Your brain on stereotypes and brand identities

Stereotypes“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
– Alice and the Cheshire Cat in “Alice In Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

What comes to mind when you read the following list: “Emigrant Savings Bank, Dakota Roadhouse, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Starbucks, Equinox, Club Remix, Bank of New York, Shinjuku Sushi, New York City Law Department, Amish Market”?

How about this one:  “Ground Zero Mosque”?

All the structures on the list above are within the one-block radius of the proposed construction of the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, but the choice of words transformed a non-existent building into a symbol.  In the words of NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, “the phrase sums up a controversy in terms so vivid and concise that neither journalists nor water cooler pundits can resist using the term.”  He continues, “Of course, the phrase is also inaccurate and misleading. But how much does that constrain us when a phrase is so catchy and touches such a resonant emotional cord?”  A recent memo to AP press discouraged the use of the phrase “Ground Zero Mosque”:

We should continue to avoid the phrase “ground zero mosque” or “mosque at ground zero” on all platforms. (We’ve very rarely used this wording, except in slugs, though we sometimes see other news sources using the term.) The site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque is not at ground zero, but two blocks away in a busy commercial area. We should continue to say it’s “near” ground zero, or two blocks away.

We can refer to the project as a mosque, or as a proposed Islamic center that includes a mosque.

Words shape our discourse, thinking and understanding in powerful ways. Labels captivate the brain, which is always busy searching for patterns and making predictions to make us comfortable in the world. The brain has developed organizational mechanisms that group data into categories based on similarities.  Once information is stored in categories, the brain can use it to make predictions and inferences about new category members.  Stereotyping is a by-product of how we process information.  Stereotypes and labels are shortcuts for the brain used to conserve energy and resources.  The problem with stereotypes is that they are like a crude chisel, shaping our perceptions while disregarding inaccuracies and illusory correlations.

While stereotypes can be triggered automatically, attention and reflection can inhibit and suppress stereotyping.  For example, words can automatically activate stereotypes: people may spontaneously infer traits when they read a description of behavior.  However, when people have an opportunity to evaluate stereotypes, automatic inferences are less likely to occur.

Interestingly, our brains recognize when we are biased although we may still behave against our better judgment.  Psychologist Wim De Neys of Leuven University, Belgium came to this conclusion when he researched if stereotypical thinking happened because people failed to detect a conflict between a stereotypical response and a more reasoned response or because people failed to inhibit the tempting stereotypical response [PDF]. The participants in the study were solving a classic decision-making problem that was likely to trigger a stereotype while the experimenters watched their brain activation.  Prior research established that the brain’s alarm center responsible for the detection of conflicts was the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) while the right lateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC) played a key role in response inhibition.  The study showed that the brain’s stereotype detection area became active regardless of whether the participant gave the stereotypical or rational answer.  That means that our brains are good at recognizing stereotypes and set off signals that we need to proceed with caution.  Inhibiting the stereotypical response is a different matter.  The inhibition area became active only when the participant overrode the stereotype.

Is it easier to rely on stereotypes and jump to conclusions in online communication, which is often brief and devoid of the richness of information we can gain in face-to-face interactions? After all, we all have short attention spans and may not have time to stop and reflect.  With anonymity, superfluous connections and minimal accountability, social networks aren’t the best examples of restraint and self-control either.

In the business realm, companies have long relied on the stereotyping and categorizing powers of the brain to create brand identities.  After all, as a business, you want people to perceive and remember you in a certain way and believe that the next encounter with your products and services will be consistent with their expectations.  Social media pose unique challenges and opportunities for brand identities.  New brands are more likely to develop out of conversations with customers, fans, evangelists, rather than from one-way messaging and advertising.  How can companies shape perceptions in the fluid online environment where they have less control over what’s being said about their brands?

It’s possible that social networks will cause brand identities to become more customer-centric and less static.  Perhaps, it’s time to challenge stereotypes and strive daily to live up to our proclaimed values and uniqueness.  Research supports the notion that consumers distance themselves from the marketplace labels and identity categories that turn into a cultural cliché, such as “yuppies,” “metrosexuals,” “hipsters,” while remaining loyal to their favorite products. Customers continuously recreate the meaning of the brands through various channels of interaction.  To adjust to this new environment, we may need to replace automation with awareness and control with curiosity.

