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Brand Building 101: Consumers Care More about Mental Availability


While reading the recent Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science’s report “Shopping Takes Only Seconds…In-Store and Online,” I was once again reminded of how many marketing executives have an unrealistic and overly brand centric view of how important their brands are in people’s everyday lives.

Shoppers Don’t Engage─They Just Buy

The idea that consumers “engage” with brands is no doubt true for a small set of consumers and a small set of high involvement categories and brands, but for the vast majority of brands, consumers are not engaged to or with brands, just buying them.

The Ehrenberg-Bass Study confirms this:

  • The average consumer spends 13 seconds purchasing a brand in-store.  This is based on multiple studies of CPG purchase behavior.
  • On-line is not much better, with the average consumer spending 19 seconds to purchase, and the majority spent less than 10.

The simple truth is this:  for most categories, consumers have a small repertoire of brands that are acceptable, and they spend little time thinking about purchase decisions.  Their lives are already full of spouses, kids, events, and other activities, and most people simply don’t have the time or energy to engage with brands in any meaningful way.  And those that do are a minority.  Consumers most often default to making purchase decisions based on simple habit (e.g. previous purchase) or “instinct” or mental availability.

How Do Consumers Decide What to Buy—the Function of Mental Availability

Habit is pretty clear (I’ve bought this brand before), but what is “instinct” in buying?  Well, instinct simply means that the brand easily comes to mind.  Ehrenberg-Bass calls this “mental availability.”  Mental availability is the ability for consumers to easily access the brand mentally and is created through memory structures not brand building.  For example, mental memory structures for Geico might include:

  • The green gecko lizard
  • The line “15 minutes could save you 15% or more”
  • The cavemen, etc.

These things immediately bring the Geico brand to mind.  Maximizing the number and strength of brand linked memory structures is key to increasing mental availability of a brand.

Now, let me ask you a question:  when was the last time that you thought about an ad for a brand while you were standing in front of the store shelf about to buy the category?  If you’re honest, the answer for most of us is probably never.  If this is the case, then how exactly does advertising influence our purchase decision?

Buying, Fast and Slow

In Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he describes two different, but equally effective modes of human decision making:  thinking fast and thinking slow.

“Thinking fast” is when we make decisions without really being aware of how we are making the decision and without using significant mental effort—that is, we don’t think about the decision.  Like when we buy bathroom tissue.  Our ancestors evolved this manner of decision making because it was fast—an evolutionary advantage in a dangerous environment.

Thinking slow is when we are highly attentive to, and thinking hard about, the decision we are making, like solving an algebraic equation.  This mode of decision making, while slow, is advantageous for complex and challenging problems requiring significant mental effort to solve.

Most consumer purchase decisions are more akin to “thinking fast.”  Our brains default to a purchase decision that is largely automatic and highly subconscious, and our decision is based on the quantity and depth of memory structures created by a brand, including its advertising, among other things.  Said differently, we are evolved to make simple, fast decisions when we buy.

Advertising’s Role in a Thinking Fast Purchase Decision

What can you do to ensure that your advertising works in thinking fast moment?

  1. Ensure you have a compelling value proposition that is different and better than competitors. Building memory structures about a compelling value proposition will always be foundational.
  2. Focus on building both strategic and executional brand memory structures—the more, the better. Define your strategic and executional equities and stick with them. Consistency is key.
  3. Maximize reach. If target consumers aren’t exposed to your advertising, you can’t build memory structures. Research shows that incremental reach is more valuable than incremental frequency.
  4. Ensure media continuity.  Advertising memorability decays with time. Staying on air (or online) continuously helps solidify and deepen the memory structures associated with your brand. And, don’t forget, someone is buying your category every day.

Your Brand’s 20 Second Window─Make the Most of It

It’s a sad fact for most brand building marketers that consumers can do without your brand.  In fact, for most consumers, buying is a largely habit based, mostly subconscious process that consumers want to be over with as fast as possible─they have more important things to do than think about your brand.

Which is all the more reason you need to focus on building brand specific mental availability.  Because when it comes down to the 20 seconds or less that count, you want your brand to be more available for purchase than the next guy.

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About Randall Beard

Randall Beard is President, Global Innovation Practice at The Nielsen Company. He is a leading and award winning Chief Marketing Officer and General Management executive with 25+ years of global experience. For more about his thinking, visit Randall Beard’s blog at randallbeard.wordpress.com.

3 Responses to "Brand Building 101: Consumers Care More about Mental Availability"

  • Jim Fisher
    December 18, 2014 - 11:00 Reply

    Randall —

    I can easily see the point about how quickly customers make decisions, especially in the supermarket packaged goods aisle.

    My question would relate more directly to “where does the brain go” when it makes those quick decisions?   How much of the decision is at least influenced by an embedded (by now) link to a relationship or feelings developed previously?  How much is based on a past experiences which build trust in that brand?

    Relying on frequency once a brand is “embedded” can make sense in the short term.

  • Melissa
    December 19, 2014 - 09:22 Reply

    Randall, good article. Do you have a source for the incremental adv reach vs frequency? Thx.

  • Lee Newham
    September 14, 2016 - 09:08 Reply

    This is a brilliant article.

    I’d also add that sometimes people are looking for something different, perhaps their values change (especially when they have kids). Most choices are made emotively, we buy things we want rather than things we need.

    In the 13 or 20-second window, your brands has to communicate not only what you are selling, but the values behind it. Simon Sinek excellent talk ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’ is definitely worth viewing on ted.com, and his book is worth reading too.

    What do people feel when they see your brand?
    Is it reassuring?
    Does it fit with what they believe?
    Does it do it quickly enough?
    Does this stand up to scrutiny (i.e. is it true)?


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