Kantar Millward Brown

Point of View

The Disappearing Iceberg

It has become a mantra: "Recent learning from cognitive science is challenging long-held assumptions of the market research industry." And the mantra is true–but not in the way most people think. The typical assumption is that new research into fast, instinctive processing supports the idea that people's considered responses to survey questions are just the tip of the iceberg–that the bulk of the meaning that brands hold for people is below the surface.

But really, results of new research show that there is nowhere near as much beneath the surface as the iceberg image suggests. What the new science actually seems to challenge is the metaphor of the iceberg itself.

95 Percent wrong

The iceberg concept is supported by the idea, often cited as a fact, that "95 percent of what the brain does is unconscious." This is said with the clearly intended implication that 95 percent of brand decision making is unconscious. Thus–if this were true–marketers would need to focus almost exclusively on subconscious processes to truly understand consumers and influence their buying decisions.

However, the 95 percent figure is just a hypothetical concept. There seem to be no scientific papers that substantiate this number. It is undoubtedly true that a huge amount of the brain's energy is consumed by processes below the level of awareness, but many of these processes have to do with biological regulation and low-level sensory processing, not decision making.

Neither does the 95 percent figure fit with evidence from our study of brands. When we apply tools that tap into automatic, nonconscious processes, we don't find evidence of a bubbling mass of associations and responses.

We have deployed these types of tools on hundreds of projects in the last few years, and what they actually show us is that few brands evoke many ideas or responses without much effort. For instance, we have used a variation of the Harvard Implicit Association Test to measure instinctive emotional responses to brands. Compared to the strong responses elicited by happy pictures of family and children (which are positive) and snakes, starving children, and Hitler (which are negative), the emotional responses evoked by brands tend to be very modest (and either neutral or mildly positive).

The emotional responses evoked by brands tend to be very modest.

These findings are in fact entirely consistent with the cognitive science that sparked the discussion on changing assumptions. The core of the science on "fast" and "slow" thinking is that both processes contribute to decision making, with fast processes, such as instinctive emotional reactions, framing the slower processes. Where possible, we will use our fast processes for decision making such as selecting a brand. But if and when our instinctive responses are vague, muted, or absent, or we are motivated to think carefully, slower processing takes over.

A construction metaphor may be more useful to us than that of the iceberg.

From digging to building

So where's the rest of the iceberg? Perhaps we need a better metaphor for people's impressions of brands and the role of research in understanding them. For years it has been assumed that the role of the researcher is to dig–to go beneath the surface. This is reflected in the language we use to describe our analysis–we mine the data, we uncover insights. But if there is relatively little to be uncovered for many brands, perhaps this concept is not serving us well.

A better metaphor might be that of construction, of building on a foundation. When we ask people to think about what comes to mind in relation to a specific brand, most consumers can come up with answers for all but the leastknown brands. They reflect on the associations they do have, however modest they may be, and extrapolate.

A construction metaphor may be more useful to us than that of the iceberg. First, it's a better reflection of reality for most brands. Second, it helps us better understand the nature and task of research. Finally, it highlights not only the challenge for most brands but also the opportunity.

Instant meaning

The nub of the challenge for brands is to create an instant impression of the brand without effortful thought. Few brands automatically convey the type of meaning that allows people to make the quick, effortless decisions that their brains are wired to favor. The notable brands that are the exception to the rule, the ones that do create instantly relevant and positive meaning, enjoy a major advantage over their competitors. Volvo equals safety, Red Bull is energy, Ikea is cost-effective style. Coke's relentless pursuit of "happiness" demonstrates their ambition to create such an instinctive link.

Our mental workspace is incredibly limited. Brands with instant meaning can get into that workspace fast, allowing people to make quick decisions and keep competitors from even being considered.

Building instant meaning should be a key objective for brands.

Building on research

Most research encourages people to consider their existing impressions of brands and then try to construct something from them, such as a personality or a set of values. We aren't actually testing their memories. When we ask about the feelings generated by an ad or words that apply to a brand, people aren't digging into their memories for ideas they have filed away. Instead, they are making judgments about brands that they may never have made before, and as they do this, they are telling us something about the shape and nature of the brand's associations and what they might mean in the real world. This is really as it should be, since ultimately the consequences of brand associations drive behavior, not the associations themselves. Similarly, when we ask people projective questions about brands, we are not tapping a pre-established set of values that have been subconsciously processed–we are discovering the direction and territory that a brand may be able to occupy, and which will make intuitive sense to people.

Critics of introspective research approaches have correctly pointed out that in a research situation, we ask people to engage with brands and/or advertising in a much more conscious and thoughtful way than they will in "real life." But that does not invalidate the results. If people don't register a brand's intended meaning or message when they are actively thinking about it, it seems unlikely that they would do so when they are not making an effort.

Getting the gist

We do know that it is the immediate gist of a brand that counts for fast decisions. Research questions are likely to be much more nuanced than many of the associations that consumers have in their minds, so looking across metrics at the gist of the answers is likely to give a much more meaningful insight than worrying about whether people differentiated between minutiae like "tastes delicious" and "has a satisfying taste." In our advertising and brand research, Millward Brown has introduced questions that focus on brand and advertising gist rather than detail for just this reason. Asking people in an open way for their brand associations produces data that looks less rich and detailed (e.g., Red Bull is energy) but is a much more accurate view of what is in play at the time of the decision. People can and do answer long and complicated image grids, but this reinforces a misleading impression of what is going on at the moment of truth.

The self-constructed world

An iceberg is something to be wondered at and studied. A brand is built by us, as marketers and as consumers. Our brains are constantly assembling thoughts and feelings in order to make sense of the world around us. A building metaphor is much more helpful for both informing strategy and interpreting the "brand constructs" people produce. And the metaphor becomes more powerful for us as our research incorporates approaches that measure fast thinking and instinctive responses as well as slow and effortful thinking. As we said earlier, decision making uses both fast and slow processes, with instinctive emotional reactions framing and influencing the slower processes–and the framing has a key impact on the brands that consumers build.

Beyond the iceberg

Understanding the implications of new cognitive science discoveries may have challenged assumptions about what we do, but the industry is better for it. By understanding that our work has been as much about measuring what consumers might think about brands as it was about measuring what they do think, we have realized the need for better tools to measure real-world thinking. The current surge in adoption of such tools has allowed us to get to a more realistic view of the impact of fast thinking for brands and clarified one of the core aims of marketing: to generate instant meaning. By using tools that differentiate between what is easily accessible in consumers' minds versus what could be built from that, we are better placed to give realistic guidance and measurement. And marketers would be wise to focus at least as much on the alleged five percent as they do on what lies below the surface.

Graham Page
Executive Vice President & Head of Global Research Solutions
Millward Brown