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A brief history of brand psychology

Choosing a new mobile phone can be tough. There’s a whole host of brands out there, all offering different operating systems, phone features, designs and benefits.

Your decision, naturally, will be based on the phone’s functionality: a rational decision that will have been carefully deliberated.

Or will it?

For many, the final purchase will be an emotional choice: an intuitive and automatic decision, where conscious, rational thinking has no part to play. You’ll choose a make and model that your subconscious feels defines who you are. That might be because of an ad you’ve seen, your friends’ mobile phone choices, or simply because the brand you choose expresses, to some extent, the identity you project. You could have chosen another brand’s model with the exact same features, but you didn’t.

It’s the difference between system 1 (automatic) and system 2 (deliberated) thinking, as defined by Daniel Kahneman in his 2012 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Brands that succeed will always make an appeal to system 1, even if system 2 thought is required in the decision-making process.

Appealing to system 1 has served numerous brands well over the years, encouraging consumers to develop an emotion-led relationship with them and their product range. Apple’s Get A Mac campaign persuaded consumers they wanted to be young and on-trend, not older and more bland. John Lewis’ annual Christmas campaigns are always designed to tug at the heartstrings.

It’s relatively easy to foster emotional connections through the medium of advertising - but what about design itself? Over recent years, many brands have used soft power thinkingto appeal to the “rapid-response” system 1 - while still ensuring that their brand is top dog when that system 1 choice is rationalised in the more logical, reflective, system 2 part of the consumer’s brain.

Changing schools of thought

The practice of marketing has not always been behaviour and psychology-led. While evidence of marketing and branding has been found dating right back to the first century (the branded urn mosaicsin the Pompeii home of fish sauce manufacturer Umbricius Scauras), the early focus of product and service branding was led by economy, not behaviour.

It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that behavioural science was added to the mix: as marketing historian Jagdish Sheth explains, “it became fashionable to assert that consumers are not logically but psychologically driven in their buying behavior”.

You may like: A soft power look at behavioural economics in branding

However, practice beat theory to the punch. Psychology was already in use as a marketing tool, most notably in the work of Edward Bernays - commonly referred to as ‘the father of public relations’. In the 1920s and 1930s, Bernays - the nephew of Sigmund Freud - was hired by the American Tobacco Company to reverse the taboo of women smoking in public, using a psychological approach to increase the female customer base.

In 1929, a group of women’s rights marchers lit up during the New York City Easter Day parade, their Lucky Strike cigarettes referred to “Torches of Freedom”, a signifier that women had equal rights to men. This was soft power in one of its earliest guises: the product remained unchanged, but the messaging around it was modified to attract a new audience.

Post-WW2: The Ogilvy years

In the 1940s, the world was stunned when David Ogilvy started his own ad agency with no previous advertising experience. The former salesman and market researcher used his passion for consumer behaviour to create memorable campaigns that stood out from the common advertising styles of the time.

This approach led him to create the campaign that made Dove the world’s top cleansing brand. Featuring the image of a woman on the phone while bathing and the headline, “Darling, I’m having the most extraordinary experience - I’m head over heels in DOVE!”, Ogilvy avoided using the client’s original premise. Although they were keen to promote the cleansing bar’s neutral claims - it was neither acid nor alkaline - Ogilvy’s research revealed that the message left women cold.

Instead, as he says in his famous book, Ogilvy on Advertising, the word “darling” was his main focus. “A psychologist flashed hundreds of words on a screen and used an electric gadget to measure emotional reactions. High marks went to ‘darling’. So I used it in a headline for Dove." The emotive language of the headline reeled readers in, encouraging them to read on to learn more about the bar’s benefits.

Brand psychology today

While early psychological approaches to branding focused predominantly on emotive language and desired behaviours, today’s approaches bring in factors that include the use of colour, font, imagery and content.

The 2016/17 season rebrand by the Premier League was designed to make the brand less corporate and confrontational, more comprehensive and conversational.

The corporate image came not just from the uppercase serif font and the business-like navy brand colour, but also from their messaging. At the time, Premier League managing director Richard Masters explained the current message was “all about numbers – the amount of money we spent, the amount of pitches we built, rather than the people that play on them, the lives changed, the work that goes on off the pitch.”

