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Alex Genov

User Research and Innovation, SOFTWARE INDUSTRY

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The power of a brand to turn us into puppets.

I am a staunch individualist! I have never been one to follow trends, the crowd, or allow myself to be brainwashed by advertising. At least that’s how I see myself. This makes the following story all that more interesting.

One morning in the recent past, I was to meet a friend for coffee early at Pete’s Coffee. I got there a bit before my friend and was eager to get some strong coffee in me. We have a toddler and an infant at home and the lack of sleep has turned my wife and I into zombies who function on strong coffee. I approached the counter and ordered a tall latte with an extra shot of espresso. The barista looked funny at me and repeated my order back to me – “a medium latte with extra shot.” I repeated back to him – “yes … a tall latte” He corrected me again, “you mean MEDIUM.”

At this point my mind cleared up a bit and I realized, much to my amazement, that I was not at Starbucks but at Pete’s. It must have felt insulting to the Pete’s barista that I was confusing their establishment with the competition. I was slightly embarrassed and motivated to figure out what had just gone on.

The Psychologist in me figured things out. You see, extensive research in Behavioral Science has shown that many times we move around the world on auto pilot, driven by habit. For example, have you ever headed for place A, fell deep in thought about something, and ended up at place B, just because place B is the one you usually go to? A recent study reported by David Rock, shows that “humans are on autopilot nearly half of the time.”

What had happened to me was that during one of my (sleep deprived) autopilot mode episodes, I was under the influence of a powerful brand – Starbucks. I had used the Starbucks lingo at Pete’s Coffee! Moreover, this was the lingo that I had stubbornly refused to use during my first visits to Starbucks!

To me, that is an excellent example of how effective brands get under our skin – they pull he strings while we are asleep at the wheel … Scary?


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    Oct 28 2012: Hi Alex,
    You are not talking about "brands". You are talking about something that brands are a subset of.
    The superset is "extrinsic association".
    In this regard, brands are the same as the alphabet, words, numbers and esoteric symbols.
    Extrinsic associations are defined by: non-causal objects that lie external to the body and physical causality.
    One can only acquire extrinsics through training - the extrinsic is demonstrated to occur concurrently with a demonstrated object or causality. For instance, the utterence "run" might be associated with the flight response. After sufficient "training" the utterence will become synaptically attached to the mirror neuron that governs the physical sequence of flight (fleance?). So, when sufficiently trained, the utterence alone is enough to release adrenalin, raise heartbeat, sweating etc. because it mutualy co-fires with the real behaviour.
    Consider the action: "pick-up-cup". This is a trained physical sequence that begins as a micro-managed task and ends up as a "macro" which needs only be invoked by a macro execute request - the sequence becomes sublimated into what we call "the subconscious". Kinda like "set and forget". Interestingly, such "macros' seem to be associated with mirror motor-neurons. Motor neurons are observed to "fire" in 2 modes - simulate and execute. They demonstrate some kind of connection to the proto-self(state-monitor of the internal body - aka "feelings").
    Once an extrinsic is established, then it can acrete further associations with other extrinsics.
    The language set applied to a "brand" will become part of this association network and can become sublimated as a macro with its own causal map.
    You are correct in equating this with the "drive from A to B" macro.
    Advertisers are very well aware of this. Whether consciously or subconsciously - a skilled advertiser will seek to sublimate your behaviour with favourable results for their product. I would say that big producers have sufficient funds for it
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      Oct 29 2012: Great points, Mitch. You present many insights from Neuropsychology, it seems.
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        Oct 29 2012: Neuropsychology (neural network dynamics) is part of it. It explains a good deal of what we observe in each other.
        However, the root dynamic is what constitutes a "self" and how it goes about "self organising".
        And then look at what happens when a buch of "selfs" encounter each other.
        One might view it as a surface on a growing sphere. If anything modulates the inverse-square relation of that surface to its radius, it will produce fractal patterns on the surface - chaotic, if the modulation is "just so" as it seems to be in our universe.
        That, I suppose is a "computational" concept. It's an over-simplification, but we see it as the increasing complexity of evolution - and the emergent properties of that complexity.
        Neural adaptive topology is a long way down the evolutionary emergence chain.
        Since we humans happen to be part of that link, it is cogent to us.
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      Nov 4 2012: That sounds really interesting Mitch.

      I was confused about something you said and was hoping you could clarify? How does brand advertising cause extrinsic association? For example, in Alex's original question for this topic, what was the non-causal object external to the body, that is being associated with what other thing, in this case?
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        Nov 4 2012: Hi Danger Lampost (cool handle btw!),

        The brand mark forms the first associative link to the product - the product is intrinsic becuase it has a demonstrable causal relationship to the subject .. you can pick it up or use it in some fashion.
        The brand is an extrinsic, becuase in and of itself it has no demonstrable physical manifestation or function.
        Just as i cannot pat the word "dog" or expect the word "dog" to go fetch a real stick - neither can I expect the Nike tick image to protect my feet or a picture of Colonel Sanders to satisfy my hunger.
        Once established as an extrinsic association, the primary extrinsic(brand) can accumulate further association through more extrinsic additions - e.g. I can run training programs on the subject to connect the brand name, product and behavioural rewards through fictitions stories. We call these "advertisements". When the story is trained sufficiently it will produce a sublimation into the subconscious as a completed behavioural "macro" initiated by an environmental trigger. The more ambient that trigger is, the more it will be triggered.
        So then to "Super-size Me" where other stories are attached to the brand - this causes a conflicting macro - it does not alter what is already sublimated. The new association induces a conscious evaluation of the brand that will eventually also sublimate as a "policy".
        Our awareness can review these sublimated macros when they are challenged - this normally results in a thing we call "justification" if there is no pre-formed policy of conflicting associations.
        But what we call "free will' is the dynamic whereby associations are fluid and governed by a focussing field we call "awareness" - the field of awareness supresses peripheral associations to prevent system saturation. The dynamic will follow the path of least resistance along the association trail, with stability governed by the static requirement of the proto-self (the monitor of body stability).

        Does this help?
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        Nov 4 2012: Oh - and specifically - in the starbucks case, the additional extrinsic is the size description set - brand experts are very careful to remove cross-associations, so they invent entire languages to keep the product self-associated.

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