Branding & The Brain: How Social Media Changes but Humans Never Will
Branding is a word that seems to have one day—POOF—appeared out of the ether. In fact, when I began blogging in 2006 almost no one in publishing used the term. The rare few who did were hard-pressed to properly/clearly define what a ‘brand’ was.
In fact, many authorities believed authors didn’t need to be bothered with silly passing fads like ‘the Internet’ and ‘social media’ until about 2013. Why would authors need to build a brand?
All a writer needed was a good book. Facebook will last a year at best.
Today, in 2018, the words ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ seem to be tossed around daily. Everyone and everything is or has or needs a brand. What’s funny is that branding might seem completely new, yet has been around since…people.
Granted how important a brand is, the need for one as an author, etc. is a fairly recent development. Yes, we need to craft excellent books (product) but we also must begin building our author brand EARLY.
***As in the first day we believe we might one day want to sell a book.
Ah, but calm down. There’s a lot of confusion regarding what a brand actually is. Many assume ads, marketing, and promotional campaigns are ‘branding.’
We can build a brand, but alas we cannot buy one. There are no shortcuts. Ads, promotion, marketing can help expand an existing brand, but cannot be substituted for one. This approach is akin to ordering a wife on-line from Russia believing one can buy true love with Visa.
In some areas of life, shortcuts end up a) a waste of time b) a bigger waste of money c) an episode of Dateline.
I wrote my book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World to be evergreen information. In my POV, social media changes daily, but humans never change.
Just read Shakespeare or look at your ex’s Facebook page *rolls eyes*.
That’s why my social media/branding guide focuses a lot more on the science behind what creates what we recognize as a brand. What captures our attention? What turns us off? What renders a brand invisible (thus a non-brand)?
How can one brand launch into the stratosphere with little to no budget when another fails miserably no matter how many millions of dollars are poured into ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements?
Obviously, my book delves into far more detail about the science behind branding. But a little common sense goes a long way. Thus, today we’ll simply touch on why our everyday on-line behaviors collect into a larger pool we call ‘author brand.’
Branding is NOT New
The thing is, humans have always had a ‘personal brand.’ Branding, in its simplest form, is what descriptors we attach to another person. It’s an innate habit we use to organize and transition the fuzzy and inchoate into the dramatic and memorable.
In the series I’ve been doing about story structure, I’ve reiterated over and over how we humans are wired for story. Branding is simply an extension of story.
That guy/that gal is too amorphous for us to remember. It also doesn’t provide enough detail for us to know how we should respond.
But, ‘That guy who’s been married four times, loves hunting, and collects sports cars’ provides a narrative (a story) that will either resonate or repel depending on the audience.
Humans dig labels, now more than ever before. It’s how we make our increasingly larger world somewhat manageable. Thus, people we ‘know’ are frequently tethered to a variety of descriptors—vegan, sports enthusiast, triathlete, cat lady, Cowboys fan, craftsy person, the comedian, etc.
There’s the perfect, put-together Pinterest moms and then there’s me….
This, in a nutshell, is ‘branding.’ Humans have been doing this ‘branding’ thing since the dawn of time. The only difference in a ‘personal brand’ and an ‘author brand’ is that the ‘author brand’ should eventually drive book sales. Also, branding is now more vital than ever before because of the sheer volume of information, people, choices, etc.
This is why author brands are essential, since a brand is basically a beacon drawing people (readers) to something they find familiar and that they already know they like.
Here is where science comes in handy.
The Neurological Shortcut
Our brains are remarkable organs that have the ability to adapt to our environment. Before the invention of the written word, our memory centers were far larger because we had to pass down information orally.
In fact, if you took an MRI of a tribesman from some isolated Amazonian tribe, his brain would look and act very different from yours or mine.
Then, with the advent of the written word, our memory centers shrank but we gained even larger areas for abstract thinking. This was around the time we start seeing major explosions in science and engineering.
Now we are in the Digital Age, and we’re bombarded with stimuli. Internet, television, radio, smart phones, pop-ups, etc. etc. We’ve lost our stellar memory centers and our ability to focus for long periods of time and have gained an unprecedented ability to multitask. Our brains must process massive amounts of information faster than ever before.
Think about it. We see ads on Facebook all the time. Or do we? Our brains have literally learned to un-see. We cannot manage all the input. So, if we (authors) are eventually going to advertise our books, how do we make our content visible?
Branding with Intention
Since our brain is much like a computer processor, it must come up with ways to effectively manage all this input in order to maintain efficiency. To do this, it relies on what are called somatic markers.
Somatic markers are neurological shortcuts and are one of the most primitive functions of the brain because they are uniquely tied to survival and procreation. It’s the same shortcut that tells us the stove is hot. We don’t need to sit and ponder the stove. We likely learned when we were very small not to touch.
To give you an idea of how somatic markers work, let’s do a little exercise. Is there a perfume or cologne you can smell and it instantly transports you back in time? Maybe to that first love or even *cringes* that first heartbreak? A song that makes you cry?
Perhaps there is a food you once ate that made you sick and even though there is no logical reason you shouldn’t eat it now, the mere thought of eating it makes you queasy.
These are somatic markers. When it comes to branding, somatic markers are vital.
