Perception changes reality

This piece of research is over a year old now but I have only just come across it, thanks to a speech by Robin Wight at a conference I recently attended. There was lots of interesting stuff in Robin’s speech of relevance to sponsorship, the area in which I am currently working. Robin talked about the role that sponsorship has in “peacock tail signalling” – demonstrating over the top characteristics that trigger a “reputation reflex” in all that see it. Basically, sponsorship tells consumers that brands are big, successful and rich and therefore trustworthy and reliable and worthy of a relationship.

What I also found really interesting was his passion for brain research and neuroscience, which is increasingly finding evidence for things the marketing industry has intuitively know for years.

He referenced a specific piece of research conducted by Caltech. People were rigged up to fMRI scanners, and asked to sample bottles of wine that were differently priced. The people tested reported that they enjoyed the wine more, the more expensive the bottle. But, all the wine was the same, so the price was changing their experience. And, if that wasn’t amazing enough, the pleasure centre in the brain showed more activity as well. So the perception that the wine was better, actually caused a physical change in the brain, and in effect caused the wine to become better.

Now there have been blind taste tests in the past, the most famous being the Coke example where knowledge that the Cola was Coke increased people’s claimed enjoyment. But really it is kinda obvious that you are going to feel better about drinking Coke than a no brand Cola – it is emotionally more rewarding because Coke is a brand with which you are familiar and possibly even love. Marketing folk have always know that great communications can encourage people to change their beliefs and behaviour.

This research is more significant than that – to actually see the brain physically “light up”, as a result of a mere perception, for me is incredibly profound. The actual chemical activity of the brain is changing because of an idea, the idea that one wine is better than another. For centuries we have tried to understand the relationship between mind and body, and discussions about the connection between the two continue to rage in the philosophy departments, religious buildings and hip back street wine bars of the world.

Putting that philosophical debate to one side for a moment, it is particularly inspiring to me to think that if marketers are able to make an idea come to life and stick in people’s minds so that they believe it, consciously or not, that can change their actual experience of the world.

Of course this is potentially scary and troublesome if you generally believe all advertising to be evil and encouraging people to buy things that they don’t want. And whilst I think that isn’t a debate we have enough in the industry I tend towards a more optimistic view. It means that through skillful advertising and marketing brands can add intangible value to their products, so that consumers have a more rewarding experience of the things they buy and the brands they engage with – and that experience is a real and physical one, as meaningful as any other, not a fake veneer of little actual value.

And it doesn’t necessarily mean selling more, or adding more into the manufacturing process, or increasing prices thereby messing up the environment and ruining the economy. Because these days it doesn’t have to cost the earth to add intangible value if you use the digital tools at your disposal. Fears about marketing are for me the same as the fears people have about technology – technology is only as evil as you make it or the things you use it for. Marketing is a tool, and so is only as evil as the marketers that use it. After all those tools are available to any other organisation, from governments looking to promote safe sex to charities looking to raise awareness of social problems.

And at least we are one step closer to understanding the way those tools work.


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