The Psychology of Branding: An Art and a Science?

Last week, the theme of TED Radio Hour was the concept of branding and how we assign value to the things we purchase or experience. Research seems to indicate that most of the value we assign to certain brands is the result of our perceptions rather than any measurable differences in quality. For example, how many of the individuals you know who purchased a MacBook did so after concluding that OS X offered them a superior computing experience? There may be a few, but it is probably far fewer than the number of people who purchased a MacBook because of how it made them feel.

You are probably familiar with studies showing that people tend to rate wine more highly when being told it is expensive. I was too. As a health care professional, I’ve also seen this concept play out when patients claim that one drug works better for them than a therapeutically equivalent alternative. But the research that really got my attention during last week’s podcast was one where participants who were told wine was more expensive not only claimed it tasted better – the activity of their brains also changed to match it.

The study consisted of 11 participants who were told they would be sampling five different wines identified by price. However, only three different wines were actually used. Two of the wines were given to the participants twice, once with the true price and a second time with a fake price. The third wine was assigned its true price. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure brain activity while participants sampled each wine. As expected, participants claimed the more expensive wines tasted better, even if it was the same wine assigned an artificially higher price. However, what made the study so interesting was that fMRI results indicated that brain wave activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (i.e., the part of the brain that processes pleasure) also increased when participants were told they were drinking more expensive wine, even if it was the same wine they had already tasted at a lower price.

I recognize the study is small and not one upon which you can base any final conclusions, but it does seem to suggest that there may actually be physiologic reasons for why we prefer certain products and experiences to others. In other words, it’s not just that we perceive them to be better – we may actually derive greater pleasure from them because our brains have been conditioned to associate price with quality.

So what should we take away from this study? Well, other than providing some justification (to yourself or perhaps to your spouse/significant other) that it is perfectly reasonable to upgrade to the more expensive product or experience, I think it also illustrates the powerful influence that branding can have on human behavior. For example, I will probably respond less smugly to a patient who claims a generic product does not work as well for them, even if I know there is no actual difference in its efficacy compared to the branded alternative. As it relates to work, I think it also emphasizes the importance of curating a personal brand, and how that can influence the way people perceive you. If you can develop a reputation for doing good work, clients may be more likely to seek your expertise in the future, even if you do not have a measurable advantage over your peers.

If you would like to learn more about branding and its impact on decision-making, check out the August 12 episode of TED Radio Hour. The study described above is also featured in a 2011 TED Talk by Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, which you can watch below: