Why did you buy that? : The Psychology of Brand Choices and the Power of Branding

In this article I attempt to define what branding is in the context of our consumer experienced lives, and how we come to make our on-the-spot choices when under pressure. I posit that buying choices are generally made by a combination of emotional responses to the product or service masked as rational thinking, and our ignorance, needs and wants. Furthermore, that branding agencies know how and do manipulate these in order to ‘nudge’ us towards their products, which is ultimately, if we are honest, what we want and need them to do in order to help us live our lives.

Lining Up

Lining up at the supermarket checkout waiting to buy the shopping, I look in my trolley and see around 50 items. I wonder who put them there and how he chose them. I know I physically took the items off the shelves and put them in the trolley, but I have no idea of why these particular items?What ignorance, needs or wants of mine made my brand choices? What unconscious forces were at work and how and who brought these into play on a simple trip to the supermarket? And most importantly, when presented with many different versions of the same product, why did I choose one brand over another?

Define brand

A standard definition of brand:

“The emotional and intellectual associations people make with a specific person or thing.”
Dirk Knemeyer, – Involution studios

Therefore from the above we can deduct:

A thing is a brand.
A person is a brand.
A thing is a person.
A brand is a person

A brand is a human being. Like a voodoo doll that has imbibed the living soul of an absent person, a brand is filled with the characteristics, traits and hopes of a living member of our race. A box of Kellogs Cornflakes is not a cardboard box filled with tasteless bits of corn residue, it is a hopeful happy person who meets the dawn of a new day with a smile and exclaims ‘I can do it’ at the rising sun before setting the table neat and tidy in preparation for the joyous awakening of the perfect family. And like a voodoo doll, brands control us, in order to help us make the choices that mark our daily lives.

Without brands we would wonder around supermarkets endlessly, not knowing who we are. Brands perform an important service in our modern Western societies – they allow us to define ourselves, differentiate ourselves and better ourselves in ways that were never available to previous generations. Brands are the role models we never had and through brands we display our values and differences, our tribes and beliefs. In many ways we only have names and histories because of the brands we buy into – we are remembered by the choices we made, the jumpers we wore, the shoes we left, the cars we liked, the films we cried at.

More than voting, more than philosophy, more than fighting – brands define the human experience. Brands define the post-modern world more than any historical event, political movement or war. History will no longer be written by the winners, it will be written by the brands – bite-sized ‘rational’ encapsulations of our ‘irrational’ emotional thinking. Our inner subjective worlds formed and packaged for us to experience as objects in order for us to feel ourselves effectively mirrored and held. Like our mother used to.

Brands are our all new surrogate mums and dads. Like God used to be. Amazon is the new New Testament. With next day delivery. Amen.

Emotional thinking and brand choice – how personality patterns can determine buying behaviours.

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.”
Marty Neumeier – author, The Brand Gap

A lot of consumer choices are determined by price. Others by availability and other factors like race, nationality, politics etc. But some are determined solely by brand. So the question is: why when faced with a choice between two similar products at similar prices do we choose one above the other? Why does one type of branding get to us, and others don’t? Furthermore, how does my personality (my environment and genetics combined to form my particular version of a human being) affect the type of brands I favour? Why do I surround myself with particular brands and not others? Nike over Adidas? Volvo over Audi? Heinz over Campbell’s? We can all most probably give rational explanations for choosing one brand over the over, explanations which would include references to quality, packaging and price. But generally these would be the explanations of the rational conscious buying decisions created by emotional thinking.

Emotional thinking refers to the unnoticed automatic emotional responses we have to people and objects which are then almost immediately and imperceptibly translated into thoughts and behaviour. These automatic emotional responses (AERs) are caused by unconscious base triggers which are seeded by past events, experiences and genetic temperaments. These base triggers are accessible via the AERs which sit in the preconscious (what is not unconscious but sits just outside of consciousness), and can be summoned with a bit of skill and prior knowledge.