Awareness focuses our attention on our own thinking and behavior.  It allows us to stop running the same train of thought and pretending that we know it all.  It brings automated processes into our consciousness to notice and examine. It gifts us with the beginner’s mind.

Curiosity is a big motivator for the brain, which is wired to search for resources and information.  Curiosity allows us to question assumptions and labels and open up to new perspectives. Curiosity encourages us to connect, engage and build relationships.

Where do you see challenges and opportunities for communicating your brand online?

By | 2010-08-30T19:44:30+00:00 August 27th, 2010|Brain, Communication, Conflict Management|0 Comments

Technology and the brain: On clicking, seeking, Massaro shoes, and dopamine

Massaro Shoe

Photo: Olivier Saillanr, © CHANEL

My computer slows down to a halt.  I get impatient.  I start looking for the cell phone. I can check Twitter, and Facebook, and email faster that way.  I can’t find the phone.  Instead, my eyes catch the cover of a coffee table book about luxury brands.  It’s in Russian, and it has beautiful photos. I grab the book and start flipping through the pages in desperation because I feel like smashing the computer.  And here it is, on page 252, this whimsical Massaro shoe…

During his 56-year career, Raymond Massaro has handcrafted shoes for Marlene Dietrich, the Duchess of Windsor, Claudia Schiffer, as well as fashion houses like Chanel, Christian Lacroix, John Galliano and many more.  The Massaro brand began as a family business in 1885.  Raymond Massaro’s grandfather, father and three brothers were all shoemakers.  Massaro had hoped to be a professor of French or history.  His father made him become a shoemaker, and later Raymond Massaro thanked him for that every morning. Because Massaro didn’t have kids, he worked out a deal with his long-term client Chanel for the sale of his business with the right to work there as long as he wanted.

As I study the brain-captivating image, the sense of computer-induced urgency dissolves. The brain is capable of about 8 seconds of focused attention when something distracts us from the current task.  The Massaro shoe does the trick.  It’s almost a meditative experience.  I feel calmer now.  I don’t mind staying in the high fashion world a bit longer.

Why do we feel that sense of urgency around the Internet and our social networks in the first place?  Why are we constantly searching, checking, updating? The answer lies in the fact that our brains prefer stimulation over boredom.  The brain is motivated by curiosity and the search for patterns. Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls this the “seeking” system of the brain.  It motivates animals to search for food, and it causes human brains to seek out information, ideas, connections.

When the brain is busy searching and predicting, it increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for the sense of purposefulness and focused attention.  Dopamine is even implicated in our internal sense of time.  So, next time you waste hours clicking and seeking, blame your dopamine neurons.  Interestingly, these neurons become even more excited when there is no pattern to be found.

The fluid world of the web, where information flows fast and novelty rules, fuels the brain’s urge to search.  In Slate’s article “Seeking,” Emily Yoffe writes:

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

We all run through information mazes.  No wonder, it takes a Massaro shoe to pull my attention away from the computer.  And unless your brand has the Massaro shoe equivalent, I’ll just keep clicking.

By | 2010-08-20T00:12:53+00:00 August 20th, 2010|Attention, Communication|0 Comments

7 questions to direct your social media strategy

Social media for business requires planning.  With the right strategy, social media can help you maximize your marketing efforts, build long-term, trusting relationships with your clients and prospects, boost your visibility and credibility, while you share your expertise and valuable experience with the growing audience.  You can develop good friendships and business alliances and have fun in the process.

Without the right strategy, social networks can waste time and resources.  They can also be annoying, distracting, boring and irrelevant.  They can even damage your reputation and cost you business.

Before you venture into social networking for business, it’s important to develop your social media and content strategy.  Here are some questions and key points to help you get started and see how your business can leverage these new channels of communication and customer engagement:

1.  Social media purpose:  What objectives do you want to accomplish through social media?

Do you want to:

  • extend your brand and grow your customer base?
  • research your target market needs and trends?
  • monitor customer feedback and your online reputation?
  • increase traffic to your company website?
  • build stronger relationships with existing customers to boost loyalty and referrals?
  • improve customer service and buying experience?

