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Summary: Branding Between the Ears: Using Cognitive Science to Build Lasting Customer Connections by Sandeep Dayal

Branding Between the Ears (2021) explores how marketers can apply the latest scientific insights to their branding strategy. It explores how the human brain responds to advertising, and how consumers really make the decision to buy or not to buy.

Introduction: Make your branding message stick.

Are you throwing everything you’ve got at branding but can’t seem to translate your efforts into hard sales? Perhaps you’re spending big on advertising only to find that consumers can’t tell your brand apart from all the rest.

If all this sounds familiar, then this summary is here to help.

You’ll discover why most of what you’ve been told about branding is wrong. We’ll unpick the myths and half-truths surrounding marketing, and replace them with solid scientific insights into how the brain works when it makes buying decisions.

Packed with the latest research into consumer psychology, this is your introduction to branding that gets results.

Book Summary: Branding Between the Ears - Using Cognitive Science to Build Lasting Customer Connections

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • why you should never present your brand’s benefits as a list;
  • what your choice of dog can teach you about consumer behavior; and
  • how to build a unique bond with your target consumers.

An emotional consumer is a forgetful one.

What is it that makes an ad effective?

A lot of times, what we think will work – an idea that feels sensible, or a classic advertising strategy – actually ends up sabotaging what we’re trying to do.

Here’s an example. The advertisers working for the arthritis drug Enbrel thought they’d found a great strategy.

Their TV ad highlighted the biggest danger of leaving arthritis untreated. They showed this adorable little boy telling his young mother that he was afraid she’d end up in a wheelchair if she kept ignoring her arthritis symptoms. He’s confused, he’s scared, and he’s worried about the person he loves most. The ad then told viewers how people with arthritis could avoid that fate: by taking their medication.

The advertisers did this because they knew that people are more likely to remember something if it triggers their emotions.

But, when the whole thing aired, they noticed a problem: while people remembered the ad itself, no one remembered the brand.

Now, it is true that people remember things more when their emotions are triggered but it’s not the whole story.

When people have an emotionally charged experience, like watching a sad commercial, they’re more likely to remember the central element of the experience. But – and this is the caveat we have to keep in mind here – they are also more likely to forget any peripheral information surrounding that experience.

In the case of this Enbrel ad, the peripheral information was the brand itself! The problem was that viewers were so busy with their emotional experience, that the overall message – to buy the arthritis medication – didn’t get through.

This little debacle shows why it’s so important to keep a balance between an ad’s emotional content and its branding message.

This is a balance that Steve Jobs – you know, the famous founder of Apple – understood really well.

In the early 2000s, Apple shot hundreds of ads for the Apple Mac, but only a handful of them ended up airing. And it’s interesting because the ads that didn’t make the cut were actually the funniest. They depicted this ongoing battle between an uptight PC user and a laid-back, cool Mac user. Fun, catchy, cute.

But Jobs somehow knew that viewers would be so busy laughing at the ad’s characters that they’d end up paying little attention to the overall message of the ad: to buy the computer.

If you’re a marketer, you probably think a lot about store shelves and billboards, or TV ads and product placement. But how much thought are you giving to the only real branding space that matters: your customers’ brains. We now know that the human brain is where all important branding takes place.

And still, we see countless examples of these concepts that have been used in marketing forever – like that emotion triggers memory – still being used. A lot of times these are outdated, or, like in this case, only part of the truth.

Your brain uses two distinct processes to make purchasing decisions.

Let’s start by looking at a typical situation in which a potential customer is faced with a purchasing decision.

A woman notices a luxury cashmere turtleneck in a department store window. When she sees it, all her past associations with cashmere turtlenecks come flooding back to her. Maybe she bought a similar sweater before and now she’s remembering how good it felt when her friends looked at it, longingly. She also remembers how beautiful she felt in that sweater.

This particular department store is one that she shops in a lot, so it brings up all these good memories that draw her in even further.

What’s important is that our potential customer doesn’t have to try to imagine all of these positive associations; they come to her instinctually.

That’s because she’s operating on what Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1 thinking. System 1 thinking uses all of our past experiences, biases, and associations to reach quick decisions. It happens subconsciously, and in everyday life, with everything going on around us, we use this kind of thinking 90 percent of the time. So – as a marketer – it’d be in your best interests to ensure that your branding triggers a lot of subconscious positive associations.

Now, our potential turtleneck customer goes into the department store and looks at the price tag of the sweater.

It’s more than she thought. In fact, it’s out of her price range. Seeing the price tag triggers another mode of thinking. This mode is what Kahneman calls System 2 thinking.

System 2 operates at a conscious level and involves logical reasoning to come to a decision. We use System 2 when we’re confronted with something that we perceive to be unconventional or risky, and what could be riskier than buying something we can’t afford.

As she contemplates her decision, the woman uses her phone to compare this turtleneck to other, cheaper sweaters that are sold online. She might not have them in hand right now but there are so many to choose from.

Eventually, she walks away empty-handed.

