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Share of Synapse = Share of Market

2012 January 29

Marketing has no shortage of theories.  Some say we should focus on rational benefits, others emphasize emotional bonds and still others insist that we stick to the numbers.

What we lack is any consensus or grounding.  Unlike other professions, we don’t have well established principles.  Someone clever says something clever, it sounds good and we run with it.  That’s no way to run a trillion dollar industry.

Fortunately, it does have to be that way anymore.  Neuroscientists have unlocked many of the brain’s secrets. Nobel prizes have been awarded for behavioral economics and a vast amount of research has documented cognitive bias.  It’s time to apply to business what science already knows and break away from old myths and failed philosophies.

Homo Economicus

Way back in the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill created the utilitarian school of thought.  The idea was, in essence, that people should make decisions that maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  In other words, pick the option that does the most good for the least bad.

In the 1960’s, economists such as Robert Lucas and Gary Becker took the idea a bit further. They theorized that not only should people make decisions based on rational choice, but in fact human behavior can best be understood by assuming people actually do.  They then constructed elaborate mathematical models based on the notion.

Not surprisingly, marketers soon caught on and began to focus their marketing efforts around rational benefits and core value propositions.  A brand, in order to be successful, would be required to show a clear and concrete point of difference or lose out to the competition, or so it was thought.

While rationality has its charms, the past few decades have brought abundant evidence that the utilitarian point of view has significant flaws.  Firstly, neurologists have found that our brains don’t really work that way and secondly behavioral economists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown experimentally that people don’t act that way.

How Our Brains Really Work

The rational school assumes that our brains work like a desktop computer.  When confronted with a choice, we are thought to calculate the costs and benefits of different options and then choose the one which offers the greatest net advantage.  Humans can do that, but it takes a lot of time and effort and we do it very poorly.

To understand how our brains work most of the time, we need to understand how they are constructed. They are made up of cells called neurons which are connected through gaps called synapses.  Each neuron acts like a binary circuit, which “fires” when stimulated by passing molecules called neurotransmitters through the synaptic gap.

If the connection is strong enough, the next neuron in line is stimulated and the signal travels on.  However, this process is very slow compared to computers (about 200 mph vs the speed of light), which is why we calculate so poorly.

However, we do have an advantage.  Each neuron is connected to thousands of others allowing for lots of things to go on at once.  Our minds are, in computer parlance, massively parallel, with millions of diverse signals being processed all at once.

Brands are, in essence, the sum total of the connections formed.  The more synapses built, the more associations connected to the brand, the stronger the brand is.

How Our Brains Build Connections

Our brains are different from our other organs.  Their structure not only differs from person to person, but also changes over time.  Neuroscientists have come to a fairly robust understanding of how it all happens.

Synapse building can be divided into four main categories:

Innate: Some things we don’t have to learn, but are born with.  Fear of snakes, for example, is innate and cross-cultural.  Surprisingly, even very personal beliefs have an innate component. Studies of identical twins reared apart (pdf) show medium to strong correlations for religious and political opinions.

Repetitive:  Every time a neuron successfully fires and stimulates another one, chemicals called neurotrophins are released that strengthen the bond.  The more we see and do things, the more familiar they become.  The old marketing adage, “frequency sells,” is true, albeit expensive.

Emotional: Emotions also release neurotrophins that stimulate synapse building.  If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective.  If you see your buddy get eaten by a lion, your much better off not having to repeat the experience in order to recognize the tell-tale rustling in the bushes.

This particular point flies in the face of the old “rational benefits” way of thinking.  Brands that build emotional bonds are much more likely to be remembered and bought.  As I’ve written before, emotions are like a little yellow highlighter in our brains that says, “Remember this – it’s important.”

Associative: The last category is probably the most important.  In a process known as Hebbian plasticity, when weak synapses are paired with stronger ones, the weaker one strengthens its connection.  In effect, “the neurons that fire together wire together,” so if you like that cute little kid in the ad, you’ll probably like the brand too.

Brand Associations

Probably the most important promotional decision a brand makes is what to associate with.  You want to associate with something positive and familiar to consumers, but not so powerful that the brand gets overshadowed.  As I wrote in an earlier post about brand associations, a synaptic approach can help us here too.

Associations can be split into three major categories.

Archetypes: For a brand launch, or for a brand with low equity, an archetypal association that focuses on innate synapses is ideal because archetypes are primal and therefore carry little content.  They can emotionally charge a brand, without running a serious risk of overshadowing it.

Cultural Memes: The problem with associating with archetypes and innate synaptic pathways is that it’s hard to differentiate your brand that way.  Every soft drink, for instance, is somehow associated with thirst.  So many brands tie themselves to cultural memes such as celebrities.

The danger here is that if your brand has low equity it will be hard to notice, like a car dealership that gets a famous football player to endorse it.  People remember the football player, but not the car dealership.

Self Reference: Some brands are ingrained enough in consumer’s minds that they can actually refer back to consumers own experiences with it.  This is an approach reserved for the few brands, like Coke and Guiness beer, that have built up wealth of synapses that can be referred back to, much like Proust’s madeleines.

The Brand in the Brain

None of this means that rationality never plays a part in purchase decisions.  We often, particularly with large purchases, stop, think and weigh options.  However, that takes and effort, so by the time we do it we are already far along the path to purchase.  A gut feeling is hard to ignore.

And gut feelings are what great brands evoke.  They ingrain themselves so deeply in our consciousness that they trigger a strong biochemical response to themselves.  We not only buy them, we crave them.  They make us feel good about ourselves.  When confronted with a choice, we find ourselves making up reasons to choose the one we really want.

That’s no accident, but the product of connections built up in our brain over an extended period of time.  Scientists have unlocked the secrets of how it all happens behind the scenes, but marketers have yet to familiarize themselves with the research.  It’s not the sort of thing you will read in Ad Age or Campaign.

Nevertheless, the implications are clear.  In order to build share of market you first need to build share of synapse.

– Greg

7 Responses leave one →
  1. January 29, 2012

    I really love this stuff Greg and reminds me why I enjoyed Consumer Behaviour so much when studying. It is quite in depth and a few industry samples would certainly hekp in future (apart from the usual suspects, Coke etc). Thanks

  2. January 29, 2012

    Thanks Greg! There are some industry examples here:

    – Greg

  3. Adam permalink
    January 30, 2012

    I love the biochemical approach to marketing! I think the best brands will create the one-two punch – leverage the emotional to form the initial connection, and then provide rational benefits to close the deal (and great user experience to build loyalty.) This is a great way for brands to think about how their advertising and social media work together – advertising forms emotional connections while social media/UGC is where consumers find the rational evidence that “people like me,” in similar circumstances and with similar needs, have also benefited from a brand.

  4. January 30, 2012

    Very true. Thanks Adam!

    – Greg

  5. February 10, 2012

    Greg, terrific post. How do you churn out so much good content so frequently?

    It’s great to see Kahneman, Dan Arielly, Jonah Lehrer (How we Decide), Steve Johnson, etc getting to much attention recently. As our clients get exposed to the concepts of behavioural economics via mainstream media, we brain-function-obsessed-marketers have less selling to do.

    As an aside, I wonder if the synapse building categories are cumulative –eg, if the associative element triggers an emotional response, is the synaptic connection doubly reinforced…

  6. February 10, 2012

    Yes, it does. Also, replaying memories reinforces synapses. Mental practice works!

    – Greg

  7. October 2, 2017

    Being a researcher of neuroscience, it pains me to see how our hardwork and discoveries are being misused to create brand slaves and mould people’s minds to consume. Almost makes me want to stop doing science.

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