Trigger happy: The cognitive science of branding

You don’t own your brand. This, according to Robert Brunner—the chief designer of Beats headphones. When Brunner gave a talk last week at True University, this idea seemed counterintuitive. How could the creator of one of the world’s most successful brands claim not to own it?

Brunner’s statement got me thinking about a similarly surprising idea in linguistics: English is non-existent. When my professor made this argument on the first day of Cognitive Science of Language, it baffled me. I was worried I’d gotten myself stuck in another esoteric philosophy class. After a little explanation, English’s non-existence didn’t seem all that far-fetched. And the strange theories I learned in the linguistics classroom go a long way toward explaining Brunner’s brand psychology and the mysteries of communication.

Words are triggers

Most of what we call English is a cultural construct rather than a physical artifact in the world. Spelling, handwriting, and words are social conventions. They are standards developed for our own convenience, not unshakeable laws of the universe. Though there are certain rules of grammar that linguists believe are innate, most of what we perceive is heavily influenced by what we’ve heard in the past.

When my professor said that English is nonexistent, what he really meant is that words (whether auditory or written) do not have meaning in and of themselves. When you read “elephant”, the image that pops into your head is a property of your mind rather than a property of the letters. There is nothing inherent in that string of eight letters that suggests a large gray animal. To someone who doesn’t speak English, the word would be meaningless. Letterforms are mutually agreed upon triggers for shared ideas.

Tor Noretranders marveled at this concept in his book The User Illusion:

When the author writes a word, it is the result of an inner activity where lots of experiences flash through his consciousness. The reason he selects that word in particular is that he senses it will arouse some of the same associations in you.

The auditory signal or letterforms are not inherently meaningful. What matters is that you and I associate the same ideas with the same series of acoustic vibrations or black marks on paper/screen.

Why brands “don’t exist” either

Brands “don’t exist” in the same way that languages “don’t exist.” A logo and a tagline mean very little on their own. Creating a brand is like coining a new word. If nobody knows what the word means (i.e. what ideas to associate with it) then the word will be utterly useless for communicating. How we perceive any given brand is deeply influenced by the experiences we’ve had with it in the past. Like an auditory signal or letters on a screen, the brand isn’t inherently meaningful. A successful brand is a trigger that conjures the same gut feeling in the minds of many different people.

Fiction literature serves as a surprisingly useful analogy here. Reading fiction takes work; it doesn’t just happen to you like a TV show or a movie. Readers must breathe life into the characters through the lens of their own experiences. To an alien, Earthly fiction would be meaningless. The characters can’t have emotions unless the reader has emotions. The deeper the reader’s emotional reservoirs, the more life they can bring to a text. To someone who has never experienced depression or love, what would it be like to read about characters who have those feelings? The emotionless reader could only understand characters’ sentiments by way of word recognition, not personal experience. This is why the the same novel can feel very different when you revisit it years after your first reading. You bring a different set of emotions to the text.

A brand is a character. A tagline is a character. People inject them with meaning by drawing on their pasts. The creator of a brand can never truly own it because they can’t fully control the experiences of the people who encounter it. And like languages, brands evolve over time in ways we can’t predict.

Marveling at the mundane

Brands are a special breed of language. They’re a product of humans’ unique ability to trigger shared associations and emotions with nothing more than a symbol. As with English, the physical or graphical manifestation of a brand is not what’s most important. Brands like Beats, Apple, and Harley Davidson succeed because they become wrapped up in people’s identities. As these companies’ products become more and more integrated into their customers’ daily lives, so too do their brands. In the process, they become less corporate and more human.

“Most companies,” however, “fail when they confuse their branding for their mission statement,” Om Malik—a tech journalist—told me at lunch one day at True University. Tag lines and logos are stand-ins for much bigger ideas. A single mark, if designed carefully, connotes a whole universe of meaning. When companies confuse their branding for their mission statement, they forget that the logo and tagline mean very little in and of themselves. They’re placeholders. What really matters are the shared experiences they trigger and the vision they stand for.

The job of the cognitive scientist is to marvel at the commonplace. Though brands surround us all the time, it’s worth noting how incredible it is that they can exist at all. “There is no explanation,” said Beatrice Ward in her essay The Crystal Goblet, “of the fact that I can make arbitrary sounds which will lead a stranger to think my own thought. It is sheer magic that I should be able to hold a one-sided conversation by means of … marks on paper with an unknown person halfway across the world.”