Commentary

System 1 Secrets For CPG Brands

Everyone in marketing is talking about System 1, and with good reason.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s concept divides human decision-making into two distinct categories. "System 1" is where instantaneous decisions, driven by instinct and often subconscious memories, are made. "System 2" is where logic-based decisions are made, with far more conscious thought and at a much slower pace than choices originating in System 1. 

What does this have to do with advertising and CPG brands? Everything.
Consumers don’t spend much time thinking about CPG brand choices. Mostly, the shopper breezes through the store thinking about her kids, work, scheduling — anything but which brands she’s putting in her basket.

Occasionally, she’ll stop to read a label or compare prices. But most brand choices are made without much of conscious thought; in other words, using System 1.

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The goal of most advertising that drives brand choice is to generate those System 1-based decisions. Why does she buy the generic canned tomatoes but pick Pillsbury refrigerated dough over the Walmart Great Value brand? Fact is, she never really thinks about it. 

That’s because the choice came from her System 1 beliefs about the Pillsbury brand and what it stands for. Rest assured, some historical advertising investments by Pillsbury over the years played a role in shaping those beliefs.

The ability to tap into System 1, thus becoming that no-brainer choice, can make or break a CPG brand. But, as with much in advertising, there are misconceptions about how to harness System 1 in ways that drive brand success.

Go beyond emotion

All emotional responses originate in System 1. But not all System 1 thinking is emotional.

We spend much of our days on auto-pilot; for example, when driving to work or brushing our teeth. We’ve done this before, and our System 1 thinking — where ingrained memories live — does all the work. This is not emotional.

Yet, many advertisers orchestrate campaigns that evoke strong feelings, believing this is smart System 1 strategy.

When a consumer buys her usual brand of garbage bags at the supermarket, she’s not giving it much thought. Does she love the brand? Possibly, but probably not. And she doesn’t have to. It’s simply easier not to conduct an analytical appraisal at the point of purchase. That’s where System 1, not emotion, takes over. 

An ad can arouse the strongest feelings in millions of consumers and still not benefit the brand. That’s because most ads, particularly those trying to trigger emotions, never link the brand to the creative in an inextricable way. Doing so is essential to capitalizing on System 1.

Avoid the allure of the new

Too many brands relinquish whatever hook they already have into consumers’ System 1 thinking, all with the aim of being “bold” and “fresh.”

New campaigns often discard distinctive brand assets that became valuable only after millions of dollars and years of development were invested in them. Those assets can be a powerful mechanism for resonating in consumers’ System 1 thinking. Instead, they’re frequently ditched.

Consistent visuals, audio cues, and brand characters can telegraph the brand, and all the meaning their prior advertising has embodied, into consumers’ System 1 brains. It’s crucial to preserve these assets as recognizable elements that resonate with consumers, who are drawn to the familiar. 

System 2 can seal the deal

Even an already-popular brand can benefit from overlaying System 1 beliefs with more logical information. System 2 messages, which are more fact-based, often reinforce consumers’ System 1 beliefs about the brand.

For example, a famous soup brand combines information about its new organic options with distinct brand assets from its decades of household-name status. Now its advertising gives lifelong consumers of the brand rational reasons to keep buying it. 

Brand equity is at an all-time low in CPG, especially with the rise of private label and a lack of distinctiveness across the board. Concurrently, competition has never been fiercer and CMO turnover is at its peak. With stakes this high, brands must go all-in on tapping into System 1 dynamics. Marketers who manage to do so could save their brands, and their jobs, from extinction.

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