Auto-Piloting to brand success

About the added value of of implicit measurement methods: There are many traits supposed to be associated with a brand. But how deep are the sentiments really rooted in the customer’s heads; to what extent does an alleged strong image also reflect in corresponding sales figures and market shares? Classic methods of image evaluation reach their limits when it comes to the capture of subconscious, implicit decision-making processes such as brand choice. Traditional surveys are oftentimes incapable of uncovering the deeper levels of reward and motif that have a longer lasting effect in brands, define behavior and are suited for a clear positioning opposite from competitors.

Two systems of the brain

Pilot and autopilot

In psychological research, so-called reaction-time-based methods are becoming more and more important. The underlying concept for this methodological concept is the assumption, that human decisions are controlled by two systems in our brain – the implicit system (autopilot) and the explicit system (pilot). According to estimates of well-known neuroscientists, up to 95% of human behavior is determined by implicit processes (i.e. Zahltman 2003).
Daniel Kahnemann, psychologist and Nobel Laureate, refers to the autopilot as “system 1”. Whereas system 1 regulates the learning of brand messages and is responsible for mostly subconscious, non-reflected processes, the pilot (system 2) works in serial mode through conscious reflecting.

The autopilot becomes particularly relevant when complex decisions need to be made, there is time pressure and in times of information overload. As works on affect heuristics show (i.e. Slovic et al. 2002), the autopilot is characterized by highly emotional processes. Motivation and emotion build the foundation of human actions; without emotions, human (purchase) behavior is not conceivable. Emotions represent inner arousal processes that can be perceived as pleasant or unpleasant and experienced more or less consciously (i.e. Kroeber-Riel et al. 2009). Here’s one example:

When a TV viewer is activated by an emotional Beck’s commercial, a feeling of freshness and adventure could be triggered in the recipient. This positive emotion could result in the motivation to drink a fresh and cool beer. The consumer can be considered to have a positive attitude towards the beer brand Becks, if he attributes product characteristics to this brand, that would be able to satisfy the previously triggered motivation to a large extent. In the best case scenario, the positive attitude causes the corresponding purchase behavior.

So where do the emotions and motivations come from, and how can the brand image be represented in form of perceptual patterns?

– What is image? –

“The image of an object is defined as an integrated, multidimensional foundation of a target group’s attitude towards the object. It consist of more or less evaluative impressions of a product or brand, integrated into a complete image. Consequently, images are subjective, by all means not completely conscious, but can be made more or less conscious. They are not only linguistically coded, but also vividly, episodic and metaphorical. Images are not only cognitive, but also emotional, experiential and evaluative.” (Trommsdorff & Teichert, 2011, p. 133 f.)

All a matter of rewards

In neuropsychology, behavior is a matter of reward and punishment. Positive emotions have a reward effect, negative emotions have a punishing effect. Brain research considers the following forces to be basic rewards: safety, arousal and autonomy. This classification corresponds to the Zurich Model of Social Motivation, developed by German psychologist Norbert Bischof. Rewards motivate people to act. There is a series of research approaches that essentially see the same basic rewards behind human behavior, but each use different scales and survey techniques. Hans-Goerg Häusel for instance, distinguishes the dimensions of balance, stimulus and dominance in his Limbic® Map. Image profiles can be created based on an allocation of terms.

Possible – and appropriate for brand management – is however also a consolidation of the brand attitude into a few, manageable image dimensions (motives, basic rewards). In order to position brands more distinctively, the three dimensions can be expanded into mixed forms. From a neuroscientific perspective, the limbic system (amygdala) is responsible for the brain’s motive level. The amygdala is considered to be the emotional center of both cerebral hemispheres and is anatomically located right next to the hippocampus. From this cognitive center of the brain, information (i.e. brand knowledge) is transferred into long-term memory.

The neuro-hormonal basis for the basic rewards addressed in the brain consists of cortisol (security), dopamine (arousal) and testosterone (autonomy). Depending on age and sex, the concentration of these neurotransmitters varies and should be taken into consideration for longterm brand management (cf. Häusel 2011). In any case, brand positioning should occur through at least one of the basic rewards mentioned, otherwise the brand or company has no emotional significance for the consumer.

So how can you gain access to the implicit systems of stored brand values?

Methods based on response time

How to gain access to the brand values stored in implicit systems

Neuropsychological research shows that implicit knowledge is manifested in mostly spontaneous behavior. We know from our everyday experiences that the quality of our decisions do not necessarily become better by contemplating it for a long time, particularly not when our knowledge of a certain topic is insufficient. The same also applies to the presence of attitudes or brand images. In this respect, measurement methods based on response time represent a promising alternative to track down deep-seated brand values.