After the rebrand, the Premier League’s visual identity focused more on the human side of the competition, and it translated worldwide. The lion was retained, after checking the animal’s significance in cultures around the globe, while the colour palette shifted to purple, pink, green, yellow and cyan to appeal to a more diverse audience. An informal bespoke sans serif font gives the Premier League’s branding a more conversational feel, while campaigns focused on stories rather than statistics to create a more emotional connection with the brand.

In FMCG, Hong Kong-made FMCG brand Amoy has a strong heritage in the Oriental ingredients category - but despitea surge in the popularity of Asian cuisines, the brand found that it lacked relevance.

Our task was to develop a design-led approach that focused Amoy as the solution for the best stir fry. Retaining the brand’s signature black and distinctive logo, we ensured that Amoy’s heritage was not lost, but repurposed within a design that is simple, impactful and playful.

Products are better differentiated, and the movement and texture of the ingredients, of the font and in the positioning of the product names are designed to build a strong emotional connection with the flavours and energy of stir fry cooking. Here, our aim was to create a bold identity that appealed immediately to system 1, while the focus on heritage and trust ensures a positive system 2 decision too.

The future of emotional brand connection

90% of all our purchasing decisions are made subconsciously, so for a brand or product to do well, it will always have to foster that system 1 connection.

However, emotional connection is not about creating a trusted brand, then sitting back and assuming consumers will buy, as the Amoy example shows. While the fundamentals of human psychology are likely to be timeless, buying needs and visual trends will change.

While blue or green and white and a minimalist design approach have traditionally been the mainstay of health brands, for example, this market is changing. A desire to shop and eat more healthily has become mainstream, with attitudes towards healthy food products becoming more and more holistic.

Brands such as children’s food manufacturer Ella’s Kitchen continue to stand out from the crowd with their bold choice of colours, simple design, images that appear hand-drawn and warm and friendly font. Their visual identity is designed to appeal to children (including names such as “the red one” and “the white one”). Their recipes contain only natural, healthy ingredients, while their packaging and their messaging support their mission to improve children’s lives through developing healthy relationships with food.

To successfully appeal to system 1 thinking, you must also bear consumer goals in mind. The products with most appeal to a brand’s target audience are those which, at first glance, look as though they could fulfil that audience’s goals.

Millennials, for example, are all about instant gratification, but the upcoming Generation Z “expects brands to understand who they are, what they want, and how they’ve made choices in the past”. The key is to know your target market inside out: to get inside their heads and find out what makes them tick, and what visual triggers make them most likely to purchase.

The new Twinings Cold Infuse range, for example, shows an understanding of current trends. While we all know we should be drinking plenty of water, nine in ten people will generally add cordial or squash to add flavour, while one in ten flavour their H2O with chopped fruit.

Twinings’ cold brew tea is designed for water bottles - and based on the concept and the modern, desirable marketing campaign, it should appeal to system 1 thinking. However, delving deeper, the pack design is classic, cluttered and dated, and is designed to be consistent with the hot tea range, which targets an older demographic - will it appeal, or does it lack the on-trend appeal of the campaign, or resonate with the consumers it’s looking to target?

System 1 branding: where to start

Appealing to system 1 decision-making need not be a hard power approach: it’s important to retain existing distinctive brand assets, as system 2 will come into play before the final purchase decision is made.  

The appeal may come from something as simple as point of sale changes - supermarkets place snack foods by the checkouts precisely to capture those impulsive shopping decisions. It could be an influencer marketing campaign - social factors have a huge impact on purchasing behaviour. It could be switching up your use of colours, words, images, fonts and more to appeal to consumers on a subconscious, psychological level, creating associations in the brain - as in our work with Amoy.

Our advice? Start with the visual. Don’t lead with the words: interpreting language takes thought and effort, forcing a system 2 decision. Instead, focus your design efforts on the visual cues - at the forefront of system 1 decisions - and play with the words later. Your job is to create the desired unthinking response in consumers - but from your end, creating this response will take some thought.


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