Hundreds, if not thousands, of brand names have become highly familiar to us as they form part of our everyday life, thanks to widespread marketing and advertising. We may like to believe we can “tune them out,” or at least remain uninfluenced by them, but research has now confirmed that brand names affect us differently than other words, connecting with the “emotional” right side of the brain.
Right-brain involvement in brand name processing was recognized as far back as 1977, when Herbert E. Krugman, manager of corporate public opinion research at General Electric, wrote his essay “Memory Without Recall, Exposure Without Perception.” He theorized that the mere repetition of product brand names sticks in our subconscious due to the right brain locking in on an advertising image. The more rational left brain, which makes conscious comparisons, judgments and rejections, need not be involved for advertising to “do its job,” Krugman argues.
By 2004, Richard Woods wrote in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, “It has become a truism that brand marketing is in the business of selling emotional connections rather than product benefits.”
Old language theories told us that all words are processed in language centers in the left hemisphere. But neuroscience studies show that words from different categories use different sets of brain cells, and modern imaging studies prove that several additional areas are involved in language, including the right brain.
It was previously assumed that brand names are processed like other nouns (object names), and they were not given special attention in research. But then the psychologist Possidonia Gontijo of UCLA set out to explore the way language contributes to brand success in the marketplace. She attempted to discover whether brand names fall into a separate word category.
Brand names are unique in that they are consistently shown in the same way, with specific fonts, cases and colors. In Gontijo’s tests, this type of word was recognized more easily in the left visual field than were other nouns. The left visual field connects to the right side of the brain, which deals with emotions.
Further work by Gontijo on the speed of word recognition suggests that brand names really are in a category of their own. Brand names hold a “distinct categorical status,” she reported, and the recognition process uses special strategies. She explains that, as reading is a very recent phenomenon in human history, the brain uses its existing machinery to set up special categories of words.
Gontijo’s colleague Eran Zaidel added, “It is surprising that the rules which apply to word recognition in general do not necessarily apply here, and brand names have a special neurological status.”
This emotional relationship with brands makes them powerful, and some market analysts already believe that consumers’decisions are rooted mainly in the right brain where emotion directs actions, such as purchasing.
Advertisements often are specifically designed to appeal to the right brain by using words and symbols that are meaningful, familiar, and attractive to people. This approach attempts to create a brand that appeals to the emotions. Market researchers at Executive Solutions, New York, investigated what matters most to consumers, and found that emotions related to feeling acceptable, competent, and responsible are very strong emotional drivers towards purchase. Some advertisers try to reach deeper motivations and deliberately avoid the conscious mind.
Brands can have a cultish quality that creates a sense of belonging. “In an irreligious world, brands provide us with beliefs,” says Wally Olins, co-founder of the consultancy Wolff Olins. “They define who we are and signal our affiliations.”
There is now a full blown industry of image-making, and a new economy based on mass marketing and promotion, so doubtless a great deal of further effort will go into discovering more about the way the right brain determines consumer choice.
This new research shows an even stronger neurological tie to brand names than we could previously have known, with potential ethical implications of such a direct link to emotions and self-esteem.