There’s More to Coke’s Brand than Taste

First published September 4, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I looked at the unprecedented backlash against the introduction of New Coke. The fervor of the protest took everyone by surprise, especially flabbergasted Coke executives (and truth be told, Pepsi brass as well). After all, New Coke was subjected to exhaustive consumer testing in the lab, and the results were clear: most people preferred the taste. So why did something that did so well in the lab fail so miserably in the real world? Why were people so passionate about brown, sugared water? Baylor University neuroscientist Read Montague set out to find out why in 2003.

More than a Blink

In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell advanced his theory of why Coke drinkers are so loyal to their brand, yet failed to pick it in a blind taste test. The problem, Gladwell says, is in the nature of the test. Coke is meant to be drunk in big gulps, not metered little sips common in taste tests. It’s only when you down a whole can that you can truly appreciate the distinctive biting tang of Coke. But, as Montague would find out, the reason for the irrational devotion to Coke has little to do with taste at all and much more to do with beliefs, emotions and memories. It’s our brains that love Coke, not our taste buds.

Montague and his research partners started with a common blind taste test, where after stating their preferences, study participants were given sips of Pepsi and Coke without knowing what they were drinking and asked to pick the drink they preferred. The results were all over the place. Coke drinkers chose Pepsi. Pepsi drinkers chose Coke. Going into the study, the groups split evenly based on their stated cola preferences and in picking their favorite drink, Coke fared slightly better than Pepsi, but there was little correlation between what people said they preferred and what they actually chose. Their tastes buds were not that finely tuned.

Mind over Matter

It’s only in the last few years that we’ve discovered just how powerful our mind is in altering our physical perception of the world. The world is what we judge it to be, and judgment is largely passed by mechanisms beyond our conscious awareness. This explains the “placebo” effect, noticeable changes in our physical being due to the power of suggestion alone. If our minds believe, our bodies follow.

In Montague’s (along with his co-authors, McClure, Li, Tomlin, Cypert & Montague ) study, the truly interesting findings came when people were put inside the MRI scanners. Remember, fMRI scanners (functional magnetic resonance imaging) allows us to see which parts of the brain are activated during specific tasks, giving us some clue as to what’s happening inside our minds. After devising a rather elaborate method to feed participants sips of Coke or Pepsi, preceded by visual cues of what they were drinking (the methodology description took up a good portion of the published paper and is worth reading just to see the lengths one has to go to if you’re intent on conducting fMRI research) the researchers analyzed differences in brain activity.

The Brain on Coke

In one group, they provided two sips, one of Pepsi, the other also of Pepsi, but in an anonymous presentation with participants being told that the second sip could be either Coke or Pepsi. In the second group, the same thing was done, but this time it was Coke that was both the identified and anonymous drink. Then participants were asked to state their preference. In the Pepsi group, about half the group chose Pepsi and there was no strong preference over the anonymous drink (also Pepsi). But in the Coke group, the respondents overwhelmingly chose Coke over the mystery cola (also Coke).

When Montague examined the difference in brain activity, the difference between the two groups was fascinating. When the identity of the cola wasn’t known, the only brain activity registering was in the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex, an area associated with feelings of reward. When participants were told they were drinking Pepsi, the brain activity didn’t change significantly. But when the third group was informed they were drinking Coke, suddenly other areas of the brain started lighting up, including the hippocampus, parahippocampus, midbrain, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, thalamus and the left visual cortex. What was happening? Well, Coke was obviously eliciting a much strong mental response than Pepsi. People were experiencing Coke at two levels: first, the sensory reward, and secondly, by tapping into people’s beliefs and feeling of self-identify. The parts of the brain that lit up under the conscious awareness of Coke are suspected to control access to emotion and act as gatekeepers to working memory. The brand belief structure of Coke was being mentally loaded up and altering the perception of Coke’s taste. The effect was so strong yet so far below the level of consciousness, brand loyalists swore they could identify Coke’s taste and preferred it, even though blind taste tests consistently proved them wrong.

