What does your brand do for consumers? If you're Apple, you make them more creative, and if you're Disney, you make them more honest.
So says research published in the April issue of the Journal of Consumer Research that found test subjects who were shown a logo for 30 milliseconds -- a subliminal flash that was not actually "seen" -- were much more likely to be creative or candid in the cases of Apple and the Disney Channel, respectively.
"Brands are almost human in representation in people's minds," said Gavan Fitzsimmons, professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University, and one of three authors of the 52-page study. "We started out discussing the fact that we now know about all the social influences on us. Why wouldn't it then logically be that brands have the same impact?"
So he, along with his wife, Tanya Chartrand, also a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke, and his sister, Grainne Fitzsimmons, research chair in social cognition at University of Waterloo in Ontario, set out to tackle the question. They pretested hundreds of brands, looking for pairs in similar categories that were equally liked by consumers but also had distinctly different and acknowledged brand attributes. They wound up pairing Apple with IBM and Disney with the E! Channel.
They also took into account that consumers are exposed to hundreds of brands every day, but in a "super-liminal" way -- that is, in a way that can be seen, such as a logo on a friend's shirt. What they wanted to test was the effect of subliminal exposures.
Flash of inspiration
For the Apple-IBM test, 341 subjects were presented with a split screen and asked to push either a right- or left-hand button when they saw a box flash. What they didn't see -- and couldn't possibly have seen in just 30 milliseconds -- was the flash of the Apple or IBM logo while the box was on the screen.
Afterward, the subjects were given a creative challenge: Write down as many uses for a brick as you can think of, besides creating a building. The researchers then asked an independent group of judges to rank the answers for creativity.
The results: The group that had been subliminally primed by the Apple logo came up with 15% to 30% more uses for the brick than the control group. And the independent judges more often rated them as more unique and creative.
For the Disney-E! Channel test, they did the same thing. Some 63 participants instead saw the Disney or E! logo flash while the box was onscreen. Their test was different, though. This group was asked to honestly respond to true/false statements such as "I can remember playing sick to get out of something" or "I do not find it difficult to get along with loud-mouthed, obnoxious people." (Those who agreed with the latter flunked on honesty.)
Again the results showed the group exposed to the Disney Channel logo was more honest in its answers than the E! Channel-exposed group.
Note that neither group exposed to IBM or E! Channel became less creative or less honest because of the exposures. They stayed the same -- their answers were statistically similar to the control group.
It's not likely to have been a fluke. The research group got similar results in more than 10 replications of the test with a variety of subject groups.
So what does it mean for marketers? The research purports to prove that brands can subliminally inspire or create certain kinds of feelings in consumers -- potentially valuable information for marketers.
For instance, marketers doing product placement may want to go with shorter exposures rather than longer ones that draw consumers' ire, Mr. Fitzsimmons said. Or marketers could sell the notion of those positive associations to consumers. "All day, every day, we're changing who we are -- becoming more honest, becoming more creative -- as the function of the brands that surround us," he said.
And that may be the way to change consumers' buying behavior. Mr. Fitzsimmons said two of the three researchers (himself included) have switched to Apple computers. "In part because we thought it can't hurt and maybe strategic brand exposure might be a good thing."