Understanding the differences between system 1 and system 2 thinking gives you – as a marketer – greater influence over what goes on in your customers’ minds – and their pocketbooks.

Marketers are incorrectly focusing on brand laddering and brand listing.

Throwing money at branding doesn’t always work. Just look at the branding efforts of the pharmaceutical industry.

In 2018, pharmaceutical companies collectively spent $5 billion – that’s billion with a b – on TV ads in the US. The drug company Pfizer alone spent $1 billion of those. And the result?

Well, even with all this advertising, American consumers still struggle to tell the difference between one pharmaceutical brand and any other. When it comes to brand messaging, money alone isn’t enough.

Let’s take a look at where the pharmaceutical industry is going wrong.

Big Pharma’s biggest error is that it still uses these outdated methods to promote its brands, instead of applying cutting-edge scientific insights into how our brains actually respond to advertising.

Take brand laddering.

Brand laddering is a process by which marketers determine the rational benefits that consumers get from their product. Then, they think about how the product makes the consumer feel. Finally, they take these two different types of benefit – the rational and the emotional – and combine them to make snappy little taglines.

An ice cream, for instance, might have the rational benefit of being creamy. At an emotional level, eating ice cream might also make the consumer feel happy. So that marketer’s tagline might read, Lots of creaminess! Lots of joy!

The problem is that basically, this branding approach just doesn’t work.

As we’ve already discovered, we’re attracted to brands based on the previous associations we have with them. And in the brains of most consumers, the words creaminess and joy just don’t have a strong association with one another.

And that’s not the only trap marketers fall into.

Let’s keep picking on pharmaceutical companies – they’re an easy target. In addition to brand laddering, they also make use of a technique known as brand listing.

That’s where marketers simply give consumers a list of their brands’ top three benefits. It’s not super creative. But it does sound sensible. The problem – going back to thinking about human psychology – is that people just aren’t good at remembering lists.

So if an ad, say, informs you that an arthritis drug is effective, fast-acting, and convenient for your doctor to prescribe – that’s great. But the information is probably going in one ear and out the other.

What the brain is good at remembering though, are stories. So instead of presenting your brand benefits as a list, you’re better off weaving these benefits in and out of a compelling story. And if they don’t all fit well together, then it’s actually better to just leave some out and focus on the benefits that do fit into your narrative.

Create good brand vibes by showing genuine empathy for your consumers.

Sometimes a brand doesn’t even need to tell consumers about its benefits. In fact, it may not need to tell them anything at all.

It can be enough if a brand shows consumers that it cares. This is an indispensable part of branding known as brand vibes.

Brand vibes describe the special bond between a brand and its target customers. It’s about the chemistry that the consumer feels when they’re exposed to the brand. It sounds kind of romantic, right?

Of course, as we all know from our romantic lives , chemistry isn’t easy to manufacture. The brands that give out the best vibes put a lot of thought into how their customers feel in their day-to-day lives. They also try to understand what their values are.

Let’s take a look at brand vibes in action by looking at another advertising campaign for an arthritis drug – this time, one called Humira. This example actually comes from the author’s own advertising experience when he learned just how important empathy was to a brand’s success.

To do some research for the campaign, he spoke to a young woman with arthritis during a focus group. She asked him how he could possibly give her advice when he didn’t even understand what she was going through. Valid question. And one that stuck.

In response, the author created an ad that contained a hidden message which showed people with arthritis that the brand truly understood what their day-to-day lives were like.

It showed a mother tying up her young daughter’s hair into a ponytail. The mother’s hands were slightly, but noticeably, deformed from arthritis. To someone without arthritis, this might not mean much, but it communicated two key things to those with arthritis.

First, it demonstrated that the makers of Humira understood how difficult it was for those with arthritis to do basic daily tasks, like getting their children ready for school. This was important because many people with arthritis feel as if people without arthritis just don’t understand how difficult their lives can be in this respect.

Second, it communicated a message of hope; that there was a way in which people with arthritis could manage to keep caring for their families, even with the disease.

With that simple image, the Humira brand created a special chemistry with people, connecting with their deepest pains, and their brightest hopes for the future.

So, if you’re a marketer who wants consumers to go out and get your product, one of the best things you can do is to show consumers that you also “get” them.

Shape your branding to chime with consumers’ unconscious preferences.

Sometimes inspiration strikes in the strangest of places. Let me ask you – do you know anyone who looks just a little bit like their dog? When you see them out together, they just have the same style somehow, or the same expressions. If you have a dog, it might even be you.

Well, this is what happened to the author of this book.

Actually, he was horrified when his wife pointed out that he and his dog looked quite similar. He examined photographs of the two of them together and realized that the old joke was true; owners really do look like their dogs. But why?

The answer is simple. We tend to like things that we perceive to be similar to us, so we’re more likely to choose a breed that has a hint of our own physical characteristics.

This is just one of over 100 cognitive preferences that all human brains share.

Another one is to avoid loss.

Imagine, for a moment, an elderly man who refuses to part with the armchair that he’s sat in for the last 20 years.

