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The Science Behind Branding and Consumer Choice

Why do consumers prefer some brands to others? Explore the science behind effective branding and learn how to build lasting customer loyalty.

Why do consumers choose the brands they do?

You can bet their decisions aren’t based on price alone. There’s a world of psychological and emotional motives at play. Personal values, quirks, aesthetic preferences, feelings about your company and its leadership, and plain old human behavior are all factors.

This can be a challenging mixture for brands to decipher. But by taking your customers’ need for self-expression, emotional signals, and the role of brands as a status symbol into account, you can advertise more effectively and create the marketing impact you’re looking for.

It begins with one simple idea. The better you understand the science of branding, the more successful your brand will be.

Brand Choice and Self-Expression

The Science Behind Branding and Consumer Choice — Brand Choice and Self-Expression

Image via George Rudy.

Like people, every brand has a unique personality. Banks and insurance companies tend to convey strength and trust, while apparel brands are often lighthearted and playful. These characteristics come through in a brand’s logo and color palette, but they’re also visible in the fonts designers choose for their websites, the language copywriters use in their ads, and more.

Whether they realize it or not, consumers take your brand’s personality into consideration when they’re on the path to purchase. More often than not they look for brands they can relate to. By buying your products, they’re aligning themselves with your brand’s personality traits and further defining their own identity. “Purchasing a specific brand is emotionally rewarding because it reflects back to the individual a similarity between their personality and the brand image, or takes them closer to the image they aspire to be,” writes Portsmouth University marketing professor Yuksel Ekinci on the subject of brand loyalty.

What’s more, research shows that some consumers choose brands to participate in a community. They also judge others based on the brand choices they make.

One study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that consumers with a “fixed mindset” — those who believe our existing personality traits never really change — are more likely to make brand-related assumptions about another person’s character, than those who think personal qualities can evolve with time (a “flexible mindset”). This means a portion of the population is constantly evaluating people based on the brands they use.

This can create an “us versus them” view of brands: Nike vs. Reebok, Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks, Apple vs. Microsoft, and so on. This is particularly meaningful when taking into account that customers sometimes make brand choices because they want access to a community that is formed around a particular brand. When consumers choose a brand that expresses their personality, they’re often doing it with their peers in mind.

Capture Connection for Your Company

The Science Behind Branding and Consumer Choice — Capture Connection

Image via Kuznetcov_Konstantin.

Emphasizing your brand’s personality through visual content like photography or illustration can go a long way toward tapping into your customers’ innate need for self-expression and desire for community. That’s because images of your target audience doing things that reflect their existing or desired lifestyles can help to make your brand feel more accessible.

For instance, say you’re a health-and-wellness business trying to connect with active consumers while emphasizing your brand’s health-conscious personality and devotion to self care. Consider using photos of a yoga session, a couple taking a brisk morning walk, or someone whipping up a healthy smoothie. This approach can strengthen your connection with your customers; as global digital agency Wunderman reports, 89 percent of U.S. consumers are loyal to brands that share their values and what they stand for.

Brands as an Indicator of Status

The Science Behind Branding and Consumer Choice — Brands as an Indicator of Status

Image via AS photo studio.

Academic research on social and behavioral sciences has identified another driving force behind purchasing decisions. Consumers tend to choose brands that reflect their desired status. In ancient times, social standing was determined by factors like birth and wealth. But today brands are “instruments of status signaling, that satisfy consumer prevalence of a need for status,” researchers say.

This isn’t just true of business-to-consumer brands. According to Lynn Morton, strategy director with full-service marketing agency R2integrated (R2i), branding in B2B is a big part of the decision that helps customers narrow down their consideration set.

“Some customers select a brand because it’s more elite, or has a better reputation than its competitors,” Morton says. “They do so because they want to align themselves — or their company — with that positive and impressive status.”

Morton offers the example of construction industry equipment sales. “When you’re talking about buying a large excavator, there’s a saying that goes, ‘Nobody gets fired for buying a Caterpillar.’ But there are challenger brands out there that are offering something different.” The question for B2B buyers, she says, is whether they want the tried-and-true brand and the status that comes along with it, or a brand that may be more cutting edge. The choice they make sends a clear message about the brand they represent.

“(That decision) can change over time depending on how your brand’s identity evolves and changes,” Morton says. For this reason, it’s important for modern brands to understand not just their customers’ needs, but how they perceive themselves (or in the case of B2B, their companies). Morton recommends using buyer personas — fictional characters that represent your customers — to identify your core audience and really get inside their heads.

Tapping into Human Emotion

The Science Behind Branding and Consumer Choice — Tap into Human Emotion

Image via Andrey_Popov.

There’s no question that emotion plays a huge role in marketing, and that brands can build a deep connection with customers by tapping into their feelings. According to Deloitte, today’s most successful brands “nail a passion point” for users.

They also know how to convey a feeling as they transition from copy to visual content. According to Ian Wishingrad, founder and creative director of New York-based creative agency BigEyedWish, the era of “copy leading content” is behind us. “It’s all about the designer,” Wishingrad says. “You see people finding ways to create feelings through design, and visuals have become a much more important element in branding and marketing.” Brands have mere seconds to grab a consumer’s attention, he says. “Don’t tell me: Show me.”

When BigEyedWish took on the challenge of launching a new product from a Greek skincare brand in the U.S. earlier this year, inciting an emotional response was a central objective of the campaign. In fact, when it comes to marketing, “It’s all emotion,” Wishingrad says. “Not every category falls under that axiom, because you could be selling a service that’s somewhat commoditized, but in categories where products are all around the same price point and in crowded spaces like skincare, the consumer decision is entirely emotional.”

With that in mind, BigEyedWish created a 15-second, mobile-friendly video and multiple product images for the skincare company’s social media channels, including Instagram. Because the product is made with wild rose Wishingrad wanted to incorporate roses. But, they wanted to do it in a way that was n’t corny or smacked of Valentine’s Day. “It needed to feel fresh and fun,” he explained. “We wanted to sell light, bright, beautiful skin.” His advice to marketers? Make sure your designers, brand managers, and everyone else on your team feels the creative, too.

“Regardless of the messaging and benefits, you have to ask, do I enjoy watching this?” Wishingrad says. “Would I watch it again?” If the answer it yes, you’ve hit the emotional mark.

Price, location, quality… consumers take all of these things into consideration when they shop. But it’s the business that understands its buyers on a deeper level that will create the most successful brand. “People won’t necessarily tell you why they do things,” Lynn Morton says. “They may say they like a product, but they won’t give you a reason. You need the context and clarity of science to make better decisions as a company.”

Top image via Maria Savenko.

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