The Pepsi Challenge
If you are around my age or older you can remember The Pepsi Challenge. For years, Pepsi had been trying to gain an edge over Coca Cola, which had dominated the soda industry for generations. Pepsi—figuring it had nothing to lose—came up with the idea of setting up a table in stores and shopping malls and encouraging people to take a blind taste test.
The results were astonishing…to Pepsi more than anyone.
In a blind taste test, people preferred the taste of Pepsi. Coca Cola was rattled by this news. They performed the same test and it turned out, people preferred the taste of Pepsi…and this led to brilliant ideas like ‘New Coke’ which was one of the most epic brand failures in business history.
Why did New Coke fail?
Coca Cola reformulated to make the drink sweeter. In blind taste tests, New Coke was a clear winner. So then why did it tank so badly?
What Happened? Branding Basics
Years later, neuroscientists decided to see if they could demystify what happened in The Pepsi Challenge. They conducted the exact same experiment, only this time they hooked participants up to an fMRI machine so they could witness what areas of the brain lit up.
They held the taste test the same way it was conducted in the 70s—a blind taste test. To their amazement, participants preferred the taste of Pepsi in almost the exact same numbers. According to the fMRI, the ventral putamen, the area of the brain that tells us something tastes yummy, lit up like Vegas.
*Some have speculated that when it is only a sip, people will prefer the sweeter drink.*
The ‘Human Factor’ in Branding
The scientists then decided to try something a bit different. They did the test again, only this time they told the participants what they were drinking. This time, Coca Cola won BIG.
Ah, but something strange happened in the brain. Not only did the ventral putamen light up, but so did the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with emotion and memory.
See, when it was based on taste alone, Pepsi won. But, when the brands were compared, Coca Cola won. The human brain was in a wrestling match between two very different regions—taste and emotional.
Coca Cola had the advantage because of the vast reservoir of fond memories associated with the brand. In short, Coca Cola had a STORY for sale.
Norman Rockwell Americana, cute polar bears, I’d Like to But the World a Coke, every BBQ, summer vacation, rollerskating parties, Friday nights with pizza and on and on all were part of the Coca Cola arsenal. The fond memories (positive somatic markers) associated with the brand literally changed the taste and gave Coca Cola the winning edge.
Somatic Marker Meets Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon
Ever run into a term you KNOW you’ve never heard in your life, then hear it at least four more times in the next week? Or see something you know you’ve never seen before, then suddenly it’s everywhere? Reverse-harems? Punk-Rockabilly-Zydeco? Kombucha?
I’d never heard of Bikram Yoga until a friend told me about it and then…it was everywhere. Following me with sweaty mats…and Kombucha O_O .
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is also known as the frequency illusion or the recency illusion. At first glance, one might think this is why it’s a great idea to automate everywhere! Churn out lots of ads! Exposure! The more people see me, my name, my face, my book, the BETTER!
Not so quickly.
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon seems to kick in strongest when there’s some kind of an emotional response tethered to the ‘thing.’ Interestingly, the stronger the emotional response (positive or negative), the more likely we will see that car, food, book, name, that we suddenly believe is now everywhere, surrounding us.
Ah, but when it comes to OUR brand, what emotional response are we creating? Are people seeing our name because of some good encounter? Or do they see it and silently rage because we keep crapping up their feeds with automation? Are we all take and no give?
Ads That Pop-Up & Ads That POP
We see ads all over. More than ever before in human history, which is why our brains are getting so clever with shortcuts. Most ads we literally do not see.
I could take any random person and have them click through twenty pages of BuzzFeed memes and they’ll remember the memes (emotional), but are unlikely to remember most of the ads plastered all along the sides. Though most ads will be invisible, some are not. Some might even leap off the page. Why?
What makes us ‘see’ the advertisement?
When we have a highly positive or vastly negative experience, we’re far more likely to notice the ad.
If we see an ad for a book, we may or may not notice. But what about an ad for a book written by someone we know? Someone perhaps we talked to and liked? The ad practically leaps from the page. We might even buy it because we SAW her ad and OMG! I know her!
Ads alone have very little power to compel a purchase. But, couple them with a brand (story/narrative/emotional experience), and the odds of a sale greatly improve. This is why ads and promotion alone do very little to impact sales. Until there is a narrative (emotion) attached to the name?
It’s white noise.
Keeping the ‘Social’ in Social Media
Now that y’all have had a Neuroscience 101 crash course—and I guarantee you will see Baader-Meinhof OR Kombucha at least three times in the next week—let’s get down to what’s most essential. Branding is all story. It’s a collection of emotional experiences that tie our name to some set of descriptors (hopefully positive ones).
Eventually, with love, care and nurturing, followers can become friends and even FANS.
So have fun. Relax. Show up. Be present and engage authentically. Find your tribe and bond. And a great tip for on-line as well as in life?
It is far better to be interested than interesting 😉 .
Feel free to ditch the non-stop jazz hands. It’s all good. Go write more books and enjoy the people you meet along the way.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Do you now feel way better now that you know why you’ve also heard the term ‘reverse harem’ six times in the past week? Feel extra sassy that you know the term ‘Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?’ Are you already planning ways of using this word in everyday conversation?
Does this take some of the pressure off ‘creating an author brand’?
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Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming!
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I love hearing from you!
And am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of April, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
March’s winner will be announced next post. I know I said this post but have been sick and am a writer so I lie 😛 .