The basic concept of response-time-based methods lies in the implicit knowledge or attitudes about spontaneous reactions to presented stimuli. In specific, respondents are presented with a combination of brand logos and terms on a screen. The test person must indicate, through a spontaneous push of a button or turning of a dial, whether the characteristic suits the brand. Through the allocation (suitable – not suitable) and the respective response time, attitude direction and strength can be recorded. It can be expected that the connection between brand and image dimension is all the more implicit, automatic and therefore firmly established, the faster the allocation is made. Since there isn’t much time to think, pilot (explicit system 2) and with that the drawbacks of classic survey methods can largely be bypassed.

Established test methods in socio-psychological research aimed at finding out intrinsic attitudes such as the exploration of stereotypes, primarily include priming, the Implicit Association Test (IAT, introduced in depth in the 1998 “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” by Greenwald, McGhee and Schwartz), as well as the so-called Go/No-Go Association Task (GNAT). Several examples of application of the IAT can be tried out under the following link: Several market research institutes have discovered this test method for brand and image research as well. Usually, the assigning of terms related to brands is done by pushing a key on the computer as quickly as possible. Oftentimes, several brands will be evaluated in one session by assigning a series of terms.

The item selection and therefore the operationalization of image dimensions can follow estbliahsed market research and (neuro)psychological approaches. A new type of procedure using real-time-response measurements (RTR measurements) were developed by the Steinbeis-Research-Center for Advertising and Communication, located at the DHBW Ravensburg. Here, the assigning of terms is done by turning a remote-controlled and intuitively operated control dial. The faster (and further) the respondent turns the dial to the right, the stronger he or she associates a characteristic with the brand presented.

The brand-attribute-combinations are presented one after the other, for three seconds at a time. Within this time, the test person needs to decide how well the term fits the brand. The decision was made for a three-second interval because it allows the brain to register not only pictures, but also text and numbers. For this reason, test persons should not have more time available than that, as it would exceed the limit of implicit evaluation. The benefit of the control dial used at the Steinbeis-Research-Center is the fact that a set up with several RTR- input devices allows for several respondents to be tested at the same time. Additionally, the control dials can be used very intuitively and with no cognitive effort. On the other hand, the brand evaluations must be conducted in the lab, resulting in a certain organizational effort (i.e. acquisition of test persons). Therefore, a online-based solution is currently being developed which will also allow for a flexible collection of data from home, work or on the road.

The examination methods and results of the study conducted with the help of RTR control dials and in cooperation with the HORIZON journal, are described in the article “About the appeal of successful brands”.

Professor Simon Ottler with a test person in front of the test shelve of the university’s own media lab. With the help of mobile eye-tracking glasses, insights about implicit brand perception will be gained.


– Summary –

• Purchase decisions are usually made intuitively
• In most cases, implicit reward values of brands are responsible for purchase or not-purchase
• Basic rewards can be measured best with implicit methods, whereby the positioning within the motive field is an important foundation for successful brand management
• Methods based on the measurement of response-times exhibit high validity

Are implicit measurement methods valid

Implicit reward values originating from a brand, can be examined with response-time-based methods. In terms of a critical evaluation of the survey instruments, the following graphic provides context:

Whereas explicit methods work well for measurements of unconscious behavioral intentions, implicit survey techniques exhibit high predictive validity in terms of purchase behavior if it is controlled by the autopilot.

As further studies show (i.e. Scheier & Held 2009), implicit measurements differentiate more clearly between brands. For example, Deutsche Bank came off well in an implicit measurement of major image dimensions despite the “PR deficits” of the former CEO. The (temporary) negative influence of public news coverage only became apparent in the explicit survey, but had no lasting effect on the longer-term brand perception of Deutsche Bank (nor on their market shares and annual results)

A study published in the journal of Experimental Social Psychology, points out the higher validity of implicit attitude measurement methods as well. By eliminating or at least controlling the possibility of adjustments through longer thinking periods, spontaneous response-time-measurements allow for a more selective and consequently more meaningful conception of the research subject.

The Steinbeis-Research-Center for Advertising and Communication at the DHBW in Ravensburg

Pretests of advertising materials are one of the key topics of the Steinbeis-Research-Center, located at the Dual University Baden- Württemberg (DHBW) in Ravensburg. The spectrum of methods encompasses machine, implicit as well as classic testing methods. Prof. Dr. Simon Ottler is head of the research center. the DHBW is the first dual practice-integrated University in Germany. Mit approx. 34.000 students and more than 125.000 alumni, DHBW is the biggest University in Baden-Württemberg. The Steinbeis foundation is worldwide active in the tangible, implementationoriented transfer of knowledge and technology.


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