Adapted from TEDx Talk, April 2014

I have always been fascinated by brands. It is their ambidextrous nature, the complex interplay of rational and emotional. It is the way brands have become markers of self, indicators of identity. I remember as a student in my local supermarket playing a game called Basket Genetics, looking at other shoppers baskets and building up a profile: where were they from; how old were they; where did they last go to on holiday; what was a great Saturday night. Now that everyone and everything is talked of as a brand it is important  to understand the impact that brands have on our brains and our bodies.

Let’s start with an example - Horlicks.

If you were to drink a cup of Horlicks in Hyderabad something very different would happen to you than if you were to drink a cup of Horlicks in Hackney. In India you would feel full of energy, ready to face whatever the day threw at you. In India Horlicks is the number 1 energy drinks brand. If you were in the UK you’d be settling down, warm and comfortable ready for a soothing night's sleep - the product puts you to sleep.

In both India and England, Horlicks is exactly the same product - a malted, milk-based powder.

One product.

One name.

But two brands in two countries, two sets of brand expectations and as a result two totally different sets of physical results.

I would argue that people’s expectation of the brand changed the experience and performance of the product.

I believe that expectations change experiences.

We have always known that brands do something to the brain - think of those seminal 1960s “cola wars” tests that demonstrated that people preferred the taste of Pepsi but chose the Coke brand. Now thanks to neuroscience we can start to really understand what exactly is going on inside the brain.

A team from Baylor Medical School in Dallas repeated these cola experiments but hooked respondents up to a non-invasive MRI scanner. When they gave a taste of an unnamed soda to volunteers they found that more people preferred Pepsi, like all those years ago. On the scan images the ventral putamen, the area most commonly associated with the evaluation of flavours, had a response that was five times stronger for Pepsi than Coke. When they repeated the experiment, telling volunteers which brand they were tasting, Coke triggered a massively stronger reaction and activated brain areas that weren't involved in actually taste, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex, associated with memory, judging and our sense of self. This type of brain activity indicates that cultural information and emotion were being recalled. The emotional  knowledge of the Coke brand exerted a more powerful effect upon the brain than knowledge of the Pepsi brand, it was so powerful that it actually over-rode the preferred taste perception.

Coke and Pepsi are so close from a molecular level to be practically identical. But quite clearly the brand expectation changed the physical experience of the cola product.

The California Institute of Technology did research into the impact that price had on perceptions. They took a number of bottles of wine and swapped the wine around, so cheap wine was in an expensive bottle and vica versa. When respondents thought the wine was expensive, a particular area of the brain was more active, the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  The more “expensive” the higher the levels of pleasure in the brain. “Expensive” wine was a more pleasurable experience and therefore tasted better, scientifically.

Another seminal experiment looked at ice cream.  respondents were given two bowls of vanilla ice cream, one labelled Low Fat, the other Full Fat. Of course they were both absolutely identical. In the verbautums after tasting both respondents declared that the Low Fat one was grainy, soapy, unsatisfying whilst the Full Fat one was rich, smooth and very creamy and far more enjoyable.

But of course the actual taste of the vanilla ice cream didn’t change.

Or did it?

Consumers expectations of the ice cream brand changed according to the words used on the packaging and that changed the physical experience of the eating the product. One was more pleasurable than the other.

There's no straight answer to the question, "what does it taste like?"

"What does it taste like?" is a function of the context in which it's tasted and other creative variables such as the expectation of the brand.

So is it mind over matter?

A case of “we think, therefore it is”?

Or is it that mind and matter are so intrinsically intertwined that pulling them apart and assessing what is cause and what is effect is next to impossible?

Moving out of the subjective world of taste and flavours in the rational world of medicine the same kind of brand effect is clearly seen. In 1981 a study was published in the British Medical Journal looking at the impact that brands had on analgesic pain killers. 150 women were recruited, half of them given a painkiller in an unbranded box, the other half we an identical tablet in a branded box. The branded pill resulted in a 30% increase in pain relief. Scientifically the brand expectation improved the performance of the product.

The neurological reactions that happen inside our brand when we come into a contact with a strong brand means that ice cream becomes creamier, wine tastier and pain relievers work harder.

We know this.

So I have a challenge for our industry, I call it “the challenge of the baby carrots” in honour of some work that I love from Crispin Porter Bogusky, an American advertising agency. They took a brief to market baby carrots and created a new brand, a “junk food” food brand complete with junk food-style packaging and advertising. Sales rose by 12%. It was reported that by being branded as junk food people were starting to see them as junk food - snackable, easy to eat on-the-go food. A brilliant way to dress up a health food in the branded wrapper of junk. That’s using the power of brands for good. That’s the challenge of the baby carrots.

Knowing what you now know about the power of brand expectations, how could you apply that thinking to ideas and projects that you are working on?

Brands do powerful things to our brains. If expectations can change experiences then I think that we as an industry need to start changing more people’s expectations more often. Baby carrots are just the beginning.

Watch the TEDx Talk

Amelia Torode is director of strategy at Good Relations Group