Be First In The Customer’s Mind

Branding is all about mind over matter

It’s important to understand how the brain works if you want to build a lasting brand. Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote a number of successful books on this topic in the ’90s. The 22 Immutable laws of Marketing and Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind are my two favorites. Their major point: Be first in the customer’s mind — first in positioning in the market or category. Why? The simple fact, most people won’t remember the second best. There are a number of examples to support this theory. Do you remember the first movie that you saw in a movie theatre or the first music concert you went to? Or your first date? Most people could easily answer this question. The first experience of anything that defines a new market, or category and changes your perception or memory has a very good chance to be encoded in your brain – especially, if the memory is emotionally charged. Now, tell me the second or third movie or concert you saw? The answers are not as easy. Unless I asked you, what was the first country music concert (which might not be your first concert) or the first horror movie you saw? We will skip the second or third date question that could be too complicated.


A memory begins with perception; it is encoded and stored using the language of electricity and chemicals. To properly encode a memory, you must first be paying attention. Since we are inundated with brand messages daily (over 3,000 per day) most of what we encounter every day is simply filtered out, and only a few stimuli pass into our conscious awareness. If we remembered every single thing we noticed, our memory would be full before we left the house in the morning.



Contextual Memory

The human brain is an incredible machine. In the book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, the author Gary Marcus, a psychologist, tackles the idea that we have two thinking systems inside our skulls. He argues that human evolution has created two distinct ways of thinking – an ancestral system that is instinctual and reflexive, and a more modern, deliberative one that involves reasoning. He explains that humans developed “contextual memory”, which means we pull things from our memory by using context or clues that hint at what we are looking for, therefore we are better at the quick retrieval of general information rather than specific details.

Examples of this are seen in branding every day, where we take complex products and compartmentalize them into a simple ‘first’ attribute or benefit.

For example: Vehicle Safety = Volvo, Fights Cavities = Crest, It Tastes Awful = Buckley’s, King of Beers = Budweiser, Magical = Disney, you get the picture.

So what does this mean when building brands? Be the first to offer a new brand promise that is simple and easy for the consumer to consume. If you can synthesize it down to a single thought, image or word you have a greater chance of locking up a place in the consumers mind. Here are some examples:

  • iPod – connecting over 220 million ears to the iconic white earphones
  • Twitter – making news 140 characters at a time.Twitter says there are about 284 million active users and about 500 million tweets per day – plus or minus a revolution.
  • PlayStation – Over 100 million boys barricade themselves in their bedrooms finally found something else to do with their hands.
  • Netflix – Over 50 million customers in over 40 countries have entertainment choices, where and when they want it.

Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi continue to be wildly successful with two distinctly different brand positions: Coca-Cola is the “real thing” (first in the minds of consumers) but Pepsi had successfully position itself as the youthful coke as the “new generation” to carve a new category.

evolution_of_manBasic Instincts

Back to author Gary Marcus insights, about the human mind where he says, most pleasures are attributed from the ancestral, reflexive system. This would explain why we are always distracted and are attracted to anecdotal and emotional hearsay that affect the way we see the world, filter information and make irrational decisions.

While we like to portray ourselves as highly evolved logical, reasonable bioforms, we are still tied to our basic instincts. Tapping into this insight, brands must have a connection to the non-rational side of the brain. This would explain a number of successful products who have built their brands on emotion and why the best technically superior products don’t necessarily win. As a matter of fact, I have an almost brand-new beta video player and a blue-ray disk player for sale, if you are interested.

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