Guest Column: Branding, Behaviour and the Brain- Jay Kumar Hariharan

A keen understanding of the way our brain functions is essential to map our paths as consumers, marketers and most importantly as human beings writes Jay Kumar Hariharan, Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and CEO -Blue Fire Coaching Consultants

e4m by Jay Kumar Hariharan
Published: Jun 3, 2016 7:59 AM  | 7 min read
Guest Column: Branding, Behaviour and the Brain- Jay Kumar Hariharan

A keen understanding of the way our brain functions is essential to map our paths as consumers, marketers and most importantly as human beings writes  Jay Kumar Hariharan, Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and CEO –Blue Fire Coaching Consultants.

How much do we really know about what Woody Allen called “his second most favourite organ”? The amount of information we have gathered and understood about the most mysterious organ in the Universe in the last 10 years is more than what was understood throughout human History. Everyone stands in awe of what is rightly called the 3-pound universe, with a 100 billion nerve cells that form anywhere between a trillion to quadrillion connections (synapses)-these connections are in a constant state of shapeshifting and remodelling. This evolution is called Neuroplasticity, sections of the brain physically changing by adding more neural threads. The posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain known to be important for memory, is bigger in London taxi drivers than in most people as the examination to become a London Cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world-demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinth city’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them.

Let us step into a bit of Neuroscience and understand how the brain interprets data. There are two operating systems in the brain –the rational, conscious part of the brain that has been added along a little later in the evolution of man as the neo cortex and the reptilian brain or the limbic brain that was the earlier version. The human brain has added layers of new upon old. In the case of the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, the layers are quite literally like bark on a Tree, incidentally, Cortex means “Bark” or “Rind” in Latin, this layering keeps integrating the new with the old instead of throwing out the old. The hero has always been considered the rational brain, which is not true, the real hero or villain depending upon the behaviour or situation is the limbic or reptilian brain that is more primal and is at the seat of arousal and elicits a Fight-Freeze or Flight response.

There is something unique about the brain –it weighs about 2% of our body weight, but consumes 20% of our energy. The brain like any energy efficient machine is constantly looking out for ways to save energy. Analysis and decision making consumes a lot of energy and hence the brain seeks to connect data based on primal impulses when tired and when you are low on energy, your body immediately craves for a hit in sugar, hope you understand why chocolates and candies are bought at the cash counter, all those decisions you made by choosing one brand over plenty of others on retail shelves has left you drained.This is also the reason that the president of the United States and Marc Zuckerberg don’t change their wardrobe as often. What does all this have to do with branding and behaviour? Well, quite a bit actually

Branding seeks to imprint direct or sublimal messages by actively influencing consumers to behave differently, the best brands have been built by engaging with consumers on an emotional level and appealing to the mammalian brain. Brands that utilise emotional routes bypass the Prefrontal cortex which is used for careful analysis.The arsenal of the branding expert is complete with powerful stories, metaphors and symbols. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky explains this amazing capacity. Human beings have one million times more neurons than a fruit fly. It is the vast size of our neural network that provides us with the complexity we need for language, fine motor control, long-term planning and other human specialties. He proposes that this complex brain developed a work-around that allows us to use symbols. For example, if we hear about a con man taking advantage of a kind elderly widow, we might feel disgust. But the disgust we feel doesn't come from a special moral centre; instead, our outrage happens in the insula, the same part of the brain that handles disgust from rotten food and faeces. So evolution “retrofitted” the insula to do a much wider range of functions than it originally did—including allowing us to experience moral disgust. Many other of our complicated moral and psychological responses also have their roots in very basic parts of the brain. As a consequence, the literal and the metaphorical happen in the same place.

Sapolsky shares some examples:

In a remarkable study, Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated how the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, Zhong and Liljenquist offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil or of a package of antiseptic wipes. And the folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes. In the next study, volunteers were told to recall an immoral act of theirs. Afterward, subjects either did or did not have the opportunity to clean their hands. Those who were able to wash were less likely to respond to a request for help (that the experimenters had set up) that came shortly afterward.

True Leaders develop a deep understanding of oneself to begin with and an understanding of how one is perceived. When I coach Cxo’s, I hear them say things like, “I am perceived to be a hard task master who doesn’t empathize with subordinates, that’s not who I am, this is just a perception”. Well, if three people say you snort like a Horse, please buy a saddle! Leadership is a contact Sport and Perception is Reality. Your stakeholders are drawing a map based on all the emotions you trigger in them to slot you as a particular brand of Leader and this thin slicing is instantaneous. Hence this quote of Maya Angelou rings true, not just for its warmth and simplicity but also for has its moorings in Neuroscience- “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Behaviour modifications and inculcation of new habits go hand in hand, try and remember the first time you drove your car, each and every step consumed a lot of thought and hence energy. All these actions were being embedded in the logical part of the brain, once it becomes a habit, this task is handed over to the limbic part of the brain where the behavior is instinctive and hence does not consume too much energy. Organisational culture is also a result of best practices and behaviour which work as its North Star and helps in conserving institutional energy by having “Best Practices”.

Each time, we engage in a different behaviour, we are accessing a part of the brain and neural strands are getting together to elicit a certain reward for in a cycle of Cue-Routine –Reward, over time the neural strands thicken and we can access the same emotional state easily, which is why a careful scan for triggers and cues from the external environment is essential in our war against bad habits.

A keen understanding of the way our brain functions is essential to map our paths as consumers, marketers and most importantly as human beings!

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