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Branding Research: Part 2 of 2

In part one, I talked about how a brand is more than just a logo for a company, product, or service. It’s the story of your business, products, and services. This story is told by you, through your promotion, your products and services, and how you interact with your customers. Your story is also told by the individuals who consume your products and services, and by the community of consumers. 

In this post, I’m going to be talking about the research that explains how this story is told and how this story is understood

The second part, how the story is understood, is key to how people decide to purchase goods and services. Branding plans should, therefore, be informed by knowledge of how people make purchasing decisions and how brands affect those decisions. This, and future posts, will shed light on this.

Why do we purchase the things that we do? What makes us choose one brand over another? Although you as a seller of products or services are coming from a place of wanting to truly understand branding, you also have to look at purchasing from the consumer’s perspective.

If you think about purchasing from the consumer’s perspective, which shouldn’t be hard since we are all consumers, the story of brands takes on a new perspective. Brands act as beacons for things we can purchase that will enhance our lives. Brands are like potential friends. Some we will connect with, and some we won’t. 

As sellers of products or services, this may seem a bit scary for, because we may think: what if I don’t connect with anyone? I know that you will. What you have to offer is more than your product or service, it’s you. And you add tremendous value to whatever you are offering.  

The key to branding is making sure that the story that you tell is authentic to you. The science of how that story is transmitted is both fascinating and also helps to be mindful and intentional in how we plan and execute our branding.

Although this post does not cover all areas of research on brands, it is a good foray into the research. 

These perspectives are from,

  • cognitive psychology,
  • social psychology,
  • cultural sociology,
  • and neuroscience.

Marketing Research: Science of why we buy

There are a number of branches in science (both biology and social science) that have examined brands. Marketing, as a science, began in 1959, where there was a call for a systematic methodology in examining how marketing works.[i]Research in branding also began in the 1950s.[ii] This was in the area of psychology, specifically cognitive psychology.[iii],[iv]

Branding research began in the 1950s with branding choice[v], why a consumer would choose one brand over another. There was a lot of debate over the next couple of decades with each new theory becoming more complex.

Cognitive psychology and brands

Cognitive psychology looks at how an individual thinks, makes decisions, remembers things, among other functions of the mind. When looking at the questions of how a person thinks about brands and how that leads to making a purchase decision, the question for the cognitive psychologist is to look at what is going on inside a person’s mind. Cognitive psychology, to reiterate, looks at how a person thinks about a brand and makes a purchase decision. When you come across research that is looking at decision making, it is most likely coming out of cognitive psychological research.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the notion of customer loyalty entered into the picture,[vi] where a consumer’s past purchasing behavior was thought to have anything to do with future purchasing behavior. This may seem like common sense. 

If a customer liked a product before, they will probably buy that product brand again, but if you think about your own purchasing behavior, sometimes that’s true and sometimes it’s not. This is why science looks at these questions to try and figure out when it would be true and when it wouldn’t, so that we can predict future behavior. This is one of the things that the Amazon algorithms is based on, predicting purchasing behavior.

In the 1990s, a researcher, named Kevin Lane Keller, looked at not only how a consumer thought about brands but also how they felt about the brands.[vii] This may seem to be over dramatic to say, but it was huge that someone brought feelings into the equation. I spared you the mathematical formulas predicting consumer branding choice in my earlier paragraphs. Let me assure you, there are lots of formulas. In those formulas, there wasn’t a bit about how a consumer felt. In the social sciences, decisions were usually looked at as rational, logical processes. It has been a mind-blowing experience for many in the social sciences to consider that decisions are often (if not mostly) based on feelings. So, this was huge. 

Take away about marketing science research

Every new study adds a layer of understanding to a particular thing, which in our case is branding. Unless a conclusion is outright disproven, each new study sheds more light on what we are looking at. For example, at first marketing science researchers only looked at how people chose a brand, then they looked at if a brand was previously chosen if that influences the next purchase (customer loyalty), and then they looked at how feelings influenced decisions. These are all building blocks for our understanding today, which will then be built upon in years to come.

Take away from cognitive psychology

When you are thinking about how an individual person will decide whether or not to purchase your product or service, this is going to be a decision process happening in their mind. Part of the decision may stem from logic. Part of it may stem from feelings. Cognitive psychology assumes that the brand has a fixed meaning, that is, a relatively fixed story that comes from the seller.[viii] Other perspectives added to this field by looking at what individuals and communities added to the stories.

When you see tactics that seem to be trying to increase your likeability, they are targeting the feeling part of the purchase decision making process. 

Social psychology and branding research

In a nutshell, social psychology looks at how an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by others. The question that social psychology looks at for branding is how the brand is interpreted by the consumers. The focus is how the brand’s story is delivered by the seller and then how the story is interpreted by the consumer. Where cognitive psychology just looks at the story being delivered, social psychology looks at the brand as being the result of a conversation[ix].

Take away from social psychology

When you are creating your branding plan, you should keep in mind that the story about your brand isn’t just created by you. 

It’s also created by your consumers, meaning that reviews also create your brand’s story, as does the media, bloggers, podcasters, and what people tell each other about your brand. 

You can influence your story through the quality of your products, your customer service, and creating communities where you can build good relationships with your customers.

Cultural sociology

Cultural sociology looks at the different parts of a culture. Culture is the combination of unspoken rules, art, language, economy, religion, hierarchy, government, and more. Unspoken rules are like things we do that aren’t written down, but we all know we are supposed to do, like waiting in line is the custom in some places and not in others. From a cultural sociological perspective, brands are looked at as how are they integrated in a culture. 

