What neuroscience can do for design – as seen in The Drum

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Design and neuroscience may seem like very odd bedfellows and you may wonder why a creative director is talking about neuroscience at all. But breakthroughs in neuroscience over the past four years have revealed much about the way we think, receive information, make decisions and, ultimately, make choices from which anyone in brand communications can learn.

Design’s potency lies in particular in 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 how we all make choices about what to buy.

Neuroscience has taught us that most decision-making is automatic, intuitive and instinctive and is made in the System 1 ‘rapid response’ part of our brains. After that initial ‘autopilot’ response, we then rationalise our decisions in System 2 – the reflective and logical section of the brain. This is why, as consumers, we desire the sleek minimalism of an Apple product or the elegant lines of a Mercedes first, then convince ourselves it’s because of the interface or engineering.

This way of making decisions impacts everything from our choice of partner to our choice of brands, products and companies. For this reason, designers need to create brands that connect with the intuitive and instinctive System 1 decision-making part of the brain, as well as making sense of System 2.

This knowledge can be applied to the way designers work. What is interesting is that the dominant language of System 1 is visual – around 90 per cent – so intuitive and ‘rapid response’ decision-making is visually-based.

Why therefore are most creative agencies inherently biased towards System 2, with strategy and planning approaches that lead to copy heavy documents and intellectual models? In written briefs to designers it is almost left to chance that they will be able to encode System 1 cues successfully into the finished product. If the output is expected to be highly visual, why not the input?

At Coley Porter Bell we use ‘Visual Planning’ to address this.  This technique involves moving beyond the words of a brief to think, instead, in images. A brief, for example, might contain the word ‘security’; this might bring to mind an image of a baby in a mother’s arms or a padlocked safe – two rather different ideas. Visual thinking can thus help to translate briefs with more clarity and direction.

When you start to understand the System 1 and System 2 brain you are able to put the science behind what many agencies and marketers know instinctively: that purely rational advertising and design are not enough – they need to work both rationally and emotionally. Taking a visual approach to strategic discussions will ultimately give brands more scope to better connect with consumers. This 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.

There are rules of thumb to creating brand designs that will help to create work that will appeal to System 1 and System 2:


1. Brands have to work as both a signpost and an invitation

We overhauled Morrisons’ own-brand offering – a huge design task covering thousands of individual touch points.

While the supermarket’s existing Value range was working well as a signpost with its bright yellow packaging presenting a strong identity, it was not so successful in inviting customers in.  In some instances, it was doing the opposite, as consumers were embarrassed to have the range in their shopping basket.

Value grocery is a very ‘rational’ category. However, it is not enough to just appeal rationally. Packaging has to invite people in, create emotional engagement and connect with System 1. We therefore replaced the bright yellow packaging with colourful illustrations, hand-drawn on a white background for each range, and combined these with a bespoke typeface and a new name for the range.  This gave a vibrant and lively expression to a ‘rational’ category. The branding still works as a signpost and looks like a value range, but we have invited consumers in too.


2. Learn by association

The System 1 side of the brain learns by association, so understanding and using 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.


Pearlfisher has leveraged this concept to great effect for the Waitrose Love Life range, with consumers recognising 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.


3. Use visual codes to connect to your consumers’ goals

System 1 is 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 encouraging consumers to choose a brand  – whether it’s the madcap, fun world of Ben and Jerry’s that fulfills 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 need to know what goals they respond to in a written sense, but their visual DNA needs to support this too, letting them tell and retell a consistent story in new and surprising ways.



The visual understanding and consistency of a brand is essential in today’s image-saturated world.  The steampunk Victoriana of Hendrick’s Gin, for example, is present in everything from its pack to experiences to communications, clearly supporting a goal oriented towards enjoyment and adventure. Another gin brand, Beefeater, is constantly re-telling the story of its London heritage through branding by Design Bridge, supporting its goal towards reassurance with excitement.



