by: Roger Dooley

Not long ago a press release went out with the provocative title, “Brain Works Like Google, New Study Finds.” More specifically, the news release claimed that the study showed that our brains choose brands from our memories using predictable unconscious rules, much like Google ranks sites using an algorithm:

“Brand choice turns out to be a largely unconscious process,” says Tjaco Walvis, who led the one-and-a-half-year study. “But in that process, the brain behaves much like Google. It seems to use a set of rules called an algorithm to pick the brand from our memory that best and most reliably fits our functional and emotional needs at that particular moment. It behaves rationally, but in an unconscious way…”

Based on the study, Mr. Walvis concludes that the brain’s “algorithm” for brand choice has three elements.

Firstly, the brain selects the brand it has learned is best able to satisfy our biological and cultural goals. We unconsciously select the brand that is the most uniquely rewarding, based on its associations with our goals and the brain’s reward centers (e.g. the dopamine system).

Secondly, the brain selects the brand that has shown most frequently in the past that it is able to fulfill these needs. Coherent brands that repeat their promise are more likely to be chosen. Volvo, Coca-Cola and Disney are examples of coherent brands.

Thirdly, the brain selects the brand it has interacted with most intensely in the past. Brand participation creates numerous new connections in our brain, facilitating that brand’s retrieval. Nike Plus is an example of strong participation concept. [From Marketwire.]”

Given my dual interests of neuromarketing and search engine optimization (SEO), I can hardly avoid discussing this topic. The actual paper that the press release is based on was published by the Journal of Brand Management: Three laws of branding: Neuroscientific foundations of effective brand building. Tjaco Walvis is the sole author. Walvis’s paper is an attempt to survey a wide variety of neuroscience-based studies on branding and form some conclusions from the common themes uncovered by other researchers.

Do We Choose Brands Like Google?

So, is the Google comparison apt? The concept certainly has an appealing simplicity to it. Perhaps an even better question is whether brand selection comes down to three rules.

My take is that there IS some similarity to Google’s process for ranking pages, but perhaps not exactly in the way suggested by the press release.

First, I think that branding is just a part of an overall purchasing decision process. Product differences, pricing, convenience, and myriad other factors go into a buying decision. Branding can be a huge factor, of course, particularly when the products may be fairly interchangeable.

So, back to Google: they reportedly use up to 200 variables in their ranking algorithm. Some of that claim may be intended to make the algo seem more formidable than it actually is, but there is little doubt that the algorithm weighs a large number of factors of varying importance. The process for combining these factors in the brain vs. on Google’s servers may be quite different, but superficially one can say they are similar.

One difference is predictability. At the moment, given the same set of facts, Google spits out the same results just about every time. Our own human decision making processes are less predictable and might vary if repeated. Interestingly, if Google starts taking behavioral data into account in delivering results, those resuls might become more brain-like. For example, if Google remembers the last few sites you visited and uses that information to make your results more relevant, that might mimic the way our brain’s process is constantly affected by newly-acquired data.

One thing about analogies: they can be beaten to death. Before I get too far down that path, I’ll acknowledge that there are some superficial similarities to Google’ multi-variable algorithmic ranking process and the way our brains rapidly weigh a variety of remembered and current factors to choose a brand or arrive at a purchase decision. You can decide how far to push the analogy…

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