Coke’s Brain Branding

Somehow, Coke has created a brand that its fans believe in and identify with. The brand unlocks a treasure trove of brand reinforcements that have little to do with the taste or quality of the product. And it was this effect that Coke turned its back on in the introduction of New Coke in 1985. It’s this untapping of brand beliefs we have to keep in mind when we talk about branding and search. With search interactions, the appearance of a brand can unlock belief structures just as strong as Coke’s. In the next column, I’ll explore some of the many elements that go into the building of these beliefs.

Emotion and the Formation of Brand Memories

First published August 21, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In my last column, I looked at how beliefs can affix labels to brands, which forever after form our first brand impression. Beliefs are a heuristic shortcut we use to reduce the amount of sheer thinking we have to do to come to quick and efficient decisions. Today, I’d like to focus on emotions and their part in the forming of memories.

Why “Selfish Genes” Remember

First, from an evolutionary perspective, it might be helpful to cover off why humans are able to form memories in the first place. To borrow Richard Dawkins’ wording, memories are here to ensure that our “selfish genes” are passed on to future generations. While memories are incredibly complex and wonderful things, their reason for being is mindlessly simple. Memories are here to ensure that we survive long enough to procreate. This is why emotion plays such a huge role in how memories are formed and retrieved.

Researchers have long known that emotions “tag” memories, making their retrieval easier and the resulting effect more powerful. In fact, very strong emotions, such as fear or anger, get stored not just in our cortical areas but also get an “emergency” version stored in the limbic system to allow us to respond quickly and viscerally to threatening situations. When this goes wrong, it can lead to phobic behavior. Emotions add power and urgency to memories, moving them up the priority queue and causing us to act on them both subconsciously and consciously. The very meaning of the word emotion comes from the latin “emovere” — to move.

Driven by Emotions

Emotional tagging works equally well for positive memories. Our positive emotions are generally affixed to three of the four human drives identified by Nohria and Lawrence: the drive to bond, the drive to acquire and the drive to learn. For the selfish gene, each of these drives has its evolutionary purpose. We have the strongest positive emotions around the things that further these drives the most. We reserve our strongest “bonding” emotions for those that play the biggest part in ensuring our genetic survival: partners, parents, children and siblings. In some cases we share a significant portion of our genetic material; at other times, the complex sexual wiring we come with kicks into gear.

If we look at the drives to acquire or to learn, millions of pages have been written trying to decode human behavior in pursuit of these goals. For the purpose of this column, it will have to suffice to say that markets have long known about the power of these drives in shaping human behavior and have tried every way possible to tap into their ability to move us to action, usually through consumption of a product.

In summary, we reserve our strongest emotions for those things that are most aligned with the mindless purpose of the selfish gene, passing along our DNA. These emotions tag relevant memories, giving them the power to move us to immediate action. Perceived threats trigger negative memories and avoidance or confrontation, while positive memories drive us to pursue pleasurable ends.

Brand + Emotion = Power

This emotional tagging of memories can have a huge impact on our brand relationships, in both positive and negative ways. While I’ve painted a very simplistic picture of the primary objective of emotions and memories (and the heart of it is simple), the culture we have created is anything but. Memories and emotions play out in complex and surprising ways, especially when we interact with brands.

Brand advertisers have become quite adept at pushing our evolutionary hot buttons, trying to tag the right emotions to their respective memories. Their goal is to affix a particularly strong emotion (either negative, referred to in marketing parlance as prevention, or positive, which we’ve labeled promotion) to their particular brand construct so that when the memories that make up that construct are retrieved (along with the attached beliefs and brand label) they are powered with the turbo-charge that comes with emotion. If the marketer is successful in doing this, they have unleashed a powerful force.

