• Niluka Kavanagh, Author |
7 min read

The world is full of brands. Millions, in fact. But ask someone to name the strongest and a few are guaranteed to emerge – Apple, Google, Amazon, to name a few. Google’s brand is so powerful that “Google it” is now used as a verb (the action of searching the internet) which directly encompasses the brand name. The same could also be said for Kleenex – the brand and product (tissues) have become synonymous.

But what exactly creates strong brands? Brand managers typically use multiple strategies to help improve the strength of their brand. From using integrated technology that creates a seamless end-to-end customer experience, to incorporating techniques such as quality ques to increase the perceived value of their brand. In recent years, brands have also needed to hold (and deliver on) a clearly articulated brand purpose – increasingly, one that is meaningful and resonates with some of today’s most pressing issues.

In short, brands are built through a range of different techniques. However, one area that is less explored is the role of behavioural science in creating strong brands. Behavioural science and its role in business has come under the spotlight in recent years, with a number of experts drawing attention to its potential in driving better business outcomes (The Behaviour Business; Richard Chataway; Harriman House Publishing; 2020). But how exactly can brand managers use this previously less-explored field to strengthen their brands?

We explore a few key examples and techniques that brand managers may want to consider.

Data, personalisation and habit-formation

Data is king, and what all strong brands do is use technology and data in powerful ways. One example is by using data to form personalised, relevant, and targeted experiences that in turn drive habit-forming behaviour and a form of psychological enticement in the customer.

Let’s take an example. TikTok’s algorithm is incredibly powerful, collecting huge amounts of data on your viewing habits (thanks to the short nature of the clips, which means more data can be collected) which feeds into an algorithm what will line up what it thinks you would want to view next. The result? Hours and hours of compelling footage, personalised to your tastes and desires, that even you didn’t know you wanted to see. Netflix’s “recommended for you”, alongside the “customers also bought” feature used on leading marketplaces are two other examples of data being used to create personalised experiences for the individual. And in turn, drive habit-forming behaviour – from checking Facebook first thing in the morning to always using Netflix to wind down at the end of the day.

However, it’s important to note that consumers are starting to become more sensitive around how their data is used to drive behaviours. Ethical use of data is key and while brands might tap into our historical online behaviours to create more personalised products and services, how they do it (and to what degree) is being put under the spotlight. The recent hit documentary The Social Dilemma shone a light on this, looking at the use of the continuous scroll mechanism, content feeds and the use of likes across social media platforms. We came away with eyes open – yet most of us still use these platforms. Such is the power of data and its ability to create personalised experiences and psychological “highs”, that drive habit formation and customers that keep coming back to product or service. 

Availability bias: what you see is all there is

The power of strong brands also lies in the way they can enter our deeper consciousness.  For one person to choose a brand over another – all things being equal – we must first know that the brand exists. But not just exist – it must be a living, breathing entity in our world, present in information, news, media and our day-to-day interactions. This contributes to what is known as availability bias, a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person's mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or (in this case) decision to choose one brand over another. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “what you see is all there is” (Thinking Fast and Slow; Kahneman, Daniel; Penguin; 2012) . And as Richard Shotton writes in The Choice Factory, “If someone went to the shampoo aisle and spent an hour analysing the price and utility you would think that person insane. It’s essentially sensible to buy the most popular one, the one that’s been on TV, the one that springs to your mind – the one that’s most available” (The Choice Factory, Shotton, Richard; Harriman House; 2018).

This is also why brands use sports to develop this availability bias within consumers. Think about football players wearing adverts on their tops – if we see 11 men with the same logo on them for 90 minutes, we will build familiarity with the brand. The same could also be said for the Coca Cola cups consistently shown on American Idol – indeed, this led to an increased awareness of the brand and impact on sales during that time (Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success; Morgan James Publishing; 2020).

Social proof, herd behaviour and the power of the crowd

Big brands are able to tap into our innate desire to belong to – and fit in within – a community. “Social proof”, a term coined by Robert Caildini (Influence: The Science of Persuasion, Cialdini, Robert; Harper Collins; 1993) is the psychological phenomena of copying the actions of others or adapting our behaviour according to what others are doing, which in turn contributes to herd behaviour. Apple’s ecosystem of products feeds into such a desire – the brand infiltrates across phones, earphones, watches, tablets and more. The ecosystem therefore not only makes functional sense (the parts working together), but emotional sense: an uptake of users across the products will mean that consumers are more likely feel that if they also bought the brand, they too would fit in better.

This also helps explain why social media influencers can be so powerful for creating brand following. Endorsement from an high-profile influencer is likely to generate a change in behaviour in consumers (i.e. them buying the product) as a result. This is because consumers look up to that influencer and in many ways want to join the community of followers and imitate someone they admire. Gymshark made its millions from such a model. TikTok has also used the power of social proof, with users taking part in challenges or specific dance routines that leads to an incredible snowball effect that expands across different countries.

Brand teams must be asking, what features or functionality can they use that can drive forward a sense of community within their customers? How can they help foster the innate psychological desire for humans to imitate the actions of others, especially friends or those who they admire? The returns of this can be huge, leading to increased customer loyalty and users who want to keep coming back to that same brand. 

A word of caution

It’s important to recognise that the use of behavioural science to create strong brands does not come without challenge.  If brands are to use behavioural science to create desired behaviours, they must ask themselves if the actions they are trying to incite in the consumer is ethically or socially right. Put simply: is it good or bad for the customer? Nudge theory refers to implementing behavioural science techniques to “nudge” consumers into doing a desired action. This can be used for good, such as when public health brands send text reminders to remind individuals to book their annual health check-up. But it can also be for bad – known as “sludge” – where behaviours encouraged have a negative impact on the customer. For example, some technology companies have come under the spotlight recently for encouraging unsustainable work hours. The gambling industry has also been challenged for embedding specific algorithms and techniques that encourage addictive behaviour. Brands must therefore ensure they use behavioural science carefully, with ethical and social considerations front of mind, to prevent any backlash. 

Closing thoughts

We have covered a number of examples as to how brand managers might use behavioural science in creating strong brands. Approaches which combine psychology with business strategy are deeply influential in driving brand performance and, in turn, revenue for organisations. Done correctly and ethically, behavioural science can transform and strengthen your brand, increasing customer loyalty and creating long term gains.