Juan article - Efficient brain theory


What do clever people and powerful brands have in common?

A reasonable assumption might be that the most intelligent people are those who exhibit more brain power, in the same way that faster cars have more powerful engines. If we imagine clever people such as Isaac Newton, we see relentless brain activity at the service of discovery and knowledge. However, research evidence published in the accessible book The Idiot Brain (2016), by neuroscientist Dean Burnett of Cardiff University, suggests that intelligent people don´t necessarily use the brain more – if anything, they use it less. The reason? Efficiency.

Intelligence isn´t the work of one dedicated brain region but several, all interlinked. In intelligent people, it seems these links and connections are more efficient and organised, requiring less activity overall” – Burnett, The Idiot Brain

In other words, intelligent people, through experience and practice, can find an answer to a problem using the simplest, fastest and most accurate problem-solving skills. On the other hand, less intelligent people, or anyone facing a challenge far outside their comfort zone, tend to complicate the problem, choose the wrong way of thinking, and as a result go frustratingly round and round without finding a solution. Intelligent people are better at knowing how to solve a problem and therefore show relatively less brain activity when doing so.

With the benefit of a long plane journey to read and reflect on Dr Burnett’s views, my seat pocket contained another book: Decoded (2013), by neuromarketer Phil Barden. He points out a similar paradox with brands: we might think that successful brands are the ones that light up brains the most with rich and colourful associations (what most marketers are trying to achieve). Again, we actually see less brain activity when they see a brand they normally buy:

Scans of a brain reacting to a strong brand and a weak brand show one lighting up like a Christmas tree and the other causing hardly any activity at all. The epiphany is that it’s the strong brand that makes you think less, as it’s already understood so is valued more highly than the brand that demands energy to evaluate it.” – Barden, Decoded

If we agree with Dr Burnett’s conclusion that clever people make better decisions more efficiently, powerful brands in effect boost our “choice intelligence”, by allowing us to do just that. Sure, there are times when we challenge ourselves to find the absolute best deal for an important occasion, but usually, whether we buy cheap or expensive, we prefer to take a short cut rather than deal with complexity. There are too many options to consider, and our brainpower has other demands to fulfil.

This links nicely with the findings of Dr. Herb Sorensen, who showed in his excellent 2009 book, Inside the Mind of the Shopper, that there is a direct relationship between the speed at which people shop and total basket size, showing again that overthinking may be the enemy of decision making. In his own words:

The general rule is that shoppers´ time is not elastic, but their money is. If you save them time, they will spend more money. If you impede their purchasing, they will do less of it.” –Sorensen, Inside the Mind of the Shopper.

Behind these findings there is perhaps a similar underlying motive: attention is costly and our brain will prioritise ways to achieve its goals with the least cognitive effort possible. Evolutionary psychologists would argue that the brain’s priority is saving energy to focus on tasks like not being eaten by predators, surviving attacks by rival tribes, and having enough to eat each day – characteristics that Natural selection would have prioritised when Homo Sapiens’ brains were evolving.

In our recently published Global Wine Brand Power Report we notice that the common characteristic of successful brands is that they help buyers choose by being accessible (always available where I shop for wine), they are easy to identify (“the one with the Devil” or the “yellow one”) and are associated with many of the right needs or Category entry points (a tasty red wine my friends will like, a refreshing white to take to a park…). It´s the breadth of links to needs rather than the depth of the brand knowledge that is key for success because that is what helps consumers decide fast, as Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute show in “How Brands Grow Part 2” (2016).

When buying, we search our memory for a reason: which is to identify something to buy, for that situation. The hype about differentiation and positioning can easily lead to the conclusion that brands need to be strong in one or two Category entry points to be successful. This ignores the important (empirical) fact: large brands are linked to a broader range of category entry points than smaller brands. This breadth of memory structures is a key part of their equity.” – Romaniuk, How Brands Grow Part 2

Choices abound but energy is limited so we tend to build shortcuts for easier decision making. In that sense, power brands are our brain’s best friend.

Author: Juan Park

Email: juan@wineintelligence.com