The B word.

_This is the first in a series of articles that looks at how recent discoveries in brain science may forever change the way we think about branding and design’s role in the branding process._

What a time to be alive! Did you know, that just the other day two scientists published separate articles where they described how they used fMRI machines to read the brains of volunteers? Its true. They showed each volunteer a series of images, and by looking at which areas of their brains fired, the scientists could determine what they’d been looking at. A further study showed that even when images were flashed up on a screen faster than the volunteer could see them, their brains recognized the images without their becoming consciously aware of it. Too cool.

Right now you’re thinking “and this has to do with branding how…?” In fact it has everything to do with branding, but you’re going to have to bear with me for a moment while I lay some groundwork.

On his blog A Clear Eye, author, speaker, and marketing guru Tom Asacker defines brand as

bq. …the expectation of someone or something delivering a certain feeling by way of an experience.

We could debate the ultimate definition of brand until we all grow old and cranky, but would be unlikely to settle on a single defintion. Nonetheless, I think we can agree that Asacker hits the nail on the head when he says that a brand is an *expectation*.

An expectation is the projection of emotions and thought into the future. This emotion and thought comes from our experiences in the past. I can’t have an expectation of something if I have no knowledge of it, right? Where is this knowledge stored? In my memory. This is important.

In their book On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee argue we are smart because we build models of events and experiences in our memory. Hawkins should know a thing or two about being smart. Besides inventing the Palm Pilot, he’s a trained neuro-biologist. After selling Palm, then founding and selling Handspring (back to Palm!), he set out to discover how we are smart, a topic that until recently had not been scientficaly researched as a whole.

Interested in boning up on neuroscience? It’s not nearly as dumbfounding as it sounds. There are a number of very approachable (even funny) books on the subject available. No math or science background is required. I guarantee you’ll learn something that will have an impact on you and the work you do. My suggestions to get you started are: Mind Wide Open, by Steven Johnson and On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee.

What he discovered is that memory models affect all our conscious actions. These models contain everything we know about an event or experience, including the steps we took to get there, the feeling we had once there, and the actions that came after it. We compare incoming stimuli from all our senses against the models. When we get a match, we follow or adapt the model’s instructions to suit the present situation. Next, the model is reinforced or updated with the new instructions. There’s a lot of hard science behind this, but we must note that this is a brand new theory. Even the authors admit that much of it may ultimately prove to be incorrect, but the parts that are relevant to our purposes are not in question.

My A Ha! moment came when I realized that a brand is a memory model for a thing. A brand then, is an internal construct. It exists in my head. It is subject to all the wet messy non rational goop that makes me, well, me. Certainly large parts of the model are taken up by the thing: its characteristics, its purpose, its perceived value – all the standard branding stuff. But a huge part of the model, maybe even the larger part, is made up of feelings and associations with other things.

This is huge. It’s especially huge if you happen to be a designer. After all, we’re good at the non-rational. That’s kind of what we do, isn’t it? We take cold hard fact and give it colour and meaning. We talk to the goop, if you will.

This brand-as-mental-model concept has a number of practical applications in our daily workflow. The first is as a means of communicating with your clients and your team. When we’re talking about a brand, we’re no longer talking about a concept. Instead we’re talking about a physical, concrete thing. These mental models are real. They’re made up of millions and millions of physical connections in your neo-cortex. These neo-cortical connections in turn connect down to the emotional areas of our brain, giving emotion a very real role in the branding model. In an upcoming article, I’ll describe how you can map out a brand’s model, so as to determine where you are, and where you’re going.

It also puts concepts like a brand’s Unique Selling Position into a new context. Sure, USP is important, but its only a component of a larger, messier whole. I giggle with glee whenever I think about this, because messy is what we do. This new concept thrusts emotion and intuition to the fore, and may allow us a way to quantify design’s role.

The ultimate benefit for us is that it makes a brand a completely designed experience. This concept is so easy to grasp. Teach it to your clients, and they’ll have a better understanding of how you can help shape their entire brand, not just parts of it. If you treat a brand as you would any other design project, and subject it to your regular process, you’ll find many ways of opening the doors to new business. For example, Bob has a new product: the Super Widget 9000. If we identify all the interactions Bob’s customers will have with the SW9k, we can design the general shape of the brand’s model. I’ll expand on this in detail in an upcoming article.

To summarize then, a brand is a memory model of a thing. We think by comparing incoming stimuli to our memory models, and following or adapting a model’s instructions for the current situation. In turn the model is reinforced or updated with a new set of instructions. These models are made up of all the experiences we’ve had with the thing. Thinking about branding this way shows just how important memory and emotion are to a brand. And that’s good news for designers.