You objectives will drive the choice of social networks, your online content and tools to measure your social media impact.

2.  Your Social Network:  Who should you be talking to?

  • What is your target market?
  • Which social networks do they belong to?
  • How do you find your target market online?  (Check out Twellow http://www.twellow.com, Twibes http://www.twibes.com, Facebook and LinkedIn groups).
  • Which experts, colleagues and possible referral partners in your field would you like to follow with an eye towards learning, collaborating, forming strategic alliances and join ventures?
  • Who is your competition and what are they doing in social media?
  • Which of your local contacts are also in social networks?  How can you nurture your existing relationships through social media?

3.  Market research:  What would your target market want from your social media content?

One of the big mistakes companies make in social media is constant pitching of their products or services.  Social networks are more like coffee shops where people gather to have conversations than highways with rows of billboards alongside.

Here’s a list of tactics and tools that can help you take a peek into the heads of your prospects and customers to better understand their needs:

  • Listen to the conversations that are already happening in your area of business. Join in, comment, and share when appropriate.
  • Use Twitter Search (http://search.twitter.com), FriendFeed (http://friendfeed.com), Google Alerts to monitor conversations around specific topics.
  • Pay attention to the words people use to describe their needs when they complain, ask for help or advice.
  • Ask people questions.  Invite your friends and followers to participate in the polls and surveys you create.
  • Follow and learn what your competition is doing in social media.

4.  Social media content:  How do you plan to educate, entertain, engage, and influence your audience?

David Meerman Scott said, “Think like a publisher, not a marketer.”

  • What messages do you want to communicate to your target market and why?
  • What content types and formats will be used?
  • How will you integrate your web content with other information channels you may be using, such as email marketing, press releases, ads, social media, etc.
  • How will you organize your content?
  • How will your audience find your content?
  • What is your schedule for producing, updating and maintaining your content?
  • What’s your editorial process?
  • How do you measure the usefulness of your content to your business and your customers?

5.  Your social media capacity:  What resources does your business have to implement your social media strategy?

  • Who will set up your social media profiles?
  • Who will design your pages?
  • Who will create the content?  Will it be original, aggregated, user-generated, or a combination?
  • Who will manage your social media activity and maintain your social media profiles?
  • How much time do you plan to spend on stetting up and managing social media, generating content, participating in conversations, responding to feedback?
  • What systems will you create to ensure that your social media campaigns run smoothly?
  • What’s your social media budget?

6.  Social media tools and resources:  What social media tools do you want to use?

There are plenty of social media tools and resource out there, but it doesn’t mean you need to use as many as you can.  Your choice of tools depends on your business objectives, target market needs, content strategy, your social media budget and available resources.

7.  Social Media Metrics:  How do you measure your social media impact?

In addition to your social media objectives and an implementation plan, you need to know if your social media efforts help you achieve your business goals and be able to adjust your strategy as needed.

What to measure and how to measure is a big topic in social media.  The list of metrics across several categories below can help you start thinking about your appropriate measurements:


  • Number of posts and updates
  • Number of new and returning visitors to your blogs and websites
  • Number of friends, followers, members, RSS subscribers


  • Repeat visitors
  • Followers of followers
  • If your follower retweets your update, how many people can see it?-         Inbound links to your content from other websites and blogs
  • Directory listings
  • Referrals from social networks
  • Number of republished links
  • Retweets
  • Technorati authority for blogs

Market research:

  • Analysis of audience feedback for neutral, positive and negative attitudes and emotions
  • Analysis of keywords that people use to tag your content on bookmarking sites
  • Analysis of keywords people use to search for your content, products or services
  • Customer reviews
  • Surveys
  • Complaints


  • Number of bookmarked links or items saved to wishlists
  • Content ratings, likes, favorites
  • Time spent onsite
  • Number of comments
  • Number of questions
  • Number of downloads
  • Number of views
  • Usage of widgets
  • Click-through rate (CTR)
  • Number of email subscriptions
  • Number of RSS subscriptions
  • New member registrations
  • Number of purchases
  • Number of recommendations

A great resource on how to measure social media is “Social Media Metrics:  How to Measure and Optimize Your Marketing Investment” (New Rules Social Media Series) by Jim Sterne.

