Book review: Decoded, Phil Barden

Decoded Phil BardenIf Phil Barden is right, all students of marketing should switch to psychology today.

His book Decoded – The science behind what we buyrepresents a paradigm shift in marketing theory and practice. The upshot is that marketing begins with an understanding of people, not ‘markets’. Mugging up on psychophysics, behavioural economics and experimental psychology will make you better at your job than being able to recite Porter’s Five Forces.  

Barden is a veteran marketer who ventured agency side after 25 years in the hope that decision science would be the first explanatory framework for marketing to really get to the nub of consumer behaviour.

I think his efforts have been suitably rewarded.  

The book does a great job of joining the dots between the scientific ivory tower and the real world of marketing strategy and tactics. It’s clearly written and jargon-free, marketing acronyms and self-aggrandising scientific terms are mercifully omitted, allowing you to focus on what we should be doing differently. This is an achievement in itself.

A good example is Kahneman’s two modes of thought. Rather than the abstract System 1 and System 2, these are characterised as the autopilot (the automatic system 1) and the pilot (the effortful system 2). On the face of it this is a small difference, but it’s one which makes digesting the implications far easier.

That said, it’ll still take me a while to digest all of the implications, but my five immediate takeouts are as follows:

1)       Design with peripheral vision in mind

There’s some fascinating evidence relating to how we perceive the world around us. We rely on our peripheral vision to scan the world around us, bringing objects of interest in the world to our full attention. What’s interesting is the poor level of resolution this peripheral vision has: it’s like looking through a window smeared with Vaseline.

To be distinctive to the autopilot, packaging needs to be perceived differently by the peripheral vision_Decoded p76

Figure 1: The difference between focal and peripheral vision (p76)

Briefing a designer with this information in mind changes your priorities.

2)       Relevance drives attention

Barden summarises evidence that shows how perception is goal-oriented. For example if you are hungry when you walk down a high street your attention is more likely to be drawn to fast-food brands. Perception is therefore not a neutral or passive process, as our autopilot is actively factoring in relevance without us knowing. Our autopilot lets messages in when they fit our subconscious goals.

This has huge implications: the consumer “cannot be manipulated at will”. More practically this means that if we interpret the world in a goal specific manner, goals themselves can activate brands in your memory. Research should reflect this. With this knowledge “top of mind awareness” seems a blunt tool; researchers should link brands to goals – for example “which brand comes to mind when you need a tasty snack on the high street.”  

3)       Strong brands are bought on autopilot

Our mental resources are limited and it takes energy to think. As Kahneman says “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats” – we only do it when we have to. Familiar brands enable us to make decisions quickly – eventually by autopilot. This “automaticity” of processing is the hallmark of a strong brand. As Paul Fishlock points out in his review of the book:

“Scans of a brain reacting to a strong brand and a weak brand show one lighting up like a Christmas tree and the other causing hardly any activity at all. The epiphany is that it’s the strong brand that makes you think less, as it’s already understood so is valued more highly than the brand that demands energy to evaluate it.”

Amongst the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells the world assaults us with it pays to be clear, distinctive and consistent. Viewed this way, brands that are wisely curated, and which build associations over the long term cut our brains some slack. They make it easier for us to notice, understand and buy them. Any brand manager eager to refresh their portfolio should start from this assumption.

4)       Brands frame our experience of a product

As Barden and others have pointed out, much of what we do is carried out on autopilot without involving any conscious decision-making.  

Working below the level of awareness, our subjective experience is mediated by our prior beliefs. For example how something tastes is strongly influenced by how we expect it to taste. The book describes a memorable experiment involving cake. Brown food colouring was added to a vanilla cake, to make it look like a chocolate cake. Respondents expected it to taste of chocolate because it was brown and indeed many reported that the cake was indeed chocolate flavoured afterwards. Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised to find this out, because this is the same way the placebo effect works – and we’ve known about that for years. Expectations change subjective experiences. 

Evidence from blind taste tests show identical products are rated more highly when sponsored by a brand. I’ve seen this myself, with dish A outscoring B under blind testing conditions, but B outscoring A when people know which supermarket its from.

Barden uses framing as to explain the role of branding: we build up an associative network of beliefs about a brand; these operate in the background “framing our perception and experience of the product”. Otherwise identical products are perceived differently because of the implicit frame the brand provides. This is best understood by visually: the small grey squares are identical colours in the diagram below. We perceive them differently because the frame.

Framing_the background changes the perception of the grey square in the foreground

Figure 2: Identical, but perceived differently because of the frame

In the real world, framing is why people pay about two grand more for a VW Sharan over a Ford Galaxy, virtually identical cars made on the same production line.

5)       An end to marketing la-la land?

In his preface to the book Rory Sutherland makes the point that CEOs trust their CFOs – they have a shared language of share prices, profit and loss. They have an innate suspicion of marketers, whose language they do not share (“Brand iconography? You may as well be talking about the healing power of crystals.”)

The crux of this lies in the difficulty marketers have explaining brand equity. Whilst the evidence is plain sight – people paying £3 for a cup of coffee or queuing overnight to buy a mobile phone – until now the explanatory framework has been missing. However, the principles outlined in this book provide us with an explanatory framework and vocabulary for “what enables brands to command a price premium compared with more commodity like alternatives”.

Who knew marketing was a science all along? 


About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Behavioural Economics, Books, Branding, Careers, Consumer Psychology, Decision Science, Market Research, Marketing Research and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book review: Decoded, Phil Barden

  1. Pingback: Three ways to think about value: scarcity, context and signalling | changing my mind

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