The 150 Millisecond Gap: The Timing of Brand Love

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a meeting room at Simon Fraser University, looking at two squiggly lines on a graph in a Powerpoint slide. In fact, five of us in the room were all looking at it intently. Among the five of us, there was a PhD and a handful of Masters degrees in Neurology and Psychology. I contributed nothing to this impressive collection of academic achievement. Still, there was something on the chart that fascinated me.


The chart was the result of a neuroscanning experiment we conducted with SFU and Isabel Taake and Dr. Mario Liotti last year.  We were exploring how the brain responded to brands we like, brands we don’t like and brands we could care less about. The study was an ERP (Event Related Brain Potential) study. The idea of the study was to divide up the groups, based on brands they buy and brands they don’t buy and measure their brain waves as they’re presented with pictures of the brands with an EEG scanner. After, these waves were averaged and the averages of each group were compared with each other. What we were looking for were differences between the waves. We were looking for gaps.

It turned out we found two gaps. The brain waves are measured based on time, in millisecond increments. When we initially did the study, we were looking for something called the DM effect. This effect has been shown to represent a difference in how we encode memories and how effective we are in retrieving them later. We wanted to see if well liked brands showed different levels of brain activity when it came to memory encoding than neutral or disliked brands. The answer, as it turned out, was a qualified yes. What was most interesting, however, was the difference in the brain waves we saw when people were presented pictures of  brands they love and brands they either dislike or  feel ambivalent about. There was something going on here, and it was happening in two places. The first was happening very quickly, literally in the blink of an eye. We found our first gap right around 150 milliseconds – in just over 1/10th of a second. The second gap was a little later, at about 450 milliseconds, or about half a second.

Brands = Faces?

Previous ERP work often used faces as the visual stimuli that subjects were presented with. Researchers like working with faces because the human brain is so well attuned to responding to faces. As a stimuli, they provide plenty of signal with little noise. What researchers found is that there were significant differences in how our brains processes well known faces and unknown faces. They also found differences in how we processed smiling faces and scowling faces. And the differences in processing showed up in two places, one in the 150 millisecond range and the second at about 300 – 500 milliseconds. The first gap is what neurologists call the Vertex Positive Potential. The second is called the P300. I’ll explain what each of these means in more depth in a second.

What was interesting with this study is that we were seeing the same  thing play out when we substituted familiar brands for familiar faces. Respondents were responding to brands they liked the same way they would respond to a friendly face they recognized. So, what’s the big deal about that? And why two gaps? What was the significance of the 300 milliseconds that separate the two? Well, it’s the difference between gut instinct and rational thought. What we might have been seeing, as we stared at the projector screen, was two very different parts of the brain processing the same thought, with the first setting up the second.

The Quick Loop and the Slow Loop

Neurologists, including Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio, have found that as we live our lives, our brains can respond to certain people, things and situations in two different ways.

The first is the quick and dirty loop. This expressway in our brain literally rips through the ancient, more primal part of our brain – what has popularly been called the Lizard brain (neurologists and psychologists hate this term, by the way). Why? Because if we hesitate in dangerous situations, we’re dead. So, we have a hair trigger response mechanism that alerts us to danger in a blink of an eye. How quick is this response? Well, coincidentally, it’s usually measured in the 100 to 200 millisecond range. This is the VPP, the Vertex Positive Potential. It’s an emotional processing of a stimulus, an immediate assessment of threat or reward.

Previous research (Jeffreys Takumachi 1992) found that the VPP is common when we see faces but could also be found when we looked at some objects.  Some, but not all objects. What we (and by we, I mean Isabel and Dr. Liotti) did was substitute preferred and non-preferred brands for faces. And we saw the same VPP gap. Typically, this early processing is done by the amygdala (our danger detection module) and other areas of the brain including the orbitofrontal cortex.  If you look at the map of neural activity, you’ll find more frontal activity in the “Buy” group. The brain is responding emotionally to what it is seeing and it’s doing so almost instantaneously, in the blink of an eye.


But then there’s a slower loop that feeds the signal up to our prefrontal cortex, where there’s a more deliberate processing of the signal. If the signal turns out to be non threatening, the brain damps down the alarms and returns the brain to it’s pre-alert status. Cooler heads prevail, quite literally. The time for this more circuitous path? About half a second, give or take a few milliseconds. This more deliberate evaluation represents the second gap, the P300 gap, we saw in our averaged brain waves. This is a more deliberate evaluation of the stimulus. It’s here where our reasoning brains kick in and either contradict or reinforce the early signals of the VPP gap. If it’s a smiling face, we go beyond instant recognition and start to retrieve (from memory) our concept of the person behind the face. The same is true, I suspect, for our favorite brands. The neural map here shows the difference in scalp potential activity between the “Buy” group and the “Non-Buy” group. The heat we see is the home of brand love.


Where Brand Love Lives

In neurological research, different methods deliver different insights. The ERP methodology we used provides accurate timing, thus the discovery of the 150 and 450 ms gaps. But fMRI scanning provides accurate tracking of the exact locations of neural activity. Another study, conducted in 2004, starts to give us some clues as to exactly where brand love lives. Dr. Read Montague and a team at Baylor University staged a rather elaborate repeat of the Coke-Pepsi Challenge, but this time, people took the challenge while they were in a fMRI scanner. I’ve written before about the study if you’re interested in more detail about how they pulled it off.  Today, what I want to talk about is where in the brain brand love lives.

Coke is one of the most beloved brands in the world. It elicits strong loyalty amongst its fans, to the point where they swear it tastes much better than it’s rival – Pepsi. Well, as Montague found, if they didn’t know what they’re drinking, this isn’t really true. Even the most fervent Coke fan often choose Pepsi as their preferred drink when they didn’t know what they were drinking. But when they knew the brand they were tasting, something very interesting happened. Suddenly, other parts of the Coke fan’s brain started lighting up.


The hippocampus, the left parahippocampal cortex, the midbrain and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex started lighting up. This is significant because it indicates that the brain was actually retrieving concepts and beliefs from memory (the hippocampal activity) and the retrieved concepts were being integrated into feelings of reward (the prefrontal cortical activity). The brain was enhancing the physical sensation of taste with the full strength of brand love.


Perhaps we’re starting to see not only the home of brand love, but also the timing. This was why I fixated on that small gap between the squiggly lines at 150 milliseconds. It’s because this represented our immediate, visceral response to brands. Before the brain really kicks in at all, we are already passing judgement on brands. And this judgement will color everything that comes after it. It sets the stage for our subsequent brand evaluations, happening at the 450 ms gap. This is when the brain structures identified in the Baylor study start to kick in and reinforce that “blink of an eye” first impression. Brands appear to deliver a one-two punch.

We’re currently planning our follow up research for 2010. I’m not exactly sure what it will entail, but you can bet we’ll be looking much closer at those 150 and 450 ms gaps!

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