Seducing the subconscious: Coley Porter Bell chief Vicky Bullen explains the neuroscience of brand design

Elliott Haworth
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When browsing products on a supermarket shelf, one is unlikely to give excessive scrutiny to the tweaked logo placement on one’s favourite brand of tea.

Nor would the box’s slightly different shape, or a font more perpendicular than the week before, cause much alarm. One would notice however, if say, the base colour of the packaging, or a time-hallowed logo, had changed overtly, beyond usual association.

Brand design, to the inexpert eye, may seem the simple case of making things appealing; of creating products that stand out among innumerable competitors in a world of superfluous consumer choice. And to an extent it is.

But to a larger extent, as I found out chatting with Vicky Bullen, chief executive at branding stalwart Coley Porter Bell, there is serious neuroscience underpinning every millimetre of every box, logo and font her team develops.

Vicky Bullen (Source: CPB)

Purchased by WPP some 30 years ago – its first branding agency – and aligned to Ogilvy for the last 12, Coley Porter Bell overlooks the Thames from the Sea Containers. Sat there, Bullen says that, today, designers understand far more about how people make decisions.

“We’ve always kind of known that people make decisions intuitively. But actually we now understand that decisions are made primarily – and you’ll know all about this – in the System 1 part of the brain.”

Flattered by her assumption that I should know a sliver about the dichotomy of cognitive biases, I ask Bullen to elaborate. She mentions Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning psychologist and behavioural economist. He coined the terms System 1 and System 2 in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

“Essentially we’ve got two parts to our brain. You’ve got the sort of reptilian part of your brain, the bit which controls all of your bodily functions in terms of breathing, for example. The bit that keeps you alive without you even knowing. The System 2 part of the brain is the heavy lifting, conscious thinking, learning part of the brain.”

Bullen gives the example of learning to drive. She says that when one is learning, one has to really think about the process – in System 2. But then actually, after a while, when the habit is formed, one barely remembers driving from A to B. “So you learn in System 2, and you encode all of that in System 1.”

By now you’re perhaps wondering how this relates to branding and design. Bullen tells me how her team at Coley Porter Bell spend their lives helping clients to define their brands, and bringing them to life visually. Sometimes that’s about creating new brands, sometimes that’s about breathing new life into dusty old brands – sometimes it’s just about a brand repositioning, a change in strategy.

“When you do things over and over again, like seeing a piece of packaging that’s been around for a long time, you create pathways in the brain – shortcuts. And what we’ve got to do as designers is be responsible for those shortcuts.”

The firm has completed incalculable rebrands in its 40 years, including those that are part of the fabric of British society – heritage brands such as OXO. The very distinctive lettering O-X-O, for example – familiar for over 100 years – is an immediate shortcut.

OXO's famous lettering, redesigned (Source: CPB)

“So what we think about is: what are those really distinctive assets that have created those pathways – the things about the brand that are embedded into System 1? So that actually, what we want is for people to recognise that brand, and not to have to even think about picking it up.”

Bullen says that some 90 per cent of the information that influences the System 1 brain is visual – it’s the most powerful decision-making part of your brain. And that applies as much to making a snap judgement about a person, to choosing to purchase something in the supermarket.

“We think brands need to bake into System 1 right from the start – but that’s not just about the way they look. If you think about strategy, and the way that’s conducted, it’s in a very System 2 way: heavy thinking, reading research reports, putting in ground models. And you need that, but you also need a bit of System 1 flair.”

When they plan a strategy, Bullen’s team uses visuals as much as words. “Because by working with visuals, we automatically engage with our System 1 brain. And that means you get a little bit of magic coming through with the strategy.”

A good example of this is the Nescafe Azera branding. You know the one: orange lid, silver tin, espresso-style instant coffee. Nescafe approached the firm with a product devoid of identity, with the challenge of creating one.

Nescafe Azera (Source: CPB)

“We could have targeted the classic instant coffee drinker, and persuaded them to trade up to a more premium, better tasting coffee. Our other potential target was a new generation of out of home coffee drinkers – the Starbucks generation.”

Picking the latter group, the neuroscience behind the aesthetic becomes clear. In terms of System 2 cues, the pot says Nescafe on it; it uses orange and brown, colours that are associated with coffee. Its name, Azera, signifies the quality of the beans, and where they come from. System 1 cues – the shiny tin, the lettering, the badge – are reminiscent of classic Italian coffee machines with enamel badges.

“With that combination of System 1 and System 2, you can launch something that’s already familiar”.

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

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