Brand Strategy

Behaviour: our difficult to influence friend

Marketing is about behaviour.  I’ve said this before.

I’ve got something else to add into the mix now, just for you.

OK, I’ve always tried to avoid overcomplicated terms.  Because overuse of the over-complex makes you look like an overt ass.

So let me start with one of those terms, just to get it out of the way.

Heuristic-systematic information processing.

Boom.  There it is.

Let me put it another way:


Isn’t it beautiful?

But what does it mean?

This part’s actually fairly straightforward.

On the left, we have heuristic information processing.  That is to say the way we process information based on mental shortcuts and which doesn’t require a whole lot of mental energy to guide our behaviour.  This is often based on past experiences.

Mouldy food isn’t good to eat.

The red drink can contains Coke and tastes good.

On the right, we have systematic information processing.  This is the type of information that we need to use mental energy on to guide behaviour.

Stock reports being one example.

Compare and contrast of car insurance prices and options being another.

Practical Examples

A great practical example of heuristic processing is this advertising masterpiece:

Here’s an example of systematic processing:

And now, the blend.

Of course, behaviour isn’t always going to be solely guided by heuristic or systematic processing of the information presented.

It’s not always an ‘either / or’.  Behaviour, being the complex beast that it is, will be influenced both by subconscious clues and overt messaging.

fpamao_public_health_posterI have no idea what this poster means (and thanks to Roger Scher’s blog for the source).

But, at a heuristic level, I know that it’s about health.  The little red cross on a white background tells me that.

The text will need to be read to understand what action needs to be taken – and this is the systematic bit.

What does this MEAN?

This means that you can start to divide your communications and brand strategy into systematic information (nuggets that need to be cogitated upon) and heuristics (subconscious clues that the audience will absorb without even thinking about them).

From this meaning comes a continuum which helps us create a brand strategy.


‘Branding’ is heuristic.  The nudges, the subconscious clues from the logo colour and typeface, the sum of all past experiences that make up the complex image of ‘the brand’.

Stick a Virgin logo on a letter, and you know roughly what to expect.

Put a gorilla in front of a wall that’s painted just the right shade of purple, and you know who the work is for.

Everything else is a combination of heuristic and systematic.

PR and the press release is probably the most systematic of all communication functions.  It’s long-form, requiring a combination of skills to absorb and act upon.

Marketing is just on the systematic side of the scale.

Advertising is slightly closer to heuristic than systematic.

Understanding the continuum will help you build your brand strategy.

If you understand which elements of your communications need to be considered systematically and which can be absorbed heuristically, you’ll be able to blend the two into insightful, impactful and effective work.

You’ll probably also uncover some facets which you thought were systematic, but actually should be heuristic and vice versa.

And this will help your brand development process as you move your consumers from the conscious choice to buy your product into a heuristic habit of always buying your product.

To finish, a practical exercise.

Taking the above information, it’s possible to devise a simple set of questions that will gide your communciation and brand development.

Even if you think you know the answers off the bat, take a few moments to jot down some thinking.  You might be surprised where this takes you…

  1. What is the systematic information about your brand that you need to convey?
  2. How will you convey it?
  3. What do people need to understand and think about before they will change their behaviour and buy your product?
  4. What heuristic capital (logo, typefaces, ‘house style’) have you built up over the years that you can leverage?
  5. What societal heuristic capital exists (memes, accepted social norms, cultural references) can you use to attract the attention of the target audience (without them even being aware that they’ve been drawn in)?

Please share your answers below – I would love to learn how this is being put into practice!

Neil Hopkins is a Marketing and Branding Theorist at heart, and a Marketing Communications Manager by day. His blog – interacter – is the primary location he shares insight and information relating to marketing, branding and advertising strategy.
You can follow Neil on Twitter, circle him (like an escaped bull) on Google+ or track him down in any number of other ways.

Featured image comes from Flickr – Christine [cbszeto]


3 thoughts on “Behaviour: our difficult to influence friend

  1. Nice. Couldn’t it be argued that the heuristic end of the spectrum only works because of the slightly less heuristic marketing that preceded it over years and sometimes decades.and that it possesses a greater systematic element than we sometimes assume?

    • Hi John

      Yes, I totally agree. You can only move to the heuristic end by doing all of the systematic legwork previously. It takes a huge amount of time, as I’m sure you’ll agree, in some cases. There are very few overnight heuristic successes…

      Do you see the systematic element you mention as coming from the preceding systematic work, or from another component?

  2. Pingback: 3 things HMV’s staggering incompetence teaches the rest of us | interacter

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