In psychological terms, context is almost everything. Much as we like to think that we know how we will act and react in a given situation, without the richness of...
The man walked onto the station platform very casually. Most of the other people around me paid him little or no attention at all, but I found my eyes drawn back to him repeatedly. In fact, I had to work hard to make sure that he didn’t catch me looking his way a little too often.
I tried to size up the situation. The group around him were standing too far away to be friends, but they were close enough to suggest they weren’t strangers either. I guessed they were fellow commuters, familiar with one another, but not with each others’ lives. They didn’t know what I knew about him. Instead they had been taken in like so many others by his relaxed air and general bonhomie.
I considered what it was that had first made me recognise him; what unconscious reference had caused me to notice him, fixate my attention on him and trigger that feeling of fear.
It was several factors, I decided. Like a simple jigsaw puzzle any one of the elements would have been insufficient, but together they fired up that recognition I’d experienced and made me instantly wary and attentive. It was the distinctive coffee-coloured hue of his (Asian) skin, his height, the strong physique softened by a considerable paunch, and the back-pack, worn with both straps over the shoulders. I recalled I’d only ever seen him with that distinctive back-pack.
My unconscious mind had filtered the situation and, within microseconds, made its judgment. This was the murderer Maninder Kohli!
Except it wasn’t.
I knew that because at the end of the television programme I’d watched about Kholi’s viscious crime and the manhunt for him in India, the police had caught him and he’d been sent to prison (for a very long time).
But primed by the programme. and the powerful emotions it evoked (particularly given that I’m the father of a daughter and he raped and murdered a teenage girl), my unconscious had new data to use in protecting me.
In evolutionary terms this mechanism makes great sense. It can keep me safe and help me protect my family. But, as I knew within moments of ‘recognising’ the man at the station, it can also be wrong.
Had I known someone who looked like Kholi I doubt I would have looked at the man in the same way.
So what does all this reveal about consumer behaviour? Well, the unconscious mind can be easily influenced. When emotion and uniqueness are combined, particularly if it’s through a recent event, it creates a prime. The unconscious mind is then on the look-out for elements of the event that have caused that emotion. When enough are encountered, or sufficiently close approximations of them are, it triggers the emotions experienced on the first occasion as a warning (or incentive in the case of something pleasurable) to act.
Where you can create an emotion and attach your brand or product to it the sensory associations at the time will be mapped onto it and can be deployed to recreate the intended emotions. That’s how brand logos work.