Do you sometimes struggle to keep your shopping budget in check? Are your children nagging you to buy yet another product they saw on TV or Facebook?

One of the greatest ironies in marketing is that despite continued heavy media investments, branding does not simply occur by staring at the TV sitting in your living room, nor by surfing the Internet from your office desk or mobile phone. It happens in the tangible interactions of authentic human experiences.

I Move, Therefore I Am

That’s because the human brain exists primarily for movement. Organisms that don’t move don’t have brains. We are more like “human doings” than we are “human beings.

As the neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert of the University of Cambridge states: “I would argue that we have a brain for one reason and one reason only. And that’s to produce adaptable and complex movement. There is no other reason to have a brain. . . . Things like sensory, memory and cognitive processes are all important, but they are only important to drive movement.” 

Active Branding Through Physical Interactions

Unlike passively viewing a TV, print, or online ad, when you see, touch, hear, smell, and taste something first hand, those experiences are more likely to become long-term procedural memories that persist below the level of consciousness. We learn best by doing. That’s in part because your brain encodes the experiences more deeply through all 5 senses so they are more likely to become purchase habits that become second nature to you. 

Savvy marketers have effectively promoted these so-called brand rituals such as squeezing a lime into your Corona bottle, twisting open an Oreo Cookie first, or playfully punching your friend when you spot a Volkswagen Beetle.

Brands Are Expectations Based On Memories

This works because brands are essentially memories that become heuristics, i.e., mental shortcuts that allow us to make snap judgments and solve problems without rational deliberation. If we had to analyze all of our choices in life we would become too overloaded too accomplish anything.

So despite a sea of brand choices we tend to live our lives in the routine, shopping at the same stores, dining at the same restaurants, buying gas and the same station, and purchasing the same familiar products, etc.

Choosing Experiential Marketing Over Advertising

Brands that have leaned into this behavioral truth have reaped tremendous success. Take Starbucks, for example. Starbucks appears to be an anomaly in that it has spent far less on traditional advertising than other big chains but has become one of the most valued brands in the world. The brand is now so strongly established that the brand name and the word “coffee” have even been removed from the logo. 

Starbucks Coffee Company transformed the specialty coffee industry, growing from a small regional player into the undisputed leader. They did so not just by offering quality coffee, but also by providing an unmatched retail experience that was replicated consistently and unmistakably across the globe and all of its touch points. According to CEO Howard Schultz, the reason that Starbucks doesn’t need to rely just on advertising is that it is in “over 16,000 neighborhoods around the world, in more than 50 countries, forming connections with millions of customers every day in our stores, in grocery aisles, at home, and at work.”

Experience Changes Everything

Another legendary brand that has created perhaps the most efficient marketing campaigns in history is Red Bull, the energy drink. From the start, traditional marketing was summarily rejected. Initially, Red Bull avoided television, and didn’t use outdoor, print, or digital ads, but chose grassroots, experiential efforts. Red Bull let people try the product free of cost through one of the most celebrated human experiences: the time-honored tradition of a good (but not necessarily old-fashioned) party. The foolproof branding plan was to give hip, young, and influential college students free cases of the energy drink and encourage them to throw their own event, a lucrative tactic that cost the marketer next to nothing. Through its alliance with the in-crowd and the alpha-partiers, Red Bull would become the dominant player in an emergent and rapidly growing category, going from obscurity to a staple at parties, bars, and clubs worldwide. 

On the surface this may seem like simple sales promotion and free product sampling, but it was about neither the product nor the promotion. It was all about the social event itself. As Mateschitz explains, “We don’t bring the product to the consumer, we bring the consumer to the product.” The goal was to create the best parties, not the best energy drink. As the brand grew so did the parties, with Red Bull becoming synonymous with high-octane fun and first-rate happenings that included huge crowds, big shots, celebrities, enormous venues, pumping music, and the ubiquitous presence of Red Bull drinks and mixers. In short, they branded the most exhilarating and social life experience of all, attracting active, on-the-go, and high-energy youth who were the primary targets for their high-energy drink.

Red Bull would later expand these tactics to bring the energetic brand to even greater experiential heights by sponsoring live events of the most intensely physical sort: extreme sports. Red Bull sponsored legions of affordable, death-defying athletes of less-than- mainstream but greatly exhilarating sports, all risking life and limb in worldwide competitions and outrageous stunts.

I have written a book, Unconscious Branding, based upon a seven-step process that explains the non-conscious ways that people become customers.

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 article has been about the last step: take action.

If you want to know more about how you are being influenced become more aware of what you’re doing, not just what you are seeing in the media.

And if you’d like to learn more go to:

About the Author

Douglas Van Praet

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He applies unconscious behaviorism, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology to business.

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