We spend an awful lot of time understanding a brand intellectually, but we need to put in as much effort into understanding its visual DNA.

System 1 thinking may not rub well with the desire to take an intellectual approach to marketing and design, but brand owners need to look towards neuroscience in the planning and strategic stages of their work to ensure a strong creative that is effective and invaluable. They also need to adopt the rules of thumb to ensure that their brands truly ‘seduce the subconscious and convince the conscious’.




How neuroscience can help to build your brand – as seen in Campaign

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Vicky Bullen_Website

Understanding the implications of what scientists are teaching us about System 1 and System 2 thinking can help marketers implement more effective plans, writes our CEO, Vicky Bullen.

Over the past year or so, I have become increasingly interested in the latest learnings from neuroscience, in particular System 1 and System 2 thinking. Not only does it give a scientific basis to what many of us have instinctively felt about how people make decisions and choices about life and brands, but also, more importantly, that understanding can help us do our jobs better.

Rapid-response and logical

Neuroscience has shown that most of 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 those decisions in the System 2 part of our brains – the reflective and logical section.

It’s why 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.

And so, as brand owners, brand strategists or brand designers, we need to create brands that connect with System 1 (that seduce the subconscious), while also talking to System 2 (convincing the conscious). That all makes a lot of sense, but the question is, how do you actually do it? As in the field of behavioural economics there are ‘rules’ that you can look to for guidance.

Here are three that you might consider as you define and create your brands:

Rule 1 System 1 learns by association. Throughout our lives we build association networks in our brains – we learn how to decode symbols and visuals and unlock mental concepts or meaning from them. For example, see a pair of people holding hands and we immediately understand that this is an image of protection and security – we learned that in childhood when our parents held our hands to keep us safe.

Understand cultural codes. For brand-owners and designers, this means a need to understand what cultural codes, symbols and visuals will unlock the right meaning. Take the design of upmarket conserve brand Bonne Maman. It unlocks the associations of homemade with its gingham lids and simple black-and-white labels. Similarly, our work for coffee brand Nescafé Azera aimed to create out-of-home coffee cues with an identity reminiscent of enamel-badged Italian coffee machines.

Associations can change over time. Keep up with evolving visual trends. The health category traditionally used a lot of pale blues and whites and a pared-back aesthetic – a visual language of deprivation. New attitudes toward a more positive, holistic approach to health have created a new set of visual codes – rich, vibrant colours, as seen in the likes of Waitrose’s Love Life range and the Ella’s Kitchen brand.

Rule 2 System 1 is goal-oriented. It directs our attention to that which looks most likely to fulfil our goals. So, we need to understand the design cues associated with that fulfilment of particular goals or needs – look at segmentation studies through a visual lens. What visual codes will appeal to that segment? Get it wrong and your visual identity will, at best, be at dissonance with other communications, or, at worst, repel your target audience.

Rule 3 Use the learnings from neuroscience in the execution of brands, but also consider it in the definition of them in the first place. Most strategic processes are inherently biased toward System 2. Lots of words, research, brand models – all ‘heavy lifting’ thinking for the brain.

Perhaps we need to embrace new ways of developing strategy that embrace the use of gut, intuition and our System 1, and force us to use it. One way to do that is by temporarily putting System 2 words to one side and working with visuals – the dominant language of System 1. Create strategy visually and maybe you will get to better words – better brand definitions that incorporate System 1 and System 2 cues.

These are just three ways of applying the lessons that neuroscience has taught us regarding decision-making, and there are many more. Just knowing about neuroscience doesn’t help us to do a better job – the key is how we apply it.



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Brain Power

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Alistair Welch speaks to Vicky Bullen of Coley Porter Bell and learns how the agency is using neuroscience to inform its work.

