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Icebergs and Brand Communication: Taking a Closer Look at What Lies Below the Surface

Take a good look at the image below.

It’s a great illustration for the psychological environment in which brands attempt to communicate effectively with potential customers and the current understanding of the human mind, the “processor” of brand messages.

Brand communication is analogous to a ship attempting to navigate dangerous icebergs based on what is seen above the surface of the water. However, just as a ship can be sunk by ice lurking below the surface, brand communication can be sunk if messaging is developed without an understanding of the mental processes lurking below the surface of what is traditionally observed in message testing research.

A more thorough understanding of how the mind processes information is critical to connecting your brand with your audience…providing safe passage, so to speak, through their minds, and ultimately establishing a positive relationship with your brand.

Brand managers take notice!  Traditional market research tools, such as surveys and focus groups, only illuminate what’s above the surface in the mind of your target audience. Lurking below the surface are massively important brain processes, many of which, audience members themselves can’t explicitly tell you about. Researchers who study brain processes underlying human consciousness and decision-making are discovering that brain activity occurring below the surface of explicit consciousness drive our attitudes and behaviors to a much greater degree than previously thought.

It’s these processes that lay the foundation for how a brand message is mentally processed and ultimately responded to. This means that the most valuable marketing communication research will take a comprehensive communication science approach that includes measurement tools capable of observing the whole “iceberg” so to speak. This is the type of market communication research that will lead to in depth consumer insights that can be used to generate what I call psychologically powerful brand messages.

My lab, the PRIME LAB, in the Missouri School of Journalism recently took this approach to help an organization interested in producing effective highway safety videos.  A challenge for messaging about highway safety as well as most other public safety/health issues concerns the effective use of highly emotional and/or graphic content in the message. Survey data, measuring responses at the “surface” level of the mind is often mixed concerning the effectiveness of various forms of emotional content in health messages.

Our message testing research combined biometric measures of brain processes related to attention and emotion, self-report ratings of message effectiveness, and focus group interviews to generate consumer insights that could not have been obtained by any of these tools alone.  In other words, we studied multiple levels of the “iceberg.” The result was a shift in communication strategy for producing highway safety videos to specifically engage and persuade young adult male drivers.

This is an example of how I believe understanding brain processes lurking below the surface of the conscious mind in combination with observation of conscious perceptions and intentions is the pathway to the production and delivery of maximally effective brand messages.  The tendency in marketing communication research has been to gravitate toward one side or the other, particularly with the popularization of neuromarketing.

Just as a ship’s captain needs to consider parts of an iceberg above and below the surface, brand managers, in planning effective messaging, need research capable of describing relevant mental processes engaged by brand communication that occur above and below the surface of conscious awareness.  Neither traditional research methods nor the tools used by neuromarketing companies are likely to, on their own, provide this kind of insight.

Rather what is needed is a holistic approach, grounded in a scientific understanding of the brain/mind that employs the measurement tools that will generate data at multiple levels of mental processing of brand messages. While I think most brand managers and marketing researchers understand the value of this approach, I don’t think our field completely understands the magnitude of the approach or has moved much beyond lip service in support of this shift.

This is evident in the focus of most research companies on selling “measurement tools” rather than an in-depth understanding of the brand communication process. I welcome your questions and comments concerning this approach.  In the coming weeks, I will share how this approach is implemented in my own work as a scientist focused on understanding how the brain processes media.  I look forward to an engaging dialogue!

Paul Bolls, Ph.D. Scientific Advisor, HCD Research and Associate Professor, Strategic Communication, Missouri School of Journalism

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