When emotions play a role, our motivation comes not just from rational decisions, but a much more primal and powerful force that sits at the core of our subconscious brain. The most successful brands have managed to forge these emotional connections. And when the emotions remain consistent for a particular brand, there are coalesced into a strong brand belief that is almost unshakable once formed. This is why your father buys nothing but Fords, Mac fans wouldn’t be caught dead with a plain grey laptop ,or coffee connoisseurs swear that Starbucks is worth the price.

Next week, I’ll give you one particularly interesting example of how one brand belief and its corresponding emotions developed, in a fascinating study from the emerging world of neuromarketing.

The Bleeding Obvious File: Advertising Leads to Increased Search Volumes

Holy crap, it’s official! There is a link between advertising and the volume of searches. We now have research to prove it. A recent analysis for the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association found a direct link between consumers exposure to advertising and their likelihood to begin an online search.

Consumers said they were most motivated to begin an online search after viewing:

  • Advertising in magazines (47.2%)
  • Newspapers (42.3%)
  • Ads on TV (42.8%)
  • From reading articles (43.7%)

In a particularly insightful quote, Mike Gatti, Executive Director of RAMA, said, “… while search engine marketing continues to be a popular strategy, retailers should not lose sight of traditional advertising channels to promote products and services.”

Huh? We’re now worried about search taking too much of the advertising budget away from TV, magazines and newspaper? Has Mr. Gatti seen how that particular pie is sliced up lately? If anything, we should flip this and tell all those advertisers dumping millions on television that they should back up those campaigns with a few bucks spent on relevant search terms. Here’s just one example. In 2006, Ford spent mega bucks to promote their new Green line of Hybrid Ford Escapes on the Super Bowl in television ads. They had Kermit the Frog as their…spokesfrog. But what Ford didn’t remember is that all that media attention would probably drive a resulting spike in search activity. And sure enough, as we can see from the Google trends graph below, there was a spike:

ford campaign

Unfortunately, Ford forgot to bolster their keyword buy by including all related phrases, leaving the door open for General Motors to bid higher for a number of generic relevant phrases, including Ford’s own spokesperson, Kermit the Frog, and intercept search users with pinpointed messaging. The total cost for Ford to close the loop on this particular campaign? Probably less than the cost of Kermit’s personal assistant during the filming of the ad.

Wise Words about Branding from the Usability Sage

First published June 29, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Jakob Nielsen knows a lot about usability. He’s perhaps the world’s foremost expert on how people use Web sites. I finally had the chance to meet Jakob face to face last week (we’ve been trading e-mails for some time) in San Francisco at his Usability Week Summit. I was down there to sit in on his one-day session on eyetracking.

No Graphics for Nielsen

Jakob takes a pretty austere view of the user experience. One can tell this from his own website, Perhaps his most famous quote is “Flash: 99% bad.” He takes a similarly dim view of animations and large graphics, which lead to “banner blindness,” he says. In fact, other than the obligatory head and shoulder shot on his bio page and a small arrow glyph used to indicate hierarchy in his breadcrumb navigation bar, there are no graphics on He goes on at some length about this. Why no graphics? He’s pretty adamant that they add nothing to the user experience. We’re not in complete agreement about this, but I get his point.

Jakob’s Nielsen Norman group has recently added eyetracking to its usability arsenal. If ever you’re looking for justification for not using large graphics on a site, look (sorry, no pun intended) no further than eyetracking heatmaps. In session after session, users skirt around large graphic blocks, focusing their interaction on text and navigation. It can be a rude slap in the face for most graphic designers (there’s a rather amusing anecdote about one such encounter that happened at the session, and an example of the phenomenon I’m talking about, on my blog).

Experience, Not Exposure

In the session, Jakob tossed out a line, the import of which I’m not sure was fully appreciated by the audience. When responding to a question from the audience about the seeming contradiction between the need for building of brand exposure and best practices for usability, Jakob said that online, brand value is built through experience, not exposure.