Vicky Bullen 2

Firstly some theory. Daniel Kahneman posited in his Nobel Prize winning bookThinking, Fast and Slow that we have two modes of thought: System One and System Two. System One is the ‘rapid response’ element of our brains that makes intuitive, instinctive decisions. System Two, meanwhile, is the more reflective, more logical part of the brain that rationalizes decisions.

Designers at strategic brand consultancy Coley Porter Bell (CPB) wondered how such an understanding of neuroscience might be applied in the brand arena. How might designers ensure they are appealing as much to System One as System Two? Or, as the agency’s snappy mantra puts it, create brand propositions that ‘convince the conscious and seduce the subconscious’.

Vicky Bullen, CPB CEO, explains that the agency has been using ‘visual planning’ as part of its process for a number of years. This technique involves moving beyond the words of a brief to think, instead, in images. A brief, for example, might contain the word ‘security’ – this might bring to mind an image of a baby in a mother’s arms or a padlocked safe; two rather different ideas. Visual thinking can thus help to translate briefs with more clarity and direction. To build on this extensive visual experience, Bullen and her team at CPB were interested in whether neuroscience might provide a formal framework for the agency’s thinking in this area.

“When you start to understand the System One and System Two brain you are able to put the science behind what many agencies and marketeers have known for a long time,” says Bullen. “We know that purely rational advertising is not enough – it needs to work both rationally and emotionally.”

There are a number of scenarios (a mixture of the anecdotal and scientific) that demonstrate the power of the System One (the instinctive brain). If, for example, you give a consumer a vanilla pudding with brown colouring they will likely tell you, before tasting, that it is chocolate. Interestingly, the System One response is so strong that even after testing many consumers will remain adamant that it is a chocolate pudding: System One is effectively overriding System Two.

Bullen shares another example from a consumer trial of face cream in the USA: “The organisers could not understand why the results in one state were so much better than in all the other states,” she says. “They looked into what they had actually given people and in one state they had run out of tall tubes so had given people a small pot. Because people associate a small pot with high-end cream they felt that the cream worked better.”

According to Bullen, creative agencies are inherently biased towards System Two as, by its nature, strategy is associated with clever thinking. It is almost left to chance that the designer is able to encode System One cues successfully into the finished product.

The fundamental question is whether agencies like Coley Porter Bell might leverage neuroscience to more deliberately design for different modes of thinking. “There are some rules of thumb for creating brand design that will seduce the subconscious and convince the conscious,” continues Bullen. “You can think about those rules as you evaluate and create brand design in order to be sure that you end up with something that will appeal to System One and System Two.”

Rule: Brands have to work as a signpost and an invitation

Case study: Morrisons own brand


Morrisons before

CPB worked with Morrisons to overhaul the supermarket’s own brand offering – a huge design task over thousands of individual touchpoints.

Whilst the existing Morrisons ‘Value’ range was working well as a signpost with its bright yellow packaging presenting a strong identity, it was not so successful in inviting customers in. Indeed, in some cases it was doing the opposite as consumers were somewhat embarrassed to have the range in their shopping basket.

“Value grocery shopping is the most rational category in the world,” explains Bullen. “Nevertheless, it is not enough to just appeal rationally, packaging has to invite people in and has to connect with System One.”


Morrisons after

The CPB redesign saw the bright yellow packaging replaced with colourful hand-drawn illustrations (unique to each product) against a white background. The name of the range was changed from ‘Value’ to ‘M-Savers’. “We helped consumers to understand that every single item in this range had been carefully thought about,” adds Bullen. “The range still works as a signpost, it is still incredibly clear that this is the value range, but we are inviting consumers in too.”

Liking vs. Wanting. Do brands and advertising have to be liked in order to sell?

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We’re really enjoying Phil Barden’s latest thinking on ‘Liking’ versus ‘wanting’. Do brands and advertising have to be liked in order to sell?

