Our Minds Work By Association
Our minds work by associating sensory experiences to feelings. We learn quickly not to touch any hot stove again, because the feeling of “pain” becomes linked to the concept of “stove” through a negative feeling we won’t soon forget. But most of our memories become stored below our awareness in our unconscious minds. We simply have no accurate recollection of how these neural connections were formed. This can help us from getting burned but it can also backfire.
Take for instance the dual purchase of toothpaste and mouth wash. Why would anyone brush with toothpaste clinically proven to whiten teeth and then rinse with a brightly colored green mouthwash containing blue dye #1 and yellow dye #5? Try as you might, you would be hard pressed to find a brand of mouthwash that doesn’t contain artificial dyes in shades that would be most unflattering to the teeth.
But through past repetition of other colored products, our unconscious minds have learned to associate the color green with the feeling of clean, fresh, and minty. So much so that now every time we see the color green, it comes with a powerful emotional affect, overriding any concerns about why we are buying whitening toothpaste in the first place.
When Good Intentions Go Bad
Clear historical reminders of this affect are the failures of Crystal Pepsi and Coke Clear. These introductions sparked a marketing fad in the early 1990s, an attempt to link purity with the new colorless beverages. Rational consumers would choose the product without the artificial processing of the brown coloring, and opt for the purer clearer cola, right?
As it turns out, our unconscious minds prefer the brown shade because this association is strongly steeped in our memories of the brand. Without the rich, brown coloring it just doesn’t seem like the Coke that we have always enjoyed. Instead, the beverage feels like an imposter, lacking the positive emotional valence we have come to associate with its caramel hue. The color colors our experience, not just the soda. In fact, it doesn’t even taste the same because our beliefs about what we are drinking change our actual experience and our perception of taste.
To demonstrate this effect of visual cues and expectation on taste, a group of experimenters at the University of Bordeaux in France gave 54 professional wine tasters white wine that had been colored with a tasteless, odorless red dye. When asked to describe the wine all of these experts described the white wine using terminology typically used to describe red wine. By manipulating the color even the most astute connoisseurs can be duped. Whether you are an everyday consumer of cola or an expert in tasting wine, your unconscious mind is processing information without your awareness. Often it can create meaning when there is none, creating a real experience based on a false illusion.
Learning Without Knowing
Part of the reason this happens is because the brain’s emotional systems can function independently from the cortex, the seat of consciousness. Therefore memories and response repertoires can be formed without us ever knowing. It’s like no one was home when we were out living and learning.
Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux gives an example of how this might happen. “Let’s say we were having lunch one day and there’s a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and we have this argument. And the next day I see somebody coming down the street and I say, I have this gut feeling about this guy, he’s an s.o.b. and I don’t like him. And maybe what’s going on there is that he’s got a red-and-white checkered necktie on. Consciously, I’m saying it’s my gut feeling because I don’t like the way he looks, but what’s happened is that the necktie has triggered the activation of the amygdala through the thalamus, the so-called low road, triggered a fear response in me, which I now consciously interpret as this gut feeling about not liking the guy. But in fact, it’s being triggered by external stimuli that I’m not processing consciously.”
Likewise, consumers can be both negatively and positively predisposed to a brand based on their unconscious associations with its ads, slogans, logos, mascots, design elements, and brand properties. People may not really know why they love one brand and not another, because conscious thought may have had little to do with the emotional tags that were formed when their preferences were learned. For example, a leading beverage company created a sound when opening the can that was subtly different from other cans to trigger a unique craving for their brand’s drink. The manufacturer redesigned the can to create a differentiating snapping sound, a branded cue of delicious anticipation. They then recorded the sound in a studio and incorporated it into advertising. The manufacturer would play the sound at major concerts and sporting events, seeing an instant uptick in sales for their brand when they did so. Yet when consumers were asked why they suddenly choose that particular beverage over another they would say things like “I haven’t the faintest idea, I just fell for it.”
The only way to overcome these unconscious influences is to better understand the process of decision making by becoming aware of the environmental cues that can trigger these learned behaviors. I have written a book called Unconscious Branding www.unconsciousbranding.com that explains these hidden forces in detail. There are seven steps to this process:
1) Interrupt the Pattern
2) Create Comfort
3) Lead the Imagination
4) Shift the Feeling
5) Satisfy the Critical Mind
6) Change the Associations
7) Take Action
This post has been about Step 6: Change the Associations.
If you want to improve your buying decisions you have to become aware of your unconscious associations. By relearning a new association, such as colorless mouthwash means cleaner whiter teeth, you can create better and more rational choices.