Whoa! There’s a world of wisdom in those eight little words! Beneath them lies a whole different way of looking at online engagement. It sums up something I’ve been hammering away at for years now. A successful user experience builds brand equity in a way that hammering visitors over the head with Flash or streaming video never could. Every single thing on a Web site should have one purpose, to make that user experience more successful. If it’s there solely for the gratification of the designer, or the CEO, or the CMO, it’s there for the wrong reason. And before you dismiss this thought, saying it doesn’t apply to you, take a look at your home page and ask yourself, why are the elements that are on the page actually there? Think through the decision process that placed each element on the page. How present were users in the process? Who was asking them for their opinion?

User Success In Search

This is a best practice in any Web site’s design, but it becomes particularly true when looking at search-generated leads. Search visitors reek with intent. They are incredibly single-minded in their purpose. They’re looking for a clear path ahead to their intent, and they’ve cast the first few steps down that path through their search query. They’ve come to the site not because they’re engaged with your brand, although that may have helped sway them in your direction, but because they’re engaged with a task. Get between them and the successful completion of that task at your peril. Every time you throw something at them that’s not aligned to that intent, you decrease their chances for success, eroding the value of your brand in their eyes. If you make them wait 20 seconds for a Flash file to load, that’s 20 seconds of ticking on a time bomb that could blow your brand to smithereens. If you throw in a large stock photo with the typical generic smiling face that takes up 70 percent of your home page, you’re wasting prime real estate. But don’t feel bad, it happens to the best of us. At least Jakob practices what he preaches on his site. What would you see if you went to the home page of Enquiro? A generic smiling face. But I’m working on it!

Lights! Camera! Google!

Google will be rolling out user initiated video advertising across it’s AdSense network.

Broken record time. I applaud Google’s decision to keep engagement with the video in the hands of the user.

But on a more fundamental level, I have to question the whole level of engagement with display advertising on sites. It seems like the harder advertiser’s scream, the more determined we are to ignore them. On a recent eye tracking study we did for MarketingSherpa, we were absolutely amazed with the small amount of scanning done in the typical ad positions on a page. Less than 10% of visitors even looked at these sections (top banner, right and left rail) of the page. Now, the purpose of the study wasn’t to look at this aspect specifically, but the scan patterns were undeniably clear. Interestly, text based ads that appeared within the flow of the main content had higher scanning levels, even when they appeared well below the fold.

Of course, these numbers are probably not terribly surprising, given the fact that visitors aren’t there to look at ads, but it makes you question the whole idea of paying by impression. If you’re buying based on a CPM model, realize that for every 1000 impressions, only 60 or 70 people are actually seeing the ad, even for a split second. Suddenly, those low clickthrough rates start to make sense.

Search Supercharges Ad Platforms but What’s In It for the User?

Seems like all the innovation lately with the search engines has been in rolling out sophisticated ad targeting platforms. Yahoo’s the latest to blow their horn about their own back end (and I realize that paints an ugly picture).

I’m a search marketer, and I love the advances that are being made in being able to target geographically, demographically and behaviorally, but I can’t help but think, “Who are we targeting?”. While the engines try to woo advertisers with better tools, what good is it doing if their market share is dwindling because they’re not giving the user a reason to use the engine?

I have not seen a significant improvement to the every day search user experience from any of the big 3 in years. One may argue that if you take advantage of search history or other enhancements that have debuted in beta, it offers more value to the searcher. But that does nothing for the vast majority of searches that happen every day on Google, Yahoo and MSN. Nobody has upped the ante. Ask is the only engine I’ve seen that made some significant changes on the interface (more about that later today).

As a search marketer, it’s all about market share. It takes time to target and strategically plan a campaign, and while the new platforms offer some impressive capabilities, they also add time required to manage them. Am I going to use that time to target 11% of the search market, 23%  or 50%? It just makes sense to use your time where it gets you the biggest return.

A word of advice. Worry about getting the users first, then worry about the tools to target them.