Marketers need to adopt a more nuanced under­standing of how people make brand decisions if they want to grow sales. There is an assumption that all decision making is instinctive, but in fact it’s a balance between instinctive and delibe­rative. Marketers must try to under­stand what makes their brand the obvious choice for both types of decision making.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow has become the go to reference for anyone who wants to talk about the influence of instinctive reactions on our decision making. Kahneman suggests that we react first and then think. Our instinctive reaction, which Kahneman terms System 1, is shortcut decision making which helps us react appro­priately to familiar circum­s­tances.

The impor­tance of being distinctive

Inter­pre­ta­tions of Kahneman’s work often replace the word instinctive with emotional assuming that the two are the same. In reality our emotional response is only one aspect of our instinctive reaction. First, you have to recognize a situation, person or brand in order for an instinctive, emotional reaction to be triggered. Which is why making sure your brand is readily identi­fiable – distinctive – is hugely important. People will not have an instinctive emotional reaction to your brand unless they recognize it quickly and easily – on the street, in the store, online or in adver­tising.

The disaster of Tropicana’s packaging redesign in 2009 is often cited as a demons­tration of how important distinc­tiveness is to brands. Removing the iconic orange, with a drinking straw stuck in it, from the front of the juice’s package (among other changes) led to a $30 million decline in sales and a rapid return to the old packaging. But what really happened? The real problem was that the failure to recognize Tropicana forced people to think. For the first time in years many shoppers were forced to deliberate on a choice that had otherwise been largely instinctive.

There is a huge assumption today that all purchases are instinctive, irrespective of category and circum­s­tance. It is an assumption that’s not supported by Thinking, Fast and Slow in which Kahneman clearly states that our instinctive reaction is inter-related with the delibe­rative, and that the balance of power fluctuates between the two depending on the intensity of the reaction and the diffi­culty of under­standing the situation and making a choice.

Failing to recognize Tropicana in its new form forced many people to stop and make a more deliberate choice, rather than conti­nuing with their instinctive, habitual purchase behavior. In doing so some people noticed other brands like Simply Orange and decided they were worth a try, others noticed that the store brand looked similar to Tropicana but was far cheaper. Positive and motivating associa­tions led them to choose a different brand. The remaining people figured out what had happened and stuck with their original choice.

Make it easy for the consumer

As a marketer the last thing you want to do is make choices difficult for consumers. Ideally you want them to respond to your brand instinc­tively and positively without having to think about their purchase decision. When people make purchases under familiar condi­tions the brand needs to be recognizable and trigger a positive instinctive reaction. Little more is required.

However, there will be times when people do deliberate about their decisions: when they buy the category for the first time or when they are forced to recon­sider an existing choice for some reason. You only need to look at trends in search data for a brand to know that not all purchase choices are wholly instinctive. These more delibe­rative decisions are hugely important for brands. As we saw in the case of Tropicana, these decisions present a risk for incumbent brands and an oppor­tunity for newcomers.

People are more likely to deliberate on their purchase decision when needs or circum­s­tances change, when a purchase is risky or expensive, when a brand is not easily available, the price has increased, or prior experience has been unsatis­factory. In the case of a more delibe­rative decision the ideas and feelings associated with the brand need to be obvious and motivating if the brand is to be chosen. The quicker something meaningful and diffe­ren­tiating comes to mind for your brand the better. This is why we see more meaning­fully different brands grow faster over time when salience increases. These brands already stand for something motivating and are better able to capitalize on these critical tipping points.

Focus on the positive

Finally, today’s instinctive reactions are largely rooted in the past. The instincts that attract people to a brand today originate in past positive experi­ences of that brand. One of the most powerful, but undervalued, ways in which adver­tising influ­ences purchase is by focusing people’s attention on positive aspects of using a brand, and estab­li­shing those ideas firmly in people’s minds so that they trigger a strong instinctive response.

So what do marketers need to do? Make their brand the obvious choice for both instinctive and delibe­rative decisions.

Key Takeaways

  • Ensure your brand is immediately recognizable. Know what identifies the brand and what instinctive associa­tions are triggered by them. Use these assets as touch points.
  • Build positive associa­tions through experience, events and marketing commu­ni­cation to ensure a strong, instinctive positive response and encourage habitual purchasing.
  • Establish positive and motivating impres­sions that come readily to mind when instinctive behavior is disrupted so that your brand is the most obvious choice.

By: Nigel Hollis, Chief Global Analyst, Millward Brown,,