A Whole-Brain Approach to Building Stronger Brands

An insidious problem in brand marketing is that brand marketers tend to focus their strategy and execution on words. They do market research with their target customers, asking them to express, in words, how they feel about brands and what they desire in a given product or service category. Unfortunately, people are not very good at expressing their feelings through words. Words are relatively easy to agree on because they are relatively imprecise: The definition of any given term—for example, “casual luxury”—will differ between people, sometimes dramatically. What’s more, marketers use this flawed research to formulate verbal positioning and brand pillars that their internal team and external agencies rely on when bringing the brand to life. As a result, marketing messages can vary a great deal for a given brand. Is it any wonder then, that so many brands experience mediocre marketing results?

Because more than 80 percent of human information processing is nonverbal, and more than 90 percent of emotional meaning is conveyed through nonverbal information, marketers need to change their marketing and communications efforts to be more effective in building stronger brands. In what follows, we articulate some of the required changes, using a whole-brain approach.

Deeper Customer Insights

First, in order to gain true insights into how people feel about brands, product/service categories, and the best emotional connections to create, marketers need to do a different type of market research than what they are used to doing. Real insights into people’s feelings don’t come from focus groups, they are gleaned by using psychological techniques in one-on-one settings. Examples of such techniques include visual image selections, sentence completions, metaphors and analogies, etc. to represent and explain complex perceptions and feelings.

If the topic is sensitive, the choice of interviewer can be vital. For example, when we worked on the Viagra brand in its early days, we chose female interviewers who would come across as an understanding sister (rather than a potentially competitive male). Moreover, she started the conversational interview by listing graphic terms she had heard previously to eliminate any verbal taboos and make honest conversation possible. Insight mining needs to confront the fact that people mentally screen what they say, both consciously and unconsciously, to be seen in a favorable light. Without the proper tools and techniques to unlock the necessary information, brand owners will remain separated from the insights required to build stronger brands.

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A Clearly Defined Brand Strategy

When formulating a brand strategy, we find it essential to use rich sensory stimuli like images from different subject matter categories to make sure brand teams are aligned on what they mean by different terms and phrases. Only when you put sensory definition around terms like “casual luxury”, can you be certain you are actually sharing and agreeing on the same interpretation or meaning behind the verbal expression.

Verbal and Sensory Brand Tools

Once the brand team has developed a verbal brand strategy, it becomes important to identify the sensory cues that will trigger the desired perceptions in the brand’s target market, before resources are put against building out and publishing marketing communications. We recommend developing what we call a “sensory position” in addition to the verbal one that comes from the brand team’s strategy session. This “sensory position” is based on market research with the brand’s target customers that identifies their sensory interpretation of the brand’s verbal position and pillars.

This is no different from what a good architect or interior designer does when building or finishing a house for someone. Rather than guessing what a client means by “casual luxury” and risk getting it wrong, good architects and designers will show different design examples that may all fit the verbal term “casual luxury” to see which one version fits the client’s definition. We recommend that brands do the same for their brand strategies. It is much more expensive to change designs after realizing that previously executed advertising “missed the mark”. A sensory positioning document helps all who create ads and other marketing communications to convey those sensory cues that elicit the desired brand perceptions in the brand’s target audience(s).

Unfortunately, verbal messaging, too, requires a make-over. A positioning statement and other brand strategy elements like a brand promise and brand pillars are too high-level to be of much help when crafting actual communications pieces like ads or brochures. Leaving messaging in the hands of those who were not intimately involved with the creation of the brand’s strategy carries translation risks. The solution is creating a messaging blueprint that identifies the verbal brand story and lays out the primary and secondary messages to send to each target audience for the brand. In addition to the hierarchy of messages, the messaging blueprint should also contain the most effective messaging styles and formats for each audience and the supporting evidence that makes each message credible.

The sensory position and messaging blueprint are brand tools that allow anyone to craft compelling brand communications of any type that stay on strategy and help build a stronger brand over time.

Unlike products and services based in the reality of features and benefits, brands are rooted in human perception; they live in our minds. They are the sum of our perceptions, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes (what we call PEBAs) about a thing, an organization, an activity, or a person. Successful brands like Apple and Starbucks “speak” convincingly to the whole brain. That is, they manage verbal messages AND sensory messages equally effectively. You can and should do the same for your brand, too.


Want to learn how psycho-sensory branding techniques can help you build a stronger brand? Contact us today.


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Frank Schab
An experienced marketing and branding strategist, Frank has been helping clients optimize the value of their brands through insightful analysis and effective strategy for more than three decades. Along with holding positions at General Motors and Pfizer, Frank served as a Managing Partner at Interbrand New York and VP of Global Brand Research at Opinion Research Corporation before co-founding Six Degrees. His brand-building work in various sectors including hospitality, medical device, pharmaceutical, automotive and technology has taken him to 17 countries on four continents. Frank holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and speaks fluent German.

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