We are subjected to a constant stream of branding messages – company logos, brand emblems, and even distinctive designs are, quite literally, everywhere. In addition to conventional advertising media, it seems that just about every item that can be used to convey a message has been pressed into service. The net effect of this barrage of branding might seem to be “brand blindness.” Rather like the “banner blindness” that web marketers talk about, we seem to risk inoculating consumers against most advertising – they may simply tune everything out. Indeed, statistics show, for example, that recall of television ads has declined over the years. But before marketers cut back on brand promotion, they should check out research on subliminal exposure to symbols and what has been dubbed the “mere-exposure effect”.

In Your Money and Your Brain, Philip Zweig describes a study conducted by psychologist Robert Zajonc almost forty years ago. Zajonc exposed two groups of non-Chinese-speaking subjects to a series of five Chinese ideographs; one group received five exposures to the symbols, while the other group just got one. In all cases, the exposures lasted only five milliseconds or less, too fast to be processed consciously. Then, Zajonc showed the subjects a larger group of images which included the original set as well as new ideographs and other symbols. The subjects were allowed to view the images for a full second, more than enough time to be conscious of seeing them, and asked how much they liked each one.

The subjects who received five subliminal exposures to an ideograph liked it much better than the subjects who had seen it only once. (Oddly, the high exposure group generally rated other images as more likable and and were in a measurably happier mood, too.) The conclusion was that the presence of familiar things, even when we are unaware of the exposure, makes us feel better. Zweig quotes Zajonc, “The repetition of an experience is intrinsically pleasurable. It augments your mood, and that pleasure spills over to anything which is in the vicinity.” Zweig notes that contrary to the old maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, that in fact in breeds contentment.

Although the study had nothing to do with branding per se, Zweig thinks that repeated brand exposures are why investors tend to overpay for stocks of firms with famous brand names, and why so many people accepted investment guru Peter Lynch’s advice to “buy what you know.” (I suppose that an alternate explanation is that companies with highly recognizable brands have an advantage in the marketplace, and that investors tend to bid up the shares of those firms. And buying shares of unfamiliar companies in unfamiliar industries is at least as risky as buying what you know.)

It would be interesting to repeat Zajonc’s study using fMRI to measure brain activity instead of quizzing the subjects about their image preferences. It wouldn’t surprise me to see even stronger subconscious reactions which the subjects might not be able to articulate when asked.

The neuromarketing message is clear. No, I don’t mean that Nike should start inserting four millisecond subliminal swoosh images in their ads. (Perhaps the swooshes are already there and I simply haven’t consciously processed them. Fortunately, I don’t think the frame rate of current broadcast technology can quite pull that off.) Rather, I mean that the efforts of companies to incorporate a brand image both on their products and in many kinds of media actually DO have a positive effect – even when consumers may not recall being exposed to the brand image.

Frequent exposure is only one part of the total branding process, of course. Consumers have to know what the brand stands for, and that should be positive. The slanted “E” of Enron was a powerful image among the firm’s investors, customers, and employees, until the same symbol was transformed into the “crooked E” and an emblem of corporate malfeasance. Still, I think that seeking out new ways to expose one’s brand image, even in situations where it may not attract conscious attention, is a worthwhile effort.

One example that comes to mind is the once-ubiquitous Samsung logo on airport luggage carts. Wheeled luggage carriers have little to do with the high-end consumer electronics products that Samsung is best known for, and I’d guess nine out of ten harried air travelers wouldn’t have a clue as to whose name or logo was on the gizmo loaded up with their suitcases. At the same time, I’d also guess that a subliminal impression was recorded not just by those who actually used a cart, but by many other bored travelers scanning the crowd while they waited for the luggage carousel to start up.

Proving the ROI of a branding effort is notoriously difficult. I’d recommend looking for lots of eyeballs at a reasonable price, demographically targeted where appropriate. No single effort is likely to have a huge impact on brand familiarity, but multiple exposures in different situations will get the ball rolling. For more discussion on a related topic, see Brain Branding: The Power of Strong Brands and a short followup with some news and blog links, Brain Branding Story Grows Legs.