The Latest Neuromarketing Insights

Why brands aren't that important - and how they actually benefit from that

Relevant topics Archive, Advertising

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    High psychological distance makes abstract framing (such as ‘why’ instead of ‘how’) more persuasive.
  • Application:
    Brands can tailor their advertising copywriting to specific customer segments based on their psychological distance to the brand.
  • Take a moment and jot down all the brands that feel important to you.

    It’s likely your list isn’t too long (unless you work in branding or marketing, which makes you almost a different species compared to the typical consumer). When Connors et al. (2021) asked this question to a large sample of respondents, the average number of brands was a meager 2.15. Fewer then 1% of people mentioned more than 10 brands.

    This pushed the question how important brands are in our lives – really?

    Strong brand relationships are extremely rare (Thomson, MacInnis & Park, 2005). Consumers do not have – and truth be told: do not want – strong relationships about the brands they use. In fact, for most of the products that end up in shopping baskets, we wouldn’t lose any sleep if these brands would disappear eternally (Havas, 2020). There’s almost always a substitute just around the corner.

    ‘Love brands’ such as Apple and Coca-Cola do exist, but only arise once in a blue moon – and even these textbook brands show only slightly higher levels of loyalty as what would typical (Sharp, 2012).


    The psychology of self-brand connection

    Brands exist along a continuum from where they completely overlap with our sense of self (such as the guy who refuses to drink anything else besides Coca-Cola and has it on tap), all the way to the brand being bought completely independent from the customer’s self-concept (think of the people who shop at Walmart incognito because they don’t want to be associated with the store). Most brand-consumer relationships end up somewhere at the latter end of this spectrum.

    The concept of psychological distance has a long tradition in consumer research. While both researchers and practitioners are mostly interested in decreasing this distance, it requires long-term and consistent marketing efforts to capture even a fraction of people’s hearts and minds.

    However, recent research has uncovered a psychological principle that does delivers results overnight. Not by some magical marketing spell that makes people instantly fall in love with your brand – that idea can be buried in marketing folklore – but rather by making the best out of a bad relationship.

    How to tailor your message to the brand relationship

    Cognitive psychologists know that feelings of distance actually changes the way we think. These findings fit under the umbrella of construal level theory. Generally, when something is close (such as a vacation you will embark on next week), people tend to use concrete language and think in terms of actual events. The closeness sways your mind to focus on things it can readily imagine.

    On the other hand, a higher distance makes us think and talk more abstractly. Instead of tangible a list of activities and locations, your future vacation will be framed in terms of the more abstract feelings and motivations that are involved. The subjective feelings of distance emerge in distance concepts such as time, location and even emotional distance. Of course, brands are often seen through the lens of emotional distance.

    Construal level theory has important implications for marketing copywriters. While copywriting gurus urge to always use concrete words over abstract words, situations of high psychological distance form an exception to this rule. In fact, some products and causes that inevitably are associated with strong feelings of distance – such as conservation behavior, health behavior and the introduction of brand extensions – have been shown to benefit from abstract framing.

    This sparked Connors et al. (2021) to test whether weak self-brand relationships benefit from a more abstract framing. In four studies, both from the lab and real-world, they demonstrate that this hypothesis holds up. Particularly the difference between how-framing (concrete) and why-framing (abstract) was found to be influential on behavioral outcomes.

    Small changes in copywriting such as these can make a large difference. For instance, when testing donation brands, the authors found that people who felt connected with the brand responded better to how-framing: “How does your donation make a difference?” Alternatively, for distant brand relationships the why-framing yielded higher donations (“Why is your donation important?”). What makes this especially remarkable is that the ads only differed in the headline; the content itself was exactly the same.


    It’s important to note that brand distance can vary widely not only between brands, but also within the (potential) customer base of the brand itself. The difference between concrete and abstract framing therefore provides a powerful tool in delivering the right message to the right customer segment.

    The key to success is identifying which segments have relatively high and low perceptions of brand distance, and tailor your marketing messages accordingly. Real-world monitoring tools on social media, such as language analysis on Twitter, helps you identify closeness-based segments on characteristics such as age, gender, location and income. While not all brands are destined to become love brands, I have no doubt any brand can become a smart behavioral science brand.


  • Why brands aren't that important - and how they actually benefit from that
  • Reference:

    Connors, S., Khamitov, M., Thomson, M., & Perkins, A. (2021). They’re Just Not That into You: How to Leverage Existing Consumer–Brand Relationships Through Social Psychological Distance. Journal of Marketing, 0022242920984492.


    Further Reading

    • The Most Overlooked Psychological Factor in What Makes Advertising Music Work

      The Most Overlooked Psychological Factor in What Makes Advertising Music Work

      Both advertisers and researchers have known for many years that music can tip the scale in an ad’s favor. The well-chosen tune can make all the difference when it comes to people attending towards the ad, developing positive attitudes and associations – and ultimately forking over their hard earned cash to buy the product.

      But what exactly constitutes the right music?

    NewNeuroLOGO 500x500 wit NEG

    New insights every month