workings in our cognition, brain and entire body that control our behavior from psychology to neurology to hormones.

In his chapter “Seconds to minutes before” he talks about what is relevant to our imagination in the design industry: behaviorism. Behaviorists try to study and explain human behavior with scientific-theoretical concepts. As in any brand design, they try to make a behavior predictable by a measurable trigger.

The problem behavioral scientists have in their results? They study the natural behavior of dolphins literally in the bathtub.

As in misguided design fantasies, they cut a living being (e.g. a target group) out of the larger context of everyday life and living and reduce it to isolated components (dolphin = water, target group = income) and replace the wholeness of internal and external circumstances (e.g. self-esteem and income) with a measurable metric without a soul.

Of course, this is just one example of how branding that arises from such gross generalizations completely misses the point:

Branding is the process of being relevant to and resonating with a customer. The opposite of generalization.

Generalizations work in fantasies where we define trigger A for behavior B through simple milkmaid bills and wonder why it doesn’t just work.

People and brands do not function according to templates and we become aware of this flaw in our thinking when we unravel the fantasy worlds of the design industry and understand and apply the underlying circuitry, including in a biological sense. In the following, I describe three fantasies before the world of advertisers and designers and try to turn the perspective towards an objective reality:

 

Brands are human

To understand this fantasy through Robert Sapolsky’s glasses: We believe it is enough as a brand to be able to suddenly and unannounced approach a gorilla family dressed up in a monkey costume. We don’t need to explain further that this will have consequences in real life. Nevertheless, an entire industry believes that the right logo on the baseball bat alone will turn any marketing campaign into a home run. What really happens is the baseball bat on a customer’s head: an ambush attack.

It is the idea that images and words alone would be enough to convert a passer-by into a customer by surprise. This fantasy is based on the image of the customer as a target: as an animal in the wild being shot. Professional branding does not see itself as a means to an end, as the weapon for the “lucky shot”. Branding is not the monkey suit, but the sign that we belong to the same tribe. Of course, branding draws attention to a brand and can activate awareness in the customer – but not as a mugging, but as an approach.

The stereotypical notion of brand design tries to ascribe human components to brands, which are far too often a shell like the monkey costume. Brands and marketing are not aggressive deceptions of a fundamentally different organization in the background. A brand is only as good as the company in the background. No cosmetic cures the pimple it covers. A brand design may be able to establish contact via the first moment, but branding as cosmetics alone does not work for truly successful, grown business relationships.

Brands are not human, people are human. Brand design and branding helps brands make that human connection with other people – provided there is something worth connecting with.

 

People are target groups

They are not and we have learned that before: people are people. And people are complex living beings. The old way of examining target groups in sinus milieus is still widely practiced alienation from people and real needs. Putting people into sacks of target group definitions is crude and, above all, harmful: not only does it distance us from a real understanding of our customers, we also communicate with branding and marketing past their needs.

In psychology, this alienation is called dissociation. Dissociation is an emotional disconnection that cuts me off from the needs and feelings of a situation and other people and divides them into gross stereotypes. The reason for this? It’s easier, reinforces our prevailing beliefs and, with generalizations, keeps us from being able to understand individuals’ motivations with real empathy and compassion. All this needs attention and attention needs time. And if there is one component missing in most marketing activities, it is time.

The problem with the fantasy of people as a target group is that through these glasses we remain on the surface and superficial needs are never true intrinsic motivations. Needs from this perspective have different depths and the deeper (and more accurate) we understand a customer’s needs, the more relevant branding and marketing can be to address them and offer real solutions rather than just scratching superficial needs.

From a biological perspective, we can say: there are fleeting needs based on the neurotransmitter dopamine. This hormone focuses us on the immediate environment where we want to quickly satisfy spontaneous drives such as hunger, uncertainty, fear (food, money, success,…). Old target group definitions such as through Sinus-Milieus examine such fleeting needs through age, income, gender etc. and are thus unstable and grossly generalizing. Deeper needs have longer half-lives (biological: hormones, behaviors,…) and provide for the deeper and more long-term needs satisfaction, e.g. for status, community and sustainability, all of which are not dependent on spontaneous satisfaction but grown fulfillment. Branding that understands and addresses these needs of people is not dependent on push marketing and negotiated perceptions with the customer.

 

Target groups love brands

Target groups do not love brands. This is certainly one of the biggest fantasies that designers and companies around the world love. And it is fundamentally a lovely, romantic notion that projects human love relationships onto cold corporations.

It’s easy to imagine brands taking the position of a human being who completes our lives with their products and services. We believe that people want the content of marketing and branding, want to participate in the culture of a brand and form a relationship with the brand. We also believe that by doing so, the customer enters into a kind of dependency relationship in that they “need” more relevant content and more personalized content from the brand.

Our work as a design agency has convinced us otherwise. Most people are perfectly happy with the slightest of connections to a brand. They are perfectly content to buy their products from time to time and forget about them again for a while. They focus their passions on their lives, not on sports shoes or smartphone manufacturers. If they did that, there would be much more attention to production conditions in garment factories in India or the suicide rate of workers in Chinese tech factories. If consumers were lovingly interested in the brand, this love would not stop at the surface of branding and design.

The flip side of this is that a brand helps us decide which sports shoe or smartphone to buy. The decision is about the product and its application, not about the love for a brand. Of course, our idea of how to use a product is influenced by the brand (e.g. my attitude to life of owning the latest iPhone) – but after a month I no longer think about the adapted esprit of Steve Jobs, but the empty battery when a long phone call is pending. If a manufacturer like Nike suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, we wouldn’t mourn the brand in tears, but buy a shoe from Adidas and happily continue jogging. Without Apple, many other manufacturers would be found with whose devices we can also make phone calls without any problems.

Biology says: Humans are creatures of habit whose brains save energy through conventional structures in thinking and behavior. Brands are habits until a better habit comes along. Just as we imagined the world to be perfect before the smartphone revolution, today we can no longer believe how that habit from back then sufficed us. For brands, this means that just because we see our Apple device as the ultimate today, doesn’t mean it will stay that way. People remain loyal to brands out of habit, and good brand design reinforces habit, but not love (which depends more on utility than ideology).

Branding and brand design by humans for humans

Branding is a science in the truest sense of the word. The science is based on biology, leaning slightly on Bahaviorism but never forgetting that any theoretical concept is an attempt to reduce living beings to functional facts. What we learn from the reflections before is that people do not obey any target group definition and our gross generalizations miss the point of branding: we use branding to make contact from brands to people, not to alienate ourselves from that contact. The modern understanding of branding is less craft and more strategy to knit communication around the true needs of customers, proving to them what the company knows in the background: that the brand is relevant and they just need to understand that authentically and credibly.

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