Even though his children try to convince him that there are comfier chairs out there, he doesn’t want to lose the one he already has. Research shows that we hate loss so much that the sadness of losing $100 is even more intense than the pleasure of gaining $100.

Clever marketers can make the most of these loss aversion preferences.

The last cognitive preference we’ll talk about today is kind of a two-parter. The first part is that we like things that we believe to be true.

When we perceive a brand to be honest, we like it more and are more likely to buy it. But – and here comes the second part – our brains also instinctively understand that it’s kind of hard to tell whether a product is “honest” or not.

To deal with that, our brains have come up with another preference, known as the IKEA effect. As you might have guessed, that means we have a preference for things that we have built ourselves. After all, that’s the only real way to know whether something is “honest” or not, right?

You can harness the IKEA effect – whether you’re selling furniture or anything else – by simply emphasizing your target consumers’ contribution to the product. Let them know that they’ve had an influence – maybe through user research or customer feedback. That way, they’ll feel like they took part in building your product in some way.

Make your value proposition so attractive that people would be crazy to say no.

If you’re a marketer, you’ll know that, occasionally, you find yourself marketing a product or a service that’s so new and strange, consumers have no previous experience of it.

When that happens, they stop and think even more carefully about what it is they’re purchasing. Think back to that System 1 and System 2 thinking. If your product conjures few associations – positive or negative – you can’t count on System 1 thinking at all. At that point, people’s brains might go right to System 2, or logical reasoning. In this situation, your branding strategy has to point their thoughts in the right direction.

How can you do that? Well, you could start by employing a strategy known as the no-brainer. I’ll give you an example.

Although it’s difficult to imagine now, Uber seemed like a strange idea when it first arrived on the transport scene. The idea of hailing a cab on the street was so familiar and instinctual that Uber knew it would have an uphill task convincing people that they should be doing something different.

Uber’s response was to create a value proposition so compelling that consumers could quickly calculate that it was better than any alternative. In other words, Uber turned itself into a no-brainer.

Whereas people had to lean dangerously into the road for a normal cab, or wait outside in bad weather, Uber allowed them to call a cab from a position of safety, indoors and only go outside once they knew a car was waiting for them. Most important of all, Uber was significantly cheaper than other taxi options, thanks to the deep pockets of its venture capitalist backers, who subsidized every ride.

Uber’s strategy highlights an important message for marketers: if you’re marketing an unfamiliar, game-changing product, then try your best to make it a no-brainer for consumers. Show the most obvious benefits of your brand. One of the easiest ways to do this is cost. See if you can sell your brand as obviously, undeniably cheaper than the next-best competitor.

If you can, then go one better, and try to offer it for free instead. Research shows that our brains really like the prospect of getting something for free. So much so, that our brains respond in a totally different way to something that’s free, than they do to something that’s merely cheap. Consumers are actually much more likely to buy a product when it’s marketed as “buy one, get one free” than when it’s 50 percent off – even though they’re almost identical deals.

Final Summary

And that, at the end of the day, is the kind of thing we need to keep in mind. It doesn’t matter that “50 percent off” and “buy one, get one free” are basically the same. It doesn’t matter that outdated marketing strategies, like listing a brand’s benefits, seem to make sense. What matters is what these marketing messages are triggering between a customer’s ears.

The best branding recipes for success are a careful combination of ingredients. Marketers need a dash of emotion, but not too much; a heavy dose of storytelling; and a good measure of empathy and connection with their target audience.

And if you’re branding a product that’s totally new, then you also need to throw in an irresistible value proposition that tentative consumers won’t be able to refuse.

About the author

Sandeep Dayal is the managing director of the consulting firm Cerenti. He advises senior executives at Fortune 500 companies across the world and previously worked at worked at McKinsey and Booz. Dayal correctly predicted in 2001 that “consumer collaboration” would be a key factor in winning people’s trust online, as also giving consumers control over their information―both issues that have come to a head today. Many strategies that he proposed, including viral advocacy and handholding, are mainstream today. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Management.


Marketing, Sales, Money, Business, Industrial Marketing, Global Marketing, Customer Relations, Branding, Customer Experience, Commerce, Economics, Advertising

Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1 Brands That Rock
CHAPTER 2 Beyond the Illusions of the Past
CHAPTER 3 Right Between Your Ears

CHAPTER 4 Brands That Work the Way the Brain Does
CHAPTER 5 Brand Vibes: Tugging at the Heartstrings
CHAPTER 6 Brand Sense: Using System 1 Easers to Go with the Flow
CHAPTER 7 Brand Sense: Using System 2 Deliberators to Form New Brand Loyalties
CHAPTER 8 Brand Resolve: A Mantra for Happiness
CHAPTER 9 For the Love of Kids
CHAPTER 10 Brands with Purpose

CHAPTER 11 Tales from the Trenches—Brand Execution
CHAPTER 12 Brand Sensations
CHAPTER 13 Minding Your Manners
CHAPTER 14 Where Do We Go from Here?



Stay tuned for book review…

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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