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Tessa Tinney

How the Brain Can Help Marketers

Previously published in Broadcasting & Cable

Those of us in the world of branding, marketing and advertising talk a lot about what works and doesn’t work. We’re all driven to deliver results—and held accountable if we don’t. We spend lots of time and money collecting data, examining behavior and testing, testing, testing.

We wonder a lot about what people will think and decide. But we rarely pause to consider how they think and decide.

One of my favorite theories in cognitive psychology explains how people make big decisions based on very little new information, and with even less awareness. It’s called “the perceptual theory of top-down processing.” Wonky as it sounds, it has everything to do with how people perceive information and make choices.

Take a minute to do this experiment on yourself. (I promise it’s painless and not even a little embarrassing. And no, it’s not a survey.) It will change the way you think about the way people perceive messages.

The experiment is simple. First, you listen to an incomplete soundtrack of someone talking. Chunks are deleted, making it impossible to understand the meaning of what’s being said. Then you listen to a complete version of the track and when you go back to listen to the incomplete version again, you understand what the person is saying, despite the gaps.

What happened? Once the complete track was revealed to you, your brain used that experience to fill in the incomplete gaps to create meaning.

This experiment is a fun way to illustrate the top-down processing theory, which explains that our brains take in new experiences by filling in around them with prior experience. This helps us make instant assessments of situations in our environment.

Our brains are desperate to make sense of our environment. Think about the hunter in the jungle staring down an animal he’s never seen before. He sees sharp teeth, claws, pointy ears and a long, lean, muscular body.

Without top-down processing, his brain wouldn’t use his prior experiences to help him assess the situation. He wouldn’t know whether to run and hide, or pet the cute tiger. Indecision = extinction.

With top-down processing, his brain draws upon his experience last week with a giant lion that almost ate him. And now he (justifiably) freaks out. And that means maybe he has a chance to survive.

Top-down processing is emotionally charged and usually subconscious. Mixed into the factual stuff (sharp teeth + pointy ears + claws = danger) are our rich and complex emotions (fear, in the case of the tiger), which drive us to action.

While we want to believe we make decisions based purely on fact, we don’t. It’s not how our brains work.

Top 5 Ways to Leverage Top-Down Processing.

In the branding and marketing world, we usually aren’t wrestling tigers and lions. But we do benefit from understanding how people process information to form opinions and make decisions. After all, we’re in the business of shaping opinions and influencing decisions.

Here are the top five ways marketing messages can leverage top-down processing for effective results:

1. Tap into what’s already there. Good marketing messages rely heavily on top-down processing, using visual or verbal cues to stir complex feelings among consumers while adding in new experiences to capture attention and sway opinions.

The key to doing this well is knowing your audience more deeply than a demographic profile. A good example is Peyton Manning’s Nationwide commercial. In this spot, Peyton is humming the ubiquitous Nationwide jingle unconsciously, and even creating his own lyrics to the melody. From the very first few frames of the spot, we know it’s Nationwide and the company has more freedom in the 30 seconds to entertain and charm the viewer. You may not like the spot, but they used top-down processing masterfully.

2. Make it emotional. When the competitors’ brand messaging is riddled with bulleted lists of features and functionality or price comparisons, a message with heart and soul grabs attention.

3. Simplify. In a world cluttered with products and advertising, simplicity of design or message can speak volumes. Take away the extraneous. Resist the urge to add. Be clear and to the point. Top-down processing allowed Starbucks the ability to simplify their logo to a single mark. Brands that have built this kind of muscle memory in people’s minds are able to give their media more punch.

4. Be disruptive or unexpected. Whether it’s messaging, tone of voice, design or even marketing strategy, just because “this is the way it’s done” in your industry, doesn’t mean it has to be or should be. Create a brand that bucks the status quo to force people to think and consider. Top-down processing also helped with this Girl Scouts of the USA campaign. Girl Scouts was able to say something new about the cookie program. No need to explain to the world that Girl Scouts have cookies! That’s obvious. Girl Scouts can now use their media to help people understand something new and deeper about the product and program.

5. Create the right controversy. Top-down processing lets us live automated lives in many respects. But when a story forces people to think and debate, it rises to the top of their awareness. Controversy doesn’t need to be salacious or negative and if you’re trying to build brand reputation, you probably don’t want it to be. It just needs to be interesting enough to get people talking.