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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Craft Topics – Neuroscience

Neuroscience in a nutshell

Motivated in part by last month’s APG event on the same topic I thought I’d be bold/stupid enough to write my take on the whole area of neuroscience – which is potentially huge but can feel a little like a storm in a teacup when you ask what practical difference it is going to make to your working practice. I haven’t pinched anything that was said on the evening – and I gather the APG is set to run a day conference on the topic soon. But for those of you who can’t wait here then are 10 principles I invite you to consider and to mail me with praise, vilification as appropriate. What I have drawn on is the Mental World of Brands and How Customers really think plus Wendy Gordon’s chapter on the subject in New brand thinking. Neoroscience is a tricky area but it won’t move into the mainstream till practitioners like you and me feel we have a handle on it.

  1. Everything you know is wrong The first statistic that anyone hears about neuroscience is that 90% of what is now known about the brain has been learned since 1990. Actually that statistic is about 4 years old so assume that the balance of 10% is even smaller. So since most if not all thinking about advertising and brands has been developed prior to 1990 then most of what you work with on a daily basis is rest on extremely shaky foundations. So look out – and don’t tread too heavily – we’re living in a house of cards. But don’t worry so is everybody else.
  2. The spook factor Given principle 1 it’s no surprise that the spook factor is pretty high. Just enter a discussion with the words “What neuroscience has clearly shown.. ” and you will be paid huge attention and no one will shout you down (just in case you’re right). So there is huge potential for bluffers and blaggers – though eventually you will of course be caught. But it does mean that if you do find yourself being brow beaten by a neuroscience boffin – don’t be afraid to call their bluff – so much is new that no one has got a handle on it so this works in your favour.
  3. It’s not about the brain – its about how the mind works! You’ll think I’ve gone off my rocker now. Everytime neuroscience is discussed its 10 to 1 somebody pulls out a scale model of a brain and starts to poke around it with a pen. The Mental World of Brands devotes 150 pages to a walk around tour. Leaving the audience/reader with the clear impression that unless they become first year medical students they’ll never understand it. Read my lips – you don’t need to know all the different parts of the brain. Neuroscience has to be perceived as a cognitive theory which supplants earlier cognitive theories. No one is going to come along and stick electrodes in somebody’s head and come up with a complete account of advertising. To use an analogy – if someone wished to show that custard was conscious they could show any number of charts indicating electronic activity in different parts of the jug (complete with cut through charts but for the model to stick we would have to hear the custard’s point of view). Most of the FUD factor is the old behavioural bugbear that using external measuring instruments we can provide a complete account of how the brand works. For the foreseeable future this won’t be true – the brain is too complicated and when we get into a debate between the scientist – this is what is happening in your head and the subject’s “Not in my brain it isn’t” we are back in the realm of philosophy not brain science. To be useful, neuroscience need to be understood as a cognitive theory andr mapped over human experience.
  4. Game of 3 halves The most useful thing you need to know about the brain is that there are 3 fundamental components of the human brain – a primitive brain – which is where the instinctive, involuntary and repetitive reflexes emanate, a mammalian brain where the emotions are located and the cortex where thought happens. It seems to me that what is most interesting is where the different parts of the brain interact – we can all think of situations where an emotional decision is rationalised and a near century of Freudian psycholology makes us aware that we are far more motivated by the unconscious – than we realise and are prepared to admit. Consider that these multiple levels of motivation don’t work together symetrically and congruently so there is a lot of gap filling going on. That in itself is useful because a decision to act cuts across all 3 systems. Communications are likewise interpreted on different levels – and we aren’t good at determining which level of explanation we are using. Being a general purpose system the brain is very good at imposing order – plausibility. It might just work Jim!
  5. Denial isn’t just a river that runs through Egypt. The more primitive the drive, the more potent the chemical cocktail – the more powerful the resulting behaviour. But look out.The less rational explanation works the more the subject clings to it. So Freud had a field day. But from the point of view of a communicator – however treacherous the currents the deeper the better. Which is why advertisers have tapped into emotions for years and sales promoters have created behavioural addictions. So much more powerful than persuading the subject that it’s a good idea and waiting for them to organise themselves to do something about it.
  6. Getting Implicit Thinking is mediated using shared understandings at a cultural and a group level. Implicit knowledge is stored across groups. You have only to consider the department you work in or the household you live in to discover that you know where the gas bill is – but you may have to ask someone else to remind you where it might have been placed. Virtually all b2C communications assumes that there is only one receiver not a receiver network. Very naive. One reason divorce is so destructive is that the implicit knowledge network is ripped apart and takes years to reassemble. Consider how group decisions are made and where the knowledge is stored. The reason children and teenagers are such a valuable market is as much for the influence they can bring to bear on household decisions and the more time they have to take messages on board
  7. I’m making this up as I’m going along! Memory is are constructed and reconstructed – which is why tracking studies that purport to find out the ads people remember seeing are such a hoot. A significant part of the memory comes from the experience of being asked. Which is still a measure but a measure of the present not the past and in part a measure of something produced in direct response to the question. Zaltman describes an experiment where a memory is materially altered from being a positive memory to a bad memory simply through negative reinforcement. Interestingly storytelling is one of the strongest plausibility structures which is why storytelling is become more and more important in brand construction and in brand evaluation in research.
  8. Whatever When cued almost any association can be created. The featheriness, celloness and Leslie Ashness of a Ford Fiesta can indeed be measured and may even be validated across large sample sizes but of course this doesn’t mean that these are real attributes. Similarly stylish, wellmade and driven by young people aren’t necessarily any more real attributes just because the Ford marketing department want it to be. Communications tracking is just as much an exploration of the client’s own assumptions or of course in the case of one size fits all tracking studies the assumptions of the tracking company. Once you have established using qualitative research – and probably laddering what the sequence of drivers is then take care to establish for which marques or models it is true. Because if you ask it of a marque for which it is not true it doesn’t mean that it will fail to score. Zeltman describes a market as a dialogue between the marketers and the customer’s minds.
  9. Networks work in unpredictable ways Conceptual thought at least in the West is presented as linear – if x then y. But thought patterns are stored as networks of association – concepts which we think of as rational are strongly linked to the sensory impressions associated with when that concept was acquired. That network of associations can work in a number of different directions simultaneously. Even more confusing, if the pattern is damaged through brain damage it can be reconstructed in another part of the brain. So before you build your linear communications argument consider how the idea network might be represented. Zaltman constructs thought maps out of the research he runs – not easy to follow but more accurate than a list of ranked attributes. Sometimes the association moves from the category to the brand and an attribute will be very strongly associated with the brand. Sometimes the brand can be so strong that it can stand for the entire category. So the category is recalled because of its association with the brand. My point is that the communications strategy may be to ensure that the category association leads to the brand. But equally it might be to lead people first to the brand and only then to the category. The trouble with comms models is that they don’t begin to cover the complexity of a neural cluster – but you need to be aware that network effects may not be as you expect them to be.
  10. It ain’t over Assume that for the rest of your career you are going to be chasing to find out the latest thinking on how the mind works. Get used to it. Get used to being sceptical about brand onions and all the rest – yes they work as heuristic devices but they may be downright misleading about the way people actually think. And the result of this needn’t be scepticism – we never know everything but it has to be better to work with a more accurate understanding of the way the mind works. Just don’t worry about people with white coats and electrodes.



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