This post is an excerpt from The Social Media Planning Guide, which you can get by signing up for my free Social Media & Content Strategy Kit.

By | 2010-08-16T16:44:08+00:00 August 16th, 2010|Communication|3 Comments

Think before you tweet…and after: lessons on online reputation management and PR gone wrong

Social media can be deceptively transient.  With 65 million tweets per day, information flows quickly.  That is until you make a mistake.  If you are quick and lucky, you can hit the delete button before too many people see and share your blunder.  In the worst case scenario, you recognize that you said something stupid when you hear your own echo reverberating down the long Twitter tunnel and you see your reputation on a train speeding down that tunnel after the breaks failed.

An illustration in point is what happened yesterday when the twitter account of Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist in men’s figure skating, showed an offensive tweet in response to a rude question targeting his rival Olympian Johnny Weir.  You can read about the incident and the chain of events in the blog post “Olympic gold medalist shows his true colors.” It created ripples over the social media, fans’ communities and blogs.

This type of engagement can turn into community managers’ worst nightmare.  It happens not only to public figures with corporate sponsorships on the line.  Businesses can face reputation threats from their employees, negative reviews, and their own poor responses to sensitive situations.  It’s a good idea to think about your Internet reputation management strategy in advance to avert disasters, or at least, to minimize the damage once they happen.  So, what lessons on managing online reputation can we all learn from this unfortunate incident?

  • First, monitor your reputation online.  There will be no awkward silence, sheepish smiles, gasps, or puzzled looks to give you a clue that there is a communication breakdown.  If you don’t monitor what you say and what is being said about you online, things can escalate fast and cause much damage before you get a chance to notice and respond, which brings me to my next point…
  • Assess the situation, contact your PR people or trusted advisors, work out a plan and act swiftly.  In any crisis communication, time is of essence.  The longer you wait to take responsibility, apologize and make amends, the less trustworthy you appear.
  • Take responsibility for what you and your representatives say online.  Words matter.  What you do with the words matters. How you act after all is said matters.
  • Your reputation is about perceptions, not intentions.  People may never know what was intended behind the questionable remarks, but they will trust their own perceptions and will make decisions based on those perceptions.
  • Don’t pretend that nothing happened. Don’t try to deflect attention to something else.  Don’t tweet uncontrollably trying to bury the offending information with lighthearted humor.  Tweet-ease is no Febreze, it doesn’t eliminate odors from what was done.
  • Don’t shift the blame, deny your involvement, or state that somebody or something hacked your account or your brain unless that’s really true. And even if somebody did, in fact, hack your account, it is still a good idea to apologize for the inconvenience and confusion and promptly remedy the problem.
  • It is often appropriate to delete the offensive remarks, but don’t try to create an impression that they never existed.  That’s like tampering with evidence.  And someone who knows how to capture computer screens will have that online evidence.
  • Apologize directly to the party affected by the comments and to the public.  Seal your apology with consistent actions to resolve the situation.
  • Demonstrate restraint and competency in dealing with hot button issues where almost any position taken is sure to please one group of people and offend another.  Shouting matches don’t aid in conflict resolution.  In the above story, Johnny Weir showed confidence and wisdom by choosing not to fuel the fight.  What do you do if you are a business dealing with rude negative reviews, for example?  You still have to be professional and use good tone.
  • Understand that when you choose the behavior, you choose the consequences.  Provocations can ignite multiple arguments over the Internet.  It becomes up to the moderators of those forums to ensure the safety of expression.  This brings me to trolls.
  • According to Wikipedia, in Internet slang, “a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”  The best strategy to deal with trolls is to ignore them.  Their goal is to test your emotional control center, your brain’s limbic system, because theirs isn’t doing the job.  Just like bullies, they are likely to have negative attitudes and beliefs about themselves and others and have trouble with social interaction and social problem-solving skills.  Don’t give them any of your attention and don’t even think about responding to or sharing their rants with others.  Block them, delete their comments, unfriend them.  Your attention is the most precious asset in our fast-paced world.  Give it to those who value and appreciate it.
  • I will conclude with this familiar suggestion:  treat others online like you would like to be treated.

