The best brands are built to last a lifetime. GE’s existed for over 118 years, IBM recently celebrated it’s 103rd birthday and even innovative Apple is steadily approaching 40.
But while the best brands are complex, multi-dimensional and designed for longevity, a brand’s visual identity — its logo, colors, fonts and style guides — can be analyzed and understood by the human brain in less than half a second, according to researchers. Moreover, how our brains process branding and a business’ visual identity carries important lessons for marketers, entrepreneurs and designers.
To summarize, this is how our brains see branding:
Step 1: Visual capture and transmission. As humans, we’re incredibly visual. In fact, almost 50% of our brains are involved in visual processing . When we see branding or a logo, our eyes send a signal along the fusiform gyrus, a part of the cerebrum, the largest area of the human brain. The fusiform gyrus plays several key roles in human visual processing and recognition, including facial recognition and differentiating familiar objects from one another, like the difference between a cat and a dog. Certain neurons in this part of the brain also appear to be involved in our high-level recognition of words, numbers and colors .
Branding takeaway: This part of the brain recognizes whether a logo and branding are new and unknown or something we’ve seen before. And brand familiarity matters. More than half (60%) of consumers around the world prefer to buy new products from a familiar brand than switch to a new brand, according to a 29,000 person Nielsen study . Unknown brands can even activate parts of the brain associated with negative emotions (the insula or insulary cortex) when we first encounter them.
Step 2: Shape recognition. From there, the brand experience travels to the Primary Visual Cortex. Also known as “V1” or the “Striate cortex,” this brain region is the first place where information from our eyes arrives in the cerebral cortex. One of the major functions the V1 performs is detecting edges, outlines and shapes in objects. Although subtle, brain research shows even a brand’s shapes can subconsciously effect how we perceive it. Curves are typically more inviting, whereas sharp angles and edges can represent power but may also trigger aversion. Neuroscience research even shows our brains are predisposed to like certain fonts more than others.
Newer research from MIT also suggests the V1 is involved in basic sequential visual memory, the type that makes it easier for us to drive down familiar roads or understand where we need to be to catch a fast-moving ball in sports .
Branding takeaway: This section of the brain understands the shape and dimensions of your brand’s visual identity. As any experienced designer knows, the use, emphasis and balance of different shapes creates different subconscious associations about what your brand represents.
Step 3. Visual mapping. As the primary visual cortex is understanding lines and edges, cells in secondary visual cortex, “V2,” are interpreting colors and helping connect short-term visual experiences with longer-term memories. Research suggests V2 is particularly responsible for how we see color consistency, which explains why a red apple still looks red if we look at it outside, under a lamp or in different lightening conditions. Interestingly, research from Xerox and Loyola College points to the connection between color and memory: seeing a logo in color makes it 39% more memorable than seeing the same logo in black and white. Color also drives engagement: adding color to blog posts, product guides, print advertising and other brand collateral increases readership by 80% .
Branding takeaway: This important but less well understood area of the brain breaks down and processes elements that include your brand’s colors. It also may start to form associations between what’s being seen and other memories, and is a key initial trigger point in determining whether a person wants to engage more with what they’re seeing.
Step 4: Memory matching. After breaking down a brand’s elements, our brains start to match the visual patterns it detects to previous experiences with similar patterns stored in memory. This includes associations like “I’ve shopped at that store at this place,” or “this logo also reminds me of this other thing.” For example, when researchers at ISMAI and the Technical University of Lisbon showed a group of people a mix of fictitious and real logos and used an MRI to monitor brain response, the real logos activated additional parts of the subjects’ brains associated with memory and meaning, whereas the fictional logos did not. Some of these extra, activated areas of the brain were places that are responsible for a person’s feelings of self-knowledge and autobiographical memory. In our own minds we link brands with different parts of our personal identity .
Over time, positive (rewarding) or negative (disappointing) experiences with a specific brand are layered into an overall brand identity profile in our minds. Different brands end up with different profiles, and in turn trigger different responses in our brains. In one study, people who saw sports (like Nike) and luxury (like Mercedes) brands triggered emotions and brain activity in different places than brands rated as value products (like Walmart) . MRI scans of children’s appetite and pleasure centers in their brains also show them light up in response to seeing branding from recognizable fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Burger King, according to research by University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Kansas Medical Center . “Therefore, it is possible to argue that the emotional, social, and cultural value of brand recognition are capable to activate deep reward circuits, even to a significantly greater extent than generic images,” write researchers at the Laboratory of Clinical Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Pisa, Italy in a second study: “This observation further supports the hypothesis of strong emotional relationship between consumers’ preferences and brands” .
One study co-written by Professor Gavan Fitzsimons of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University found that people who were shown Apple’s logo scored 20-30% higher on a creativity test that those who were exposed to the IBM logo, presumably because they were mirroring the traits they associate with those logos . In some cases, particularly strong brand associations even make us think differently.
Branding takeaway: Research shows that consistent, positive interactions with a brand creates positive psychological reinforcement when it’s encountered the next time. On the other hand, negative experiences can do just the opposite. Brands who deliver consistent, high-quality experiences across different touch-points like retail, social and customer service don’t just win hearts — they actually win minds and change how we think.
Step 5: Enrichment. Finally, after our brains complete their initial memory association steps, we enrich our understanding of a brand by tagging other semantic attributes to what we’re seeing. Examples of this include specific products, slogans, store locations, supplemental imagery and associations we’re familiar with.
As a marketer, understanding these additional associations can lead to powerful insights. When Barry Herstein joined PayPal from American Express to become the brand’s CMO in 2007, he started using neuromarketing research to identify what peoples’ most positive association was about using PayPal. The research concluded that what PayPal’s users valued most was that it was fast — using PayPal helped you buy things and transfer money faster than other available options, particularly at a time before Venmo, Square Cash and Apple Pay. When people thought of PayPal, they thought “fast” transaction, so Herstein launched a global rebranding effort to align the brand closer with a visual identity that communicated speed. When Herstein changed PayPal’s visual and verbal identity across the company’s email and web pages, click-through and email response rates to the brand’s digital messaging increased 300-400%.
Branding takeaway: While some brand associations are quite obvious — Apple with smartphones and computers, Google with search, Nike with shoes — branding is processed throughout our brains across memory, emotions, reward centers, self-understanding, social relationships and even less direct associations. Ultimately, all of these identity elements and experiences come to represent your brand. As a marketer, designer or other steward of your brand, the more comprehensively you can understand the full spectrum of what your brand means for your audience, the more effectively you will be able to manage and position it. Most of all, as research shows, there’s a difference between what people will tell you they think about their brand and how they subconsciously experience it.
Overall, brands play many important roles in our lives. How we associate with different brands is one of the ways we socially define ourselves, while our favorite brands can make us happier just experiencing them. Strong brands also have the power to change behavior, trigger emotions and influence actions. For marketers, designers and other representatives of your brand, acknowledging that power and using it in ways that balance effectiveness with responsibly help ensure that — no matter how fast our minds process your brand’s imagery — your brand itself is positioned to last with the prestige of companies like GE, IBM and Apple.
1. Human Anatomy & Physiology 7th Edition, Pearson International Edition