About Psycho-Sensory Brand-Building

What Makes Psycho-Sensory Brand-Building Different from Common Brand-Building?

Brand-building is the strategic process of imbuing a product, service, company, person or any other entity with perceptions that transcend that entity’s physical or functional characteristics — and, as a result, increasing that entity’s perceived attractiveness and financial value.

about-psycho-sensory-brand-building-six-degreesConsider the perceived differences (and price premium) between Reynold’s Wrap and any generic offering of aluminum foil. Or, the perceived differences between Rolex and Tudor watches.

Brands live in the mind. And as such, brands are subject to the rules (and the vagaries) of the human mind.

Psycho-sensory brand-building, in simple terms, injects more psychology into the brand-building process. It brings a measure of science to an endeavor otherwise driven by standard business practices and creative design.

To explore how psycho-sensory brand-building improves the branding process, it is useful to consider, in turn, the three primary phases of brand-building: Discovery, Strategy, and Execution to illuminate the differences between the typical brand- building process and the psycho-sensory one.


Psycho-Sensory Brand-Building During DISCOVERY

During Discovery, a brand-builder seeks to identify the most advantageous opportunities for the brand.

Market research typically is conducted with the brand’s target audience(s) to understand their needs and wants, predilections and purchase behaviors. Competitors and potential competitors are examined and assessed, and, if a branding agency is involved, executive interviews are frequently part of the Discovery phase, as well.

The typical market research conducted during this phase often involves quantitative surveys and/or focus groups to assess unmet customer needs, current brand perceptions and purchase behaviors. But traditional research techniques like these have limitations that affect the caliber of insights brand-builders can discover.

At a high level, the limitations of traditional research techniques are (1) the premise that consumers have conscious access to their decision-making processes, (2) that they can and will truthfully tell you how they feel about brands and (3) that they have the ability to express those feelings faithfully in words.

But, studies from psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics have shown us that those assumptions are neither realistic nor accurate.

To identify actionable insights from customer research, psycho-sensory brand-building borrows techniques designed to overcome the limitations of traditional market research.

For example, the use of visual projective exercises, verbal associations and alternate frames of reference help respondents overcome problems in accessing and expressing their true attitudes and feelings about brands.

Knowledge of cognitive heuristics and biases that govern decision-making in humans help determine which questions or question formats are most likely to yield a meaningful insight.

And implicit data analysis techniques in quantitative research often reveal the variables that actually drive brand behavior rather than the typical explicit questions of the sort, “rank these attributes in the order of most to least important in your purchase decision.” The latter usually only provide expected if not pat answers that every brand in the category has heard before.

When assessing competitors, it is common to analyze their marketing communications in terms of the messages that competitors are sending into the market.

Based on those messages, the brand owner and/or their branding agency attempt to reverse-engineer the “positions” each of the competitor brands are going after.

Psycho-sensory brand-building adds a sensory layer to that, seeking also to understand the sensory messages each competitor owns, how consistently and effectively they use sensory cues (like color, lighting, perspective, etc.) and graphic symbols to discover the open space from both a sensory perspective as well as a verbal perspective.

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With more than 80% of human information processing occurring across sensory channels, arguably, the sensory analysis of competitors adds a very important element to the discovery of market opportunities for the brand at issue.

Finally, by applying some of these same psychological techniques with the brand owners, the psycho-sensory brand-building approach is able to gauge the brand owners’ alignment around brand ambition and help achieve greater alignment in the strategy phase.


Psycho-Sensory Brand-Building During STRATEGY

In the strategy development phase of brand-building, it is typical to have one or more workshops in which the findings from the Discovery phase are reviewed and opportunities for the brand (e.g., “white spaces”) are identified.

In this phase a strategic platform is developed and agreed upon, often including a positioning statement, brand pillars and a brand promise. Sometimes a brand vision and mission statement are also part of the mix, as are brand voice and messaging.

Rather than your typical workshop with some markers and easels, in psycho-sensory brand-building workshops, visual galleries are used to help explore ideas and concepts … and most important, to define words.

The reason is, simply put, that words are imprecise. Human language evolved to coordinate social activities. As a result, language is efficient and able to convey meaning quickly and easily.

However, the trade-off is that language is contextual, and meaning can and does vary between situations and individuals.

This is why, when a brand team agrees on some words (i.e., a verbal brand strategy), it is risky to assume that all team members actually share the same definition of those words.

Take this simple gedankenexperiment: Assume a brand team is workshopping their new brand strategy and decides, “our brand should stand for casual sophistication and appeal to aspiring professionals”.