Have you ever had to deal with online conflicts?  What worked and what didn’t?



By | 2010-08-10T04:22:12+00:00 August 8th, 2010|Conflict Management|11 Comments

9 ways to tame the buying brain, minimize buyer’s remorse and improve customer experience

You’ve heard that people buy on emotions and then justify their decisions with logic.  We all knowguarantee that our mood affects our decisions and behavior, but we may not realize to what extent our brains are prone to confusion and miscalculation.  For example, you are more likely to give a favorable opinion on a consumer product, such as home appliances, if you receive a small surprise gift right before you are asked about your opinion.  Never mind that the surprise gift is a nail clipper that you don’t even need.

When you are in a bad mood, you may be more inclined to buy impulsively.  Why are we prone to engage in retail therapy?  Studies show that willpower and self-control diminish when people are in a bad mood, while their search for pleasure and comfort increases.  We are wired to avoid pain and maximize pleasure.  Thus, we compensate for distress by overindulging.  To make things worse, people have difficulty appreciating the power of temptation and overestimate their capacity to control their own impulses.  In fact, those who are the most confident about their self-control are the most likely to act impulsively.

In addition, you can blame your dopamine neurons for your search for instant gratification.  When you think about a reward in the future, the prefrontal cortex associated with the rational planning becomes more active.  It encourages you to wait for a future bigger pay-off.  When you think about an immediate reward, the brain area associated with emotions, such as the midbrain dopamine system, is turned on.  This limbic part of the brain urges people to pay with a credit card for something they can’t afford, for example.  Whether you will be able to resist the temptation depends on which area of the brain shows greater activation in this neural tug of war.

Our brains are generally good at rationalizing our decisions to avoid any conflicting thoughts, or what social psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” The notion that we just bought something we wanted and also wasted money is bothersome.  To overcome it, we exaggerate the value of the purchased item.  When this process doesn’t work, we experience buyer’s remorse.  Sometimes, buyer’s remorse happens because we encounter certain information after the fact that undermines our purchase decision.  On occasion, we may not feel motivated enough to reduce negative feelings.

Taking into account this neural tug of war in the consumers’ heads, is there a way to tame the buying brain and improve customer experience?  Here are 9 practices that can ease the pains of the buying process and nurture important customer relationships:

  1. Educate your customers. Since your customers search the web for information, make sure your content is informative, memorable, engaging, easy to find and share.  Education reduces the risk of misunderstanding or misuse of your products or services.  Buyers become more confident in their purchase decisions and clear on the value they get. Informed consumers can be your best fans and evangelists.
  2. Shape your conversations and offerings in terms of short-term and long-term benefits and consequences to help your clients get clarity they need to make a decision.  What problems do you solve for your clients?  What are the short-term benefits of using your products or services?  Do they lead to a bigger pay off in the future?  What are the negative consequences of ignoring the problem your business is meant to solve?
  3. Make it fun to buy from you. Distribute gifts, coupons, giveaways, VIP invitations to events through social networks and other online channels.
  4. Offer a money-back guarantee. If consumers know that they can reverse their purchase decisions, they may be less likely to suffer from buyer’s remorse.
  5. Follow up with customers who have just made a purchase to welcome them into your community of happy customers and fans, reaffirm that they made the right decision and encourage them to engage with your products or services right away to experience the benefits and counteract possible buyer’s remorse.
  6. Use social networks to create smooth and pleasant customer experience. Promptly answer customers’ questions. Solicit and respond to customers’ feedback.
  7. Invite customers to submit their testimonials. Not only you can use the testimonials to promote your business, the process of creating a positive testimonial will seal the benefits in the consumers’ minds.  Testimonials provide a stamp of approval, which is important to the buying brain.
  8. Keep in touch through social media. Provide regular tips on how to make the best of your products or services.  Use how-to videos and pictures to make your tips more visual and memorable.
  9. Encourage your fans to step in and answer questions from other customers about their use of the products. This will increase customer engagement and make your growing community stronger.

What else can we add to the list?

By | 2010-08-05T19:11:41+00:00 August 5th, 2010|Brain, Communication|0 Comments