Controlling emotional thinking in consumers is the key to controlling their buying behaviour. By triggering and manipulating those base unconscious feelings and AERs through advertising, packaging and product innovations, advertisers can set-up a chain of thought which leads to a rational buying decision (even though the decision is in fact based on a hidden emotional response to the memory of past experience or personality trait). There are many variations in the way brands can use a consumer’s past to nudge them to a buying decision. Two popular brand roles are the ‘personal loss filler’ and ‘personality trait amplifier’. A brand may either act as fillers for the bad/sad missing bits in our personalities, or may accentuate the good/demanding parts by adding to them or temporarily solving them. These can be used interchangeably. Below I detail a couple of examples of how advertisers have used consumer personality patterns (created by their backgrounds) in order to manipulate their buying behaviour. The two now relatively old ad techniques use almost universal consumer family backgrounds – the divorced/insecure family and the over-achieving, ambitious family.

1. An example of a personal loss filler brand would be Volvo. It is sold as a secure and solid space to sit in and the designs are purposely boxy to accentuate the feelings of complete impenetrable safety of the cars. People who choose Volvo would generally choose brands which they perceive to offer what they are missing internally – a safe place. Their backgrounds may be from divorced or bereaved families, or those who had parents who were financially insecure or unable to provide a safe and stable enough environment for them.

2. An example of a personality trait amplifier brand would be Nike. Nike is sold as an addition to an already present skill or talent. The basketball shoes don’t make you good at basketball, you are already good says Nike. The shoes make you better. Nike sponsors over-achievers, people who never give up and who are never happy with their current success. They want more. People who choose Nike would generally choose brands that challenge them, push them, and are constantly being updated. By buying Nike they feel they are on the road to achieving what is expected of them. Their backgrounds may be very socially mobile parents who expect their kids to emulate them and succeed at everything they do. The parents would be very hands on and demanding, almost smothering their children with their ambitions for them.

The breakdown of the Emotional Thinking could look something like this:

Consumer A
Ad: Volvo logo, car and image depicting happy family in or around car
Base Unconscious Trigger: Insecure family background
AER: Quick feeling of yearned for internal security and stability / Volvo will protect me and keep me safe
Rational Chain of Thought: Happy family – stability – personal happiness – safety for my family most important part of buying decision – best car for me is safest car – buy Volvo

Generally the only part of the Rational Chain of Thought that the consumer would remember when asked would the last three: safety for my family most important part of buying decision – best car for me is safest car – buy Volvo.

Consumer B
Ad: Nike logo, Nike basketball shoes and NBA star spectacular dunk/shot/play
Base Unconscious Trigger: Need to achieve continually and consistently underachieving
AER: Quick feeling of never being good enough at anything / always being behind brother/sister / Nike knows I am good enough
Rational Chain of Thought: Super star – achiever – I want to be like him/her – latest shoes – I am an achiever too – buy new Nike shoes – Nike believes in me.

Generally the only part of the Rational Chain of Thought that the consumer would remember when asked would the last three: I am an achiever too – buy new Nike shoes – Nike believes in me.

Branded vs Generic

There seems to be no better example of the power of branding than the choices between branded and generic identical products. One is full of life, hopes, love and life – the other is flat, utilitarian, anti-brand, frugal, straight forward. It is almost as if the generic is telling us we should forgo the pleasures of a fuller life and refuse that which we want but know is just an illusion. An illusion we desperately need but refuse to give up even in the face of the facts. Or, if we want we can refuse the whole concept of branding and buy non or anti-brands. But of course, these are brands themselves because of their opposition to branding and we buy them because of this opposition. Brands are in fact not outward shows of status, but internal states of being – states of being that even allow us to buy non-branded products but still experience the buying of a brand, or wear non-branded clothes but internally still feel the feeling of brandness and hope to be judged by others on the basis of our (non)brand choices.

Nurofen vs Ibuprofen

Why when given the choice between generic ibuprofen and Nurofen do we pay nine times more for Nurofen? Is it because we are ignorant of the facts? There is no constituent difference between the two – they are identical. The difference is millions of pounds in branding.

The buying behaviour here seems perplexing. Almost inexplicable. But it is the ultimate proof of the power of branding in determining consumer buying behaviour. The question is: what are the factors behind this behaviour that favours the branded over the generic?

