Branding, Brains, and Google


Not long ago a press release went out with the provocative title, “Brain Works Like Google, New Study Finds.” More specifically, the news release claimed that the study showed that our brains choose brands from our memories using predictable unconscious rules, much like Google ranks sites using an algorithm:

“Brand choice turns out to be a largely unconscious process,” says Tjaco Walvis, who led the one-and-a-half-year study. “But in that process, the brain behaves much like Google. It seems to use a set of rules called an algorithm to pick the brand from our memory that best and most reliably fits our functional and emotional needs at that particular moment. It behaves rationally, but in an unconscious way…”

Based on the study, Mr. Walvis concludes that the brain’s “algorithm” for brand choice has three elements.

Firstly, the brain selects the brand it has learned is best able to satisfy our biological and cultural goals. We unconsciously select the brand that is the most uniquely rewarding, based on its associations with our goals and the brain’s reward centers (e.g. the dopamine system).

Secondly, the brain selects the brand that has shown most frequently in the past that it is able to fulfill these needs. Coherent brands that repeat their promise are more likely to be chosen. Volvo, Coca-Cola and Disney are examples of coherent brands.

Thirdly, the brain selects the brand it has interacted with most intensely in the past. Brand participation creates numerous new connections in our brain, facilitating that brand’s retrieval. Nike Plus is an example of strong participation concept. [From Marketwire.]”

Given my dual interests of neuromarketing and search engine optimization (SEO), I can hardly avoid discussing this topic. The actual paper that the press release is based on was published by the Journal of Brand Management: Three laws of branding: Neuroscientific foundations of effective brand building. Tjaco Walvis is the sole author. Walvis’s paper is an attempt to survey a wide variety of neuroscience-based studies on branding and form some conclusions from the common themes uncovered by other researchers.

Do We Choose Brands Like Google?

So, is the Google comparison apt? The concept certainly has an appealing simplicity to it. Perhaps an even better question is whether brand selection comes down to three rules.

My take is that there IS some similarity to Google’s process for ranking pages, but perhaps not exactly in the way suggested by the press release.

First, I think that branding is just a part of an overall purchasing decision process. Product differences, pricing, convenience, and myriad other factors go into a buying decision. Branding can be a huge factor, of course, particularly when the products may be fairly interchangeable.

So, back to Google: they reportedly use up to 200 variables in their ranking algorithm. Some of that claim may be intended to make the algo seem more formidable than it actually is, but there is little doubt that the algorithm weighs a large number of factors of varying importance. The process for combining these factors in the brain vs. on Google’s servers may be quite different, but superficially one can say they are similar.

One difference is predictability. At the moment, given the same set of facts, Google spits out the same results just about every time. Our own human decision making processes are less predictable and might vary if repeated. Interestingly, if Google starts taking behavioral data into account in delivering results, those results might become more brain-like. For example, if Google remembers the last few sites you visited and uses that information to make your results more relevant, that might mimic the way our brain’s process is constantly affected by newly-acquired data.

One thing about analogies: they can be beaten to death. Before I get too far down that path, I’ll acknowledge that there are some superficial similarities to Google’ multi-variable algorithmic ranking process and the way our brains rapidly weigh a variety of remembered and current factors to choose a brand or arrive at a purchase decision. You can decide how far to push the analogy…

  1. Gerald Smith says

    The study results seem reasonable to me. However, the title should be reversed. “Google Works Like Brain, New Study Finds.”

    Google can continually improve its algo’s. But the brain is what it is. The illusive trait here is the brains ability to associate predictive modeling with reasoning.

    Great article, BTW.

  2. David says

    I am addicted to your blog. Very interesting and useful information. From a brand and retailer’s perspective, understanding the customer is the key. Everything from the decision making process, attributes of loyalty, and the essential – what they want.

    Insight such as this is really where creating the optimal customer experience is headed. Brands have to understand the customer’s “workings” before successfully taping into them.

  3. Giedrius Ivanauskas says

    Very interesting article. Couldn’t agree more that maybe we are not always so simply “crackable” as some of the academics might suggest. On the other hand, Google would not be Google, without its superbly designed algorithms.

  4. Susan Weinschenk says

    Don’t we wish we could create understand better the workings of the unconscious mind! But then it wouldn’t be unconscious, right? There are basic principles (see my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?) but the unpredictable nature that you point out is really important. Thanks for a great post.

  5. Josh Ribakoff says

    Well the brain does “weight” things ( so a life altering event is more likely to get cognitive attention ), and it does use a “parallel” architecture, but the actual “scores” Google assigns to pages work VERY differently than how the brain works. That being said the purpose of AI is to replicate the rational logical deduction that the brain achieves. Thus we could say the brain works like google but it may be more accurate to say Google instead, works like the brain.

  6. Josh Ribakoff says

    @Gerald Smith

    Quite the contrary, read up on brain plasticity. Like I mentioned in my other comment AI models human rationale. Improving of algos is termed meta-reasoning, reasoning about reasoning, something our brains are actually exceedingly efficient at, ergo you have it kind of backwards. Apologies for double posting.

  7. rosie says

    Would Google be able to make the analysis so many of those who commented made-that Google is attempting to work like our brains?
    I believe we are just at the brink of even great discoveries and old fashioned wisdom at the same time.

  8. Karri Flatla says

    “Firstly, the brain selects the brand it has learned is best able to satisfy our biological and cultural goals.”

    In business, this is the element that is the most challenging yet pays the biggest dividends when you get it right. The biological and cultural goals of any given market are the culmination of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of interactions between individuals and their environment over not just a lifetime but many generations.

    So, I’d suggest (without actually reading the paper) that there exist many, many complex brand choice algorithms within this one element. i.e. How do we come to desire one thing over another?

    Hopefully, the marketer can find a common denominator(s) and speak to that effectively. It’s what makes what I do (copywriting) so compelling.

    Great blog here – will be subscribing!

  9. Marcas McPhee says

    “If Google starts taking behavioral data into account in delivering results…”

    Google is currently doing this on some level. If you are logged into Google when doing searches. It will start factoring your search history into the search result rankings.

  10. deepak purchanda says

    No doubt it is a great write up. It will be more interesting to see how does brain uses analytics to select a particular brand, the way Google uses it.

    Some how I think Google is faster in processing. Just have a look at Google labs. You just think it, Google has it.

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