Understanding the Conscious and Unconscious in Marketing


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Human decision-making (i.e. purchasing) does not take place at only the conscious level as marketers often assume. Unconscious mental processing is at least as important and conscious and unconscious values are often out of sync.

Unconscious mental processes are primal and basic, hard-wired in our brains, like the sex drive and security, which are both core unconscious values. Conscious processes represent higher order values such as caring for others and finding meaning in life.

Furthermore, conscious and unconscious processes predict different behaviors. Conscious values predict short-term, focused behavior and are limited in time and scope. Unconscious values are timeless — predicting both spontaneous and long-term behavior — and come into play when we are just being ourselves.

Impulse and Considered Behavior

Understanding how these processes impact behavior can help companies successfully market their brands and products. From this viewpoint, brands can be grouped into two categories ¬– the impulse, often purchased product (e.g., detergent), and the considered, less frequently purchased product (e.g., a house or car). The former is better served by focusing messaging on unconscious processes; the latter requires more focus on conscious processing.

A marketer must first, decide on the goal for the brand. If purchase is usually a thought out decision that is not repeated often, messaging should focus on conscious values. If it’s something that tends to just happen, or is frequent, then focus messaging on unconscious values. But always keep both in mind because they are always, in some combination, play. This leads to a win/win: Always target both.

Mostly, market researchers can discover the conscious values that govern their category. But research is rarely directed at the unconscious. The failure of New Coke is an example of a market disaster that resulted from a failure to assess unconscious associations and emotions of an impulse purchase brand. All the taste tests, focus groups and surveys indicated that people were ready, even eager, for a change in Coke. However, no one thought to look at people’s associations and automatic emotional reactions to the brand and how a change would be perceived from that perspective. The New Coke debacle could have been avoided by measuring unconscious reactions.

“Just Do It”…or “Think Geico”

One unmitigated success is Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It.” What does this have to do with sneakers? Nothing. The slogan completely targets the unconscious. And think of the associations it triggers –success, perseverance, optimism, power– all in one three-word phrase. And the emotions generated by this phrase are unequivocally positive.

Now look at the tag “Impossible is Nothing,” by Adidas. It’s not nearly as powerful. Why? What do you associate with “impossible?” What do you associate with “nothing?” Both are negatives. Getting to the positive here requires conscious thought. By being completely positive, the Nike slogan outperforms the Adidas line. “Just Do It” recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, while “Impossible is Nothing” has been replaced after a nine year run. Which one do you think will be remembered in 50 years?

If you’re having trouble thinking of a good example that targets both conscious and unconscious, think Geico’s “Fifteen minutes can save you 15% or more.” Savings is there for our conscious processing but it is stated associatively, making the connection between time and money. “Just a few minutes of your time can result in meaningful savings” would not have worked nearly as well at the unconscious level.

And just what does insurance have to do with a lizard? Nothing! But associatively the word ‘gecko’ helps you think of the name ‘Geico’ and by creating a lovable mascot leads to positive feelings. Now the soulless insurance company has a soul (albeit a cold-blooded one).

All one needs to know to market effectively are the conscious and unconscious attributes associated with the product/brand, as well as the unconscious emotions it generates. And, happily, both are measurable using implicit association methodologies. So how do we do it? Researchers can use reaction time measures to get at unconscious associations and even lay those associations out from strongest to weakest. We can use rapid presentation of stimulation to get at automatic emotional reactions and tell you how positively and negatively your potential customer is feeling toward your product/brand.

Once we know all of this, turn the data over to the creative department. They’ll know what to target.

Joel Weinberger
Joel Weinberger, a founder of Implicit Strategies (www.ImplicitStrategies.com), which assesses unconscious processes, is a Professor of Psychology at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University, and a clinical psychologist. He completed a fellowship in human motivation at Harvard University, and has authored 80 articles and two books.


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