For example, if you were looking at upper class east coast people, you might expect for them to wear certain kinds of clothes and use certain brands of clothes. If you’re talking about someone who is in the west and lives in a more rural environment, they might wear different clothes and buy different brands of clothes. The clothes are a part of the culture. 

Take away of cultural sociology and brands

Brands become a part of a culture and has meaning within that culture. When we create branding plans, we have to keep in mind that the target audience has a culture that will interpret the brand in a certain way. There have been a lot of marketing mishaps that have occurred when culture wasn’t properly accounted for. One example is Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tagline “finger licking good” got translated to “eat your fingers off.” Another example, If you run across news of an advertisement being tone-deaf, then this would be a marketing mishap that didn’t take into account cultural issues properly.  

Neuroscience and branding

What neuroscience looks at is how the brain works when we are thinking, feeling, and doing things to answer the question of which part of the brain does what. One way that this is looked at is by looking at blood flow. The idea is that with more blood flow in an area, then that area is the part most likely associated with a specific function.  

One way that neuroscientists try to uncover what the brain is doing is by looking at how the brain works doing one thing, and then seeing how the brain works doing another. They look for similarities and differences in brain activity. This has uncovered some startling things about brands.

In Buyology (not an affiliate link), one experiment looked to see how we experience brands. There was an experiment to see if people really liked two different cola brands: Coke versus Pepsi. It was a two-stage experiment. 

The first stage volunteers were given the two colas and asked which ones they liked. Most said that they liked Pepsi, and the area of the brain that is associated with liking the taste of something lit up. So, they said that they liked Pepsi and their brains agreed with them. Cool.

In the second stage of the experiment people were told which cola they were tasting before they took a sip. So, one sip Coke. One sip Pepsi. Then the volunteers were asked which cola they preferred. Most said Coke. Wait, what? Were these groups just that different in their preference? Uh, no. The brain activity was much different than in the first experiment, meaning what they were thinking and feeling was different. Instead of just registering a taste that they liked (like the first stage), their brain’s activity increased in another area associated with higher level thinking. The conclusion of the experiment was that the volunteers were wrestling with the actual preferred taste (for most, Pepsi like in the first stage) and the brand with which they had the most emotional connection (for most, Coke). Coke won out because of its branding, [x] the stories told by the company and the volunteers (the consumers). 

Circling back to the cognitive psychology research that showed that emotions were part of the purchasing decision process, neuroscience has shown how that plays out in our brains. Rationally, most people should have chosen Pepsi, because that was the taste that they actually preferred, but the emotional attachment to Coke was stronger. We do use our emotions to make purchasing decisions. Branding was not only the story told by the cola companies, but also the emotional attachment the consumers felt from the stories told within their culture. The branding, the story told by the seller and the consumers, had a powerful effect on the purchasing decision.

Take away from neuroscience and branding

We are taking an inside look into how we make purchasing decisions. Emotions play a huge part in our purchasing decisions. Making sure that people feel a certain way is vital when doing branding marketing.

So how does all of this fit together for branding marketing plans?

When you’re creating your branding marketing plans, you are trying to convey your story. Your values. Your reason for selling the products or services. This is what makes you unique, but it does something more. 

The most important goal for conveying your story is to create a feeling with your potential customers or clients. I emphasize with my clients that they should be authentic when telling their story. Why? Because the feeling that is conveyed when they are authentic is that you are getting to know a person and not some business entity. 

In purchasing a product or service, you’re getting human connection. The feeling of human connection is a very powerful one. 

I also emphasize with my clients to promote why they are offering the product or service, as much as what they are offering. It’s the why that potential customers will connect with. 

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. You can leave your questions in the comments below or email me.

©2020 Michelle Raab, PhD. All rights reserved. Copyright notice: You may copy up to 50 words without permission, provided that you give attribution, link back to the original post, and do not change the meaning or message.

You can get started here on developing your marketing plan, or email me with any questions.


  • [i] Gordon, R. A. and J. E. Howell (1959). Higher education for business, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • [ii] Russell S Winer. The History of Marketing Science: 3 (World Scientific-Now Publishers Series in Business) (p. 19). Wspc/Now. Kindle Edition.
  • [iii]  The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) (p. 209). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition. 
  • [iv] Russell S Winer. The History of Marketing Science: 3 (World Scientific-Now Publishers Series in Business) (p. 19). Wspc/Now. Kindle Edition.
  • [v] Russell S Winer. The History of Marketing Science: 3 (World Scientific-Now Publishers Series in Business) (p. 19). Wspc/Now. Kindle Edition.
  • [vi] Guadagni, P. M. and J. D. C. Little (1983). A logit model of brand choice calibrated on scanner data, Marketing Science, 2(Summer), 203–238.
  • Russell S Winer. The History of Marketing Science: 3 (World Scientific-Now Publishers Series in Business) (p. 43). Wspc/Now. Kindle Edition.
  • [vii] Keller, K. L. (1993). Conceptualizing, measuring, and managing customer-based brand equity. Journal of Marketing, 57(1), 1–31.
  • The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) (p. 228). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  • [viii] The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) (p. 212). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  • [ix] Holt, D. B. (2003). Brands and branding. Harvard Business School Teaching Note (N9–503–045).
  • [x] Lindstrom, M. (2010). Buy ology: Truth and lies about why we buy. Currency, p. 26-27.
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