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Seduce the subconscious, convince the conscious

The power of design is its ability to speak to the subconscious as powerfully as it convinces the conscious or ‘thinking’ parts of our brain. For brands this is crucial because this

is how we all make choices about what to buy.

Ever since Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work in psychology and introduced us to the notion of System 1 and System 2 thinking in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, neuroscience has helped us to better understand how we make decisions. In fact, our decision making is automatic, intuitive and instinctive – and it’s made in the System 1, ‘rapid response’ part of our brains. After that initial ‘autopilot’ response, we then rationalise our decisions in the System 2 part of the brain – the reflective and logical section. It’s why, as consumers, we desire the sleek minimalism of an Apple product or the elegant lines of a BMW first, then convince ourselves it’s because of the interface or engineering afterwards.

This way of making decisions impacts everything from our choice of partner to our choice of brands, products and companies. For this reason, as designers, we need to create brands that connect with the intuitive and instinctive System1 decision-making part of the brain – as well as making sense to System


As System 1 learns by association, practices such as understanding and then utilising the visual impact of trends can pay huge dividends. Health has become less about denial and absence, and more about holistic fun. In turn, this has created a shift towards more vibrant, colourful portrayals of wellbeing. This concept has been leveraged to great effect by the Waitrose Love Life range, where its consumers recognise the brand as a healthier option.

Its core range plays to the vibrant colours of today’s health, while the diet range injects vibrancy and warmth to its identity.

System 1 is also geared towards fulfilling needs or goals. Therefore, understanding and leveraging the visual cues and languages that signal fulfillment of these goals is a crucial step towards a brand being chosen for the job – whether it’s the madcap, fun world of Ben and Jerry’s that fulfils the need for pleasure or the wholesome, honest taste cues of Dorset Cereals that address our longing for trustworthy pleasure.

Because visuals are the dominant language of System 1, successful brands not only know what they stand for in a written sense but have a strong sense of their visual DNA too, letting them tell and retell a consistent story in new and surprising ways.

A visual understanding of your brand is essential in today’s image-saturated world. The steampunk Victoriana of Hendrick’s Gin is present in everything from its pack to experiences to communications; another gin brand, Beefeater, is constantly retelling the story of its London heritage; and the theatricality of MAC make-up is always riveting.

Visual Planning: the philosophy

Taking a visual approach to strategic discussions will ultimately give brands more scope to better connect with consumers in the real world. At the heart of Coley Porter Bell’s Visual Planning philosophy are learnings from neuroscience. Unlike standard planning approaches, with copy-heavy documents and intellectual models that are inherently biased towards System 2, Visual Planning strategically leverages the dominant language of System 1 to blend both System 1 and System 2 cues right from the start. This approach increases the chances of a successful real-world strategy and design, and creates brands and identities that add value, create loyalty and drive choice – and ultimately grow a brand’s bottom line.

Co-operative Retail: ‘Loved by Us’

In the case of the Co-operative, Visual Planning was implemented to redefine its brand offering. The challenge was to shift the Co-op’s identity from a depiction of its ethical brand values that made logical sense through System 2 – but in no way connected with the instinctive, intuitive System 1 part – to a design solution based around the idea of ‘Food as it should be’ (locally sourced where possible, ethical, high quality, but above all delicious). Combining this with the innovative step of branding its core range resulted in the ‘Loved by Us’ brand and a corresponding double digit increase in every pillar, including ‘fresh’, ‘meal solutions’ and ‘wellbeing’.

The approach has since been applied to store design, with new concept stores seeing sales growth of between 7% and 16% and prompting Kantar to cite the Co-op as ‘one of the best examples of convenience shopping around’.

Be brave and stand out

To be a market leader – whatever your specialism – you have to be really brave to break out of the cycle of continuing to do things the way they have always been done. System 1 thinking may not rub well with the desire to take an intellectual approach to marketing and design, but brands need to look towards neuroscience in the planning stages of their campaigns to ensure a strong creative that is effective and invaluable, to make sure that they seduce the subconscious and convince the conscious.

John Clark

Planning Director at Coley Porter Bell

As seen in Market Leader magazine September issue.

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