Even with everyone around a conference room table nodding in agreement to this phrase, consider how unlikely it would be that all of these team members shared the same definition/interpretation of “casual sophistication”.

Having used visual and other sensory stimuli with brand teams and consumers over many years to help arrive at clear and compelling brand strategies, we can say with confidence that most often people have different — sometimes very different definitions of what terms like “casual sophistication” or “aspiring professionals” mean.

Words are imprecise constructs and it is relatively easy to agree on words in the abstract.

Only when we put rich, sensory information against the vague verbal expressions can we be certain of their interpretation, as this little graphic demonstrates.


Psycho-Sensory Brand-Building During EXECUTION

Continuing with the theme that words are imprecise, turning a verbal brand strategy over to an agency and expecting that creative to elicit the desired brand perceptions in the target audience(s) is a flawed premise.

The creative people charged with developing brand communications generally are not involved in all the events and discussions leading up to the brand strategy.

In the traditional brand-building world, these creatives are now given a verbal brand strategy and asked to develop creative communications that trigger the desired brand perceptions in the target audience(s).

Not only does this require that the creatives understand the definition of the desired brand perceptions (e.g., “casual sophistication for aspiring professionals”) the brand owners had in mind, it also requires that they can put themselves in the minds of that target audience.

This is a recipe for creative that fails to connect with the brand’s target audience. Psycho-sensory brand-building does not follow this path.

Instead, before engaging in the creative process, psycho-sensory brand-building goes out to the target audience(s) with sensory stimuli and seeks to understand which stimuli the target consumers for the brand associate with the desired brand perceptions, and why.

On the basis of their responses, psycho-sensory brand-building then builds a creative guide that shows which sensory cues trigger the desired perceptions among the target audiences so that creatives charged with bringing the brand strategy to life are guided and can avoid a disconnect between the strategy and the creative execution of that strategy.

The client, moreover, can use the creative guide, something we call SensoryQ™ at Six Degrees, to assess creative solutions offered by their agency or in-house creatives: If the sensory cues are being leveraged in the creative, it is likely to trigger the desired brand perceptions from the brand strategy.

In the following example, we were working with a global client whose target customers were brain surgeons.

One of the brand pillars the client team wanted their brand to evoke was “transformational & inspiring.”

Rather than leaving it up to designers (who would be hard-pressed to put themselves in the minds of actual brain surgeons), sensory research identified the images most commonly chosen by a global sample of brain surgeons as representing “transformational & inspiring.”

Research also identified the common characteristics of those images — or sensory cues in our vernacular — that evoked those perceptions.

With this sensory guide in hand, our designers were able to confidently design marketing communications aimed at evoking the feelings of “transformational & inspiring” among actual brain surgeons.

But psycho-sensory techniques during brand execution are not limited to sensory communication. When it comes to verbal messaging, it is just as important to apply what we know about human information processing to what the brand “says.”

By considering common mental heuristics and cognitive biases, brands develop more compelling and effective copy for ads and other communications.

Everyone is familiar with one or two of these, like the anchoring effect whereby a marketer can make their offering appear like a bargain simply by carefully choosing which number the customer sees first. We’ve all seen versions of: “Originally $299, now just $149. Hurry while they last.”

The first number anchors the customer high, making the $149 seem like a real bargain. This simple technique is commonly used because it works. It takes advantage of how our brains work. But there are many, many more heuristics and biases, and a psycho-sensory approach to brand-building applies these to the execution phase of the branding process to improve the power of branding.

Besides applying heuristics and biases to messaging, another difference psycho-sensory brand-building brings to the branding process lies in codifying brand messaging.

Similar to what SensoryQ™ does for the sensory side of things, the Messaging Blueprint serves as a guide for anyone developing brand messaging for any purpose, channel or vehicle. All too often, copy is developed in a vacuum in day-to-day branding and marketing, being created for a particular piece of communications (e.g., an ad). Without a strategic guide to inform that messaging, along with the brand voice (the proper brand language and tone), brand communications can veer off strategy and diffuse the power of the brand in the marketplace.

The Messaging Blueprint is a strategic tool that identifies the primary and secondary messages a brand needs to communicate to each of its target audiences and articulates the information that supports those messages, along with the most effective format and tone to use considering the audience and the information. (See excerpted pages at right.)

As such, it serves to keep brand messaging focused and on strategy for whoever is writing copy for the brand and wherever they may be.

These are the major elements that constitute psycho-sensory brand-building and how the psycho-sensory approach differs from the standard or common approach to branding and marketing.

To learn more about psycho-sensory brand-building and what it can do for your brand(s), contact us at Six Degrees.




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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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