1. Ignorance
Ignorance is a good excuse for bad choices. There are two types of ignorance in this case: ignorance through lack of availability of information, and ignorance by choice. The former exists in imperfect markets where information is misrepresented, withheld or misinterpreted. The latter is caused generally by denial, otherwise known as brand blindness. This can happen when consumers have too much of their own self-worth invested in the ‘specialness’ of their brand.

2. Needs
Consumers have needs which they want solved. The more specific the solutions, and the more tailored to the need, the better. Consumers prefer targeted products, rather than general.

3. Wants
An internal need to feel special, individual, and in need of special care and attention when ill. The level of these needs will depend very much on family histories and the more troubled these are the more susceptible certain consumers will be to solving their individuality needs through brands.

Nurofen is a great example of all of the above. The adverts claim it is the best at pain relief even though it can not be any better than generic ibuprofen at the same dosage (ignorance). The brand has also been broken into further sub-brands aimed at particular areas of the body such as back and joint pain, period pain, migraine, child fever (needs). The ibuprofen sold in these sub-brands is again exactly the same as that sold in the standard Nurofen packages and in the generic ibuprofen. Most importantly of all Nurofen is sold as an over-the-counter pain relief drug that consumers can trust, is safe and that will deliver pain relief (wants). In contrast to Nurofen, the generic ibuprofen makes no claims about its effectiveness, about its ability to help with all different types of pain or about its safety and efficacy. These are taken as givens because the information needed to make an informed decision is freely available.

What the Nurofen example seems to confirm is that we consumers want and expect branding. We do not want generic products and we will pay a lot more for branded products that pretend to understand our needs and wants and solve them quicker, better and with more care. It is therefore not the function of ibuprofen we want (the pain relief), it is the form that that pain relief takes. We have moved away from products that work and fulfil their functional promise. We now expect products to do the emotional work for us by allaying our fears, making us individuals, and solving our identity problems by fulfilling our dreams of completeness. Products now have to fill the holes in our being left by our past and the imminent future of old age, illness and death.

As the world fills up…

As the world fills up with more individuals who all want to be as individual as possible we will have a problem: how to allow all of them to express their personal specialness but at the same keep the system working? Society must keep us happy with our specialness in order for us to keep society stable and productive. How will this be possible? Through the creation and management of more and more brands.

Brands will be everything. They will be what we sign up to, buy, sing to, fight for, cry for, live with, die for. We will have multiple brands for life, and each will satisfy a particular need of our human dilemma. The brands will allow us to feel creative, intelligent, insightful, incorporated, excluded, banished, in control, out of control, in power, powerless – internally, without physically being in that state. Any emotional need you have will be covered. Brand management will be the key to a stable society. Brand management will be government. There will be cover-ups and corruption, but because there will be nothing else left for human beings to believe in, it won’t matter. Brands will always recover because we will need them to. Society will no longer be able to offer real world avenues for the creative exploration of our selves. Brands will do this for us. We will no longer need to worry about achieving our inner desires. We will no longer have any outside of brand.

The USA has been selling a brand experience very successfully since the 1950s. The American Dream, whether it be 1950s home appliances and freedom from communism, love, democracy for all, free enterprise, or a return to 1492 values – it has worked. The ultimate brand experiment has managed to produce a majority of Americans, united under one logo, who work, believe, vote, and die with no questions asked. This is what the brand managers of the future will aim for – but without all the messy politics attached. Pure brands are only accountable to their own brand values.

Brands will soon no longer be physical products or services. They will be external manifestations of internal states of being. Branding started as a way of identifying ownership of cows by farmers, and will finish as a way to identify ownership of human beings by brands on an overcrowded planet.

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5 Responses to “Why did you buy that? : The Psychology of Brand Choices and the Power of Branding”


  1. 1 Manish Bhan January 25, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    This article is a fine piece of attempt to explain, in plain english,the significance of branding .

  2. 2 Alexander March 11, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Great post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Kudos!

  3. 3 June April 30, 2013 at 2:12 am

    Muchas gracias por todo lo que aportas

  4. 4 Tony August 27, 2013 at 8:31 am

    A thoughtful article. We are a lot less control of our decisions, especially those related to buying, than we think. It is kind of scary…..

  5. 5 black barbie collectibles April 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Great blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option?
    There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed ..
    Any ideas? Appreciate it!


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