Whether it be a new ad campaign or redesigned packaging, a key question for Marketing is whether consumers like the new materials, which elements they like best, what they don‘t like and what, therefore, should be changed. The perfectly plausible assumption behind this is that consumers choose to buy the products and brands that they like best.

But: How important is “liking” in establishing the desired impact on buying behaviour? Is customers‘ buying behaviour really governed by their “liking“ of the product, the brand or the commercial? If we observe our own behaviour then doubts are raised about this. For example, plenty of readers love their local bookshop but choose not to buy from it, instead making their purchases online. And we can all recognise the typical situation at Christmas: you have already eaten too many sweets and really would like to stop, but you reach for another one.

Research findings from neuroscience and psychology reveal why such liking does not necessarily result in corresponding behaviour: What we like (“liking”) and what we do, or what we want to have (“wanting”), is controlled by different neural networks in the brain. We can like things without wanting them. And we may want to own or consume things, without necessarily actually liking them or their advertising.

Click here to read the full article.

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How branding can bring clarity and focus to mergers and acquisitions

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10 Nov 2014 | Vicky Bullen


With the Chiquita/Cutrale banana deal in the headlines, Vicky Bullen, CEO of Coley Porter Bell, looks at how branding can help turn mergers and acquisitions into a success.

As produce giant Chiquita Brands International recently announced that it had accepted a takeover offer from Brazilian juice maker Cutrale Group and investment firm Safra Group, I couldn’t help wondering: can branding and design bring clarity and focus to the daunting process of mergers & acquisitions? It’s a sobering fact that seven in 10 M&As fail to create long-term shareholder value; yet despite the current failure rate, the outlook doesn’t have to be so grim.

Brand strategists can help decision-makers have the right conversations and ask the right questions at crucial (and often difficult) moments of the M&A process. A good example that has stood the test of time is when Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s. The brand began using Unilever’s performance management system but added its own performance dimension of maintaining its social mission. During this critical post-acquisition integration phase, Ben & Jerry’s successfully maintained its corporate identity and brand image and, at the same time, became profitable.

Branding can actually help deliver a more successful merger. There are four key challenges in particular where branding and design can make a difference.

First, they can help ensure brand value is engineered in the long term. This should be the ultimate goal. The process of due diligence is the ideal time to consider the real worth of branding, and the best way to integrate brand strategy with business strategy. Charles Worthington / PZ Cussons has gone from strength to strength since acquisition. The brand has now been
taken from the UK and expanded worldwide.

Second, they can ensure the day of the deal is not a missed opportunity. If you take branding into consideration right from the start, the answer to the question ‘When should we announce our new name?’ should hopefully not be met with the answer: ‘later, or not at all’. The announcement of the deal is the ideal time for a new brand identity to be revealed, as it’s the time it can make the strongest impact.

Third, branding and design can help define a vision for the newly merged business. Branding is a crucial mode of communication that can support and guide the transaction by motivating employees and strengthening internal confidence. It’s key to a successful deal and should be the backbone of a comprehensive integration plan. Without a clear definition of the new company’s vision, values and behaviour, the newly merged company’s employees are at risk of defecting and customers will lose sight of what it offers.

And finally, they can help integrate internal and external culture. Adopting one brand over another might be the right decision where one brand is clearly more dominant, as Pfizer did when it took over Warner-Lambert, but you might want to adopt something entirely new. In this case it’s smart to pursue a branding strategy that explicitly seeks to transfer equity from both merging companies to the new one as a merger’s success relies in part on preserving positive feelings among customers and employees.

Incorporating brand at all phases of a merger, from discussions to implementation to integration, undoubtedly forces difficult discussions and decisions, but it ensures that you act in direct response to your business strategy and your unique position in the market.


This blog is about all the things that inspire us as we make brands beautiful: insights and ideas, points of view, fabulous work, nascent trends - all the things that excite us and help us to see new possibilities for the brands we work on. So please enjoy, add your comments, forward the link, and come back